Disclaimer - yeah, yeah, I don't own them. We know!

A Heartbeat Away

By Cass

"Sir? Sir, can you hear me?"
"You need to let her go, now, pal. Hey … are you listening?"
Jesse Travis tried to shut out the sounds of the voices as he knelt in the soft mud, cradling the lifeless body of the woman he loved - the woman he had pledged - just a few short hours before - to marry.
They had been so happy - finally. After all the impediments that had been placed in their way - including dead ex-boyfriends turning up alive, being captured by dead men, stalked and, eventually, a parting of the ways - they had finally ended up just where they were meant to be. Together.
Now death had parted them forever. She was growing cold and stiff in his arms, but he couldn't let go.
If he let go, it would be over.
He would never see her again.
At least whilst he was holding her, he could look down into that beautiful face - a face that had been so animated and wreathed in smiles not so very long ago, when, over dinner in their favourite restaurant, he had presented her with the diamond ring and she had placed it on her finger. A promise of things to come.
She still wore that ring. It sparkled in the sunshine on her lax, still hand.
The day was beginning to heat up as the sun rose in the pale azure sky.
But he was frozen inside.
He couldn't even cry. Not any more.
If he started, he knew he would never stop.
The tears he had shed earlier had dried on his face and he was fighting to stop from toppling into the great chasm of grief that had opened inside him.
If only the voices would stop. If only they would go away and leave them alone.
They were intrusions on something private.
Something sacred and tragic.
He needed her.
They belonged together.
Why couldn't anyone understand that?

A new voice. One he recognised. The great swell of anguish filling his heart threatened to rise up and sweep him into the abyss. He ruthlessly choked it back down.
A sound very much like a sob escaped him.
"Jesse? Son? It's all right now."
No it wasn't. How could it be? How could anything be all right ever again?
"Jesse, can you hear me?"
The touch on his arm was electrifying. The thrum of life was unmistakable compared to the chilled flesh that lay against his breast. He flinched, trying to escape.
"Jesse, I know it's hard, but … you have to let her go - just for now. They'll look after her. I promise. They'll be very gentle and they won't do anything that you don't give your permission for. But you have to let her go now, son. Please, Jesse."
He didn't want to look.
He didn't want anything to divert his attention from her. Nevertheless, the naked anguish in the voice forced his gaze upward and towards the kindly blue eyes.
The craggy face crinkled into a sad simile of a smile. "Can you give her to me, Jesse? I'll be very gentle, I promise."
He had trusted this man for years. He was the father figure Jesse had never had growing up. If there was anyone into whose safekeeping he would give her it was Mark Sloan.
Still …
"I … " The words he wanted to say wouldn't come. His throat was dry and parched. Somewhere in the back of his mind he recalled uttering her name over and over again, like some kind of imprecation against an evil that had already befallen them. If he said her name then she couldn't be … His voice was gone.
Slowly he also realised that every muscle in his body ached. The chill from the wet ground had seeped into his bones and he was trembling uncontrollably. He couldn't figure out whether that was from the cold or the force of his unspent emotions. He didn't much care.
Mark was leaning over him, touching her face gently, closing her eyes with a tender hand, and Jesse knew he would protect her.
Without conscious thought, he relinquished her, handing her over to his mentor and friend and the coroner, who waited nearby, his face etched with sympathy. Jesse turned his head quickly. He didn't want to see that look.
He watched with a kind of detached fascination as she was placed on a gurney, then covered up. Before he knew what was happening she was whisked away, out of sight and then the coroner's van was driving away. And she had gone.
There were a lot of people milling around but he was conscious only of the man at his side, the one who was talking gently to him, throwing something soft and warm over his shoulders and placing a supportive arm around him.
Slowly, he was helped to his feet.
But his muscles had seized up after so long in one position and even as he placed weight on them, his legs buckled.
Strong arms caught him as he fell. "It's all right, Jesse," came the comforting croon. "I've got you."
Absurdly, he suddenly remembered a line from an old film. "You've got me? Who's got you?" Then the moment was gone and he sagged weakly in the older man's grip.
"You can let go now, Jess."
The comforting words echoed hollowly around his head. Darkness was closing in on him, blotting out the daylight. Gratefully, he allowed it to swallow him whole, as he sank into the welcome peace of oblivion.

"How is he?"
Steve's worried voice was a soft whisper over Mark's shoulder as he lowered their young friend to the ground, where someone had thoughtfully placed a blanket.
"He's in shock," he replied, sadly. "I'm going to need that ambulance."
"I'll get the medics." Then Steve was gone, leaving Mark alone with Jesse.
"Oh, Jess …" Mark stared sorrowfully at the unconscious young doctor, subliminally aware of the coroner's van driving away, bearing the body of the young woman who had brought so much light and life into his friend's world. "How are we going to help you through this?"
There was no answer to his question. He hadn't expected one. He studied the lax face, peaceful in repose, but with new lines of strain etched thereon. Jesse's skin was cold to the touch and almost as blue as his shirt, which was stained with Susan's blood. Although the day was promising to be warm and pleasant, temperatures had plummeted overnight. It looked like he had been kneeling there for hours.
Sighing heavily, he wrapped the blanket more securely around the younger man, chafing Jesse's hands in an attempt to warm them.
"Dad, the ambulance is stuck in traffic downtown."
Steve's morose voice from beside him diverted his attention away from his patient for a moment. He glanced across to his son, who was squatting next to him, his expression grim.
"We can't wait," he said, in a low voice.
"I know. You want to take him in the car?"
Mark hesitated. He had accompanied Steve to the crime scene when they had received the call earlier from the first cop who turned up at the scene. The older man had felt instinctively that Jesse would need him there and besides, he had needed to be there, to see with his own eyes that his protege was unharmed. The report had said as much but he had wanted the reassurance.
They had come in Steve's truck. The front seat was just about big enough for three - especially when one of them was as diminutive as Jesse - but he wasn't entirely convinced that squeezing the unconscious man between the two of them was a good idea.
However, they had no other option.
He wanted to get Jesse away from the scene as soon as he possibly could. He needed medical care and attention and he needed somewhere quiet where he could let go all the emotions that would be running rampant once he awoke to face reality.
"All right," he said, at length, glancing back down at the immobile form, not seeing the brilliant and accomplished young surgeon but instead a fragile and vulnerable young man who desperately needed his help. "Help me carry him."

As they drove to the hospital, Jesse settled between them, the blond head lolling onto Mark's shoulder, the older man's arm wrapped securely around his friend, holding him upright, Steve reflected bitterly that if only Susan hadn't come back then none of this would have happened.
"Why couldn't she have stayed away?" he raged, silently. "Why did she come back and ruin his life?"
It wasn't fair. Not to Jesse or, most especially, to Susan. But Steve wasn't feeling very rational at that point. His best friend had been witness to something that no-one should have to endure - seeing someone they loved killed in front of them - or, at the very least, waking up to discover the dead body. He didn't know how Jesse would ever recover from something as horrible as that.

Susan had returned to LA some months previously. Her reunion with Jesse had taken place outside his apartment. He had returned home after a late shift, exhausted, to discover her waiting for him on his doorstep.
His initial shock had been quickly replaced by a cold anger. He and Susan had dated for some considerable time toward the end of his residency and into his role as head of the busy ER. He had been working his way up to a marriage proposal when suddenly, Susan had just upped and left, citing the fact that she had fallen in love with another man.
Jesse had been devastated. Not that he had let anyone see it. To a casual observer, it would have seemed that he had just brushed his girlfriend's departure aside, his good humour and chirpy nature apparently unaffected.
But his friends knew differently.
They could see beneath the outward veneer to the wounded soul within. He had never fully recovered from the blow. Although he had thrown himself wholeheartedly into a whole series of casual relationships, none of them ever going anywhere. He had been not only hesitant about getting so involved again - but terrified, although he had never revealed that fact to anyone. Only those who knew him well had recognised the signs for what they were.
Then suddenly, Susan was back, bringing with her all the memories - good and bad - that he had been trying so hard to forget.

It had taken some time for him to get comfortable with her again. She had apologised endlessly for the way she had treated him, but he had kept her at arm's length, even though his friends could see how much he was aching to let her in. He loved her. He had never stopped loving her. But having her near was indescribably difficult - for everyone.
Eventually, something had to give.
That something had been Jesse.
Warm-hearted, compassionate and generous, he didn't have a hope of holding out long against the feelings that he harboured for Susan.
Those feelings had been more than reciprocated. She had very much regretted leaving him although she had never revealed much about the relationship which had taken precedence over theirs, other than to say it hadn't worked out because of what she still felt for Jesse.
The love between them had intensified. It had culminated in a marriage proposal - which had been happily accepted.
They had been on the verge of a new life together.
And it had been ruthlessly ripped apart.

Witnesses had reported to the police that the two had been taken hostage by several masked men as they had exited the restaurant the night before. Before anyone could react, they had been bundled into a van and driven away. There had been no licence plate and it had disappeared out of sight before the police could give chase even though they had received calls about the incident almost immediately.
The vehicle had been reported stolen the previous day and they had a full description. Unfortunately, there were any number of black Ford vans in the LA area and it had taken some considerable time to track it down.
When they did so, they had found it abandoned. There had been no fingerprints and no trace of where the two abductees had been taken or even if they were still alive.
Steve had been involved in the investigation from the beginning, despite token protests from both his partner and his Captain. Neither of them had put up much of a fight. Steve's best friend had been kidnapped. It would be impossible to keep him away from it even if they tied and gagged him. It was made clear, however, that he was not lead investigator on this case. Two other officers would have that dubious honour. Steve hadn't liked it, but as long as he could be involved in some way he didn't much care. Anyway, he was quite adept at bending rules and bypassing commands ...
Steve's participation had inevitably led to Mark's. He had been horrified by events, but had tried to remain calm - mainly for Steve and Amanda's sakes. Inside his thoughts had been churning, as he imagined the worst - seeing in his mind's eye Susan's and Jesse's dead bodies somewhere, perhaps where they would never be found.

It transpired that the two had been taken to a remote spot in the hills, where Susan had been shot and killed. Jesse had been left with nothing more serious than some bruising from being manhandled and restrained plus the after effects of chloroform.
A man out walking his dog had found them that morning. He had spotted the huddled figure of a young man with what appeared to be a dead body cradled in his arms. On closer inspection, he had discovered that his first instinct had been correct. The woman was indeed dead, the front of her cream dress drenched in blood from a wound in her chest.
The young man had been unresponsive to his queries, as he knelt in the soft soil, rocking to and fro, his lips forming the word 'Susan' in a continuous chant, although no sound emerged.
Appalled, the man had called the police from his home nearby, then had returned to keep an eye on the young man, who was still seemingly oblivious to his presence.
Steve and Mark had arrived shortly after the Crime Scene Investigation officers and the coroner's van. They had come upon the heartbreaking sight of their young friend refusing to give up the body of his fiancée, clutching tightly to her slender form as though he would never let her go.
It had taken some considerable time for Mark to get through to Jesse, but eventually, he had managed it.
Now Susan was on her way to Community General's pathology lab and Jesse was being cared for by his two friends.
No one was under any illusions.
Things were going to get considerably worse before they got any better.

Amanda stared down mournfully at the examining table, where the slender form of the young woman lay. She had reached the hospital mere seconds before the coroner's van had arrived, bearing Susan's corpse, alerted by Mark, who had phoned her from Steve's car.
"I want you to take care of the autopsy, Amanda," he had said. "Will you?"
"Of course I will, Mark," she had replied, without hesitation. Then, "How's Jesse?"
"In shock." The older man's voice had sounded shaky. "It looks like they were out there all night, so he's also suffering from mild exposure. Steve and I are bringing him in."
"He's … he's not hurt?"
"No. At least not physically."
The relief that had swamped her at that news had been practically overwhelming, although it had quickly been replaced by real fear for her young friend. What must he have been through? And what about what he still had to face? "Tell him … tell him … " her voice had broken on the last words. Fortunately, Mark had recognized the sentiment even though she had been unable to express it.
"He's unconscious right now, honey," he had told her, gently, the soothing quality of his voice calming her even though she could hear the underlying concern in it. "But he knows. I'll see you at the hospital."
"All right," she had whispered. "Bye, Mark."
She had replaced the receiver with a heavy heart and trembling hand, unable to prevent tears of sorrow from springing to her eyes.
"Oh, Jesse …"
Then she had given herself a mental shake, determinedly controlling her wayward emotions until she had the time to indulge them. Now was not the time.
Moments later, she had been on her way.

Now, studying the stiffening cadaver, seeing for herself the full extent of the damage, she wondered anew what Jesse had been through and what it would take to get him through the other side.
The bullet had torn through Susan's chest, entering her heart, rupturing the aorta and exiting out the back. It had killed her instantly. "At least she didn't suffer," was Amanda's only consoling thought. She tried not to think of the sole survivor.
Forcing herself to examine the body with clinical detachment she found more evidence of the treatment they had endured at the hands of their captors. There was bruising around Susan's upper arms and neck - indicative of a forearm being placed around her throat to restrain her further. There was also a small lump on the back of her head. Had they knocked her out or had she fallen and hit it? She tabled that question to be asked later.
The hole in her chest was from a small calibre bullet, possibly a 22 or 25. Amanda wondered if they had found the projectile at the scene. Perhaps the murder hadn't taken place where they had been found. Perhaps they had been dumped there later. Only Jesse could tell them for sure. A shiver ran the length of her spine as she contemplated this. "My god, they're going to have to ask him questions about it. He's going to have to live through it all again for them … "
She was forced to pause for a moment at the full enormity of what her friend still had to endure. She couldn't breathe. She was too hot. She had to get some air …
Within two strides she was at the door and had wrenched it open, breathing deeply of the air circulating in the corridor outside. A couple of nurses walked by, glancing at her quizzically. She offered them a wan smile and a dismissive wave of her hand then turned back to face the suddenly oppressive room.
"Get a hold of yourself, Amanda!" she told herself, sternly. Straightening her shoulders, she then shut the door, listening to the blinds clatter against the glass and returned to her gruesome task.

Susan was a beautiful woman. That had not changed, even in death. But this wasn't Susan. Not any more. This was just a shell - flesh and bone which had once housed her spirit and personality. Everything that had gone toward making Susan who she was - the woman that Jesse had loved, the woman Amanda had considered a friend - no longer existed.
As the young pathologist made her first incision with hands that shook only a little, she offered up a silent apology to the blonde nurse. Then she set about her job with a fresh determination. She was going to discover everything she could to further the investigation into Susan's murder. She would leave no stone unturned. It was the least she could do. She had a duty - both to the dead and most especially to the living.

He felt sick. The knotted tangle of nerves in his stomach threatened to rise up and choke him at any moment.
He was terrified.
Conversely, he was also strangely excited.
He had been practicing for this moment for weeks - even badgering Amanda for her advice on what to say and how to say it. She had laughed gently, telling him, "Jesse, it doesn't matter how you say it as long as it's what she wants to hear."
"That's the problem!" he had wailed, prowling around the Path lab like a caged tiger. "I don't know if she does!"
"Jesse, let me ask you something. Do you love her?"
"With all my heart," he had replied, earnestly.
"And do you trust her?"
That had been a hard one. Regaining that trust had been difficult, but they had and … "Yes."
"Then trust your own instincts. Ask her. I think you'll find that all this worry has been for nothing."
"Do you really think so?" he had asked, plaintively.
"Yes," she had replied, firmly. Then she had kissed him gently on the cheek and bid him good luck before ordering him from her lab.
"Trust your instincts." The phrase ran in endless circles around his mind, taunting him, making him feel dizzy. "Great," he thought. "I'm either going to ask Susan to marry me or pass out!"
In the end he chose the former, if only to stave off the latter for a little while longer!
The beautiful blonde glanced up at him from the Zabaglione she had been devouring - thank god the rice cake diet was a thing of the past! The fleeting thought momentarily distracted him, as did the shining blue eyes and bright smile.
"My god, she's gorgeous. Why would she ever want to marry me?"
Her soft utterance of his name sounded like music and he let the sound wash over him for a second or two before he realised that her perfect features had puckered into a tiny frown of concern.
"Are you all right?" she asked him. "Only you barely touched your food. That isn't like you."
"Oh god!" he thought. He hadn't been able to eat. He'd been pretty sure that if he did he was going to do something to embarrass them both. He forced a smile to his face. Panic was welling within. "Now!" his mind urged him. "Now, before you lose your nerve!"
Involuntarily, he reached for her hand, grasping it tightly between his own as though it were the only thing anchoring him to the here and now. He swallowed. It was now or never. The clichéd phrase had never rung more true. "Susan, I love you. Will you marry me?"
There. It was out. He'd said it, albeit in a rush with no pause for breath between the words. He wondered for a second or two if he had actually made any sense, whether the garbled question had actually been in English as she stared at him uncomprehendingly. Then he saw her eyes widen and her lower lip started to tremble. She didn't appear to be breathing. "Susan?" he queried anxiously. Maybe she was about to faint instead!
Suddenly, she was in his arms. She had leapt from her chair and launched herself at him and now she was sobbing into his shoulder. Oh god, what had he done?
Then he heard her mumbling into his shirt. He strove to make sense of the words but they were muffled and nonsensical. With an effort, he drew her away from his body a little so that he could look at her.
She was smiling. No, she was grinning. A great, big, wide, happy grin. Tears were streaming down her face, ruining her makeup. Her mascara had run. She looked a little like a lost panda.
To him, she had never been more beautiful.
"Wh… what?" he stammered, as her words filtered into his mind, as he processed and made sense of them.
"Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!" she cried. "Yes, I will marry you!" Then she flung herself back into his embrace.
The knot untied itself, rising up to wrap around his throat. He couldn't speak. He could barely even think. He was peripherally aware of the sound of cheering and applause coming from the diners around them. He knew he was grinning stupidly - his face was hurting from the expression. But he didn't care.
She had said 'yes'!
Susan was going to marry him!

Moments later, it seemed, they were outside the restaurant. Hand in hand, unable to stop smiling at each other, the ring he had fumbled to procure from his pocket - in which it had been burning a hole - now resting securely on her finger. It shone in the lamplight, the perfectly formed diamonds glinting like stars.
Like her eyes.
Without warning, they were attacked. She was ripped away from him and a sweet, overpowering smell assaulted his nostrils. He fought against it, recognising and cataloguing the pungent aroma even as his body succumbed to its effects.
Then he knew no more.

He awoke with a headache and an overpowering feeling of nausea. Manfully resisting the urge to throw up, his first thought was for Susan - his fiancée! The happy realisation was fleeting as the true import of their current situation slammed into his mind.
They were in the back of what looked to be a van. She was lying beside him. She was unconscious, but didn't appear to be harmed - at least that he could see in the dim light that was afforded him. He tried to move, ignoring the vertigo that action elicited, but discovered that he had been tied up. His hands were bound behind his back and his ankles secured with something thin that was tight enough to cut uncomfortably into his skin through the thin socks he wore.
"Wh … what d'you want?" he rasped. His throat was unaccountably sore and his voice sounded weak and thready. "Wh … where …?"
"Shut up!" The command came from one of the black-garbed figures seated opposite. He fought the urge to descend into hysteria as it occurred to him that they looked like something out of a TV show or movie. "Black ops" The thought came to him unbidden and from whence, he didn't know. They were all clothed in black pants, black sweaters and black balaclavas covered their heads and faces. Only their eyes and lips were visible. It was a bizarre and frightening sight.
There were four of them. "Five," he amended as it occurred to him that someone must be driving the van. But what the hell did they want with him and Susan?
He glanced down to where her inert body lay. She looked peaceful and serene and, as much as he wanted her to wake up so he could ascertain once and for all that she was unhurt, he hoped she wouldn't. At least for now. She would be scared - very scared, and he was barely holding it together for himself. He wasn't sure that he could do it for both of them.
"Wh … where are you taking us?" he demanded. Dammit, he had sounded more like a petulant whiny child than a grown man and he hated the way his voice had shaken.
A black-gloved hand was suddenly around his throat, squeezing, tightening. He couldn't breathe. Saliva flooded his mouth. "Shut up!" the harsh voice ordered. "One more word and …" The man made a slicing motion across his own throat with his hand, emphasising the threat. Pushing Jesse back, he relinquished his hold, reclaiming the seat he had vacated opposite the two hostages.
Jesse swallowed hard several times, trying to quell the increasing nausea and resisting the urge to gag - just. He could still feel the touch of the hand. It burned through his flesh and he was shaking with fright.

"Pull over!" The rough voice grated out the order. The van slew to a halt, throwing the unprepared passengers into the side. Jesse felt the impact as his shoulder smacked against the metal and then he was hauled roughly to his feet and out through the doors, which had been thrown open.
He barely had time to protest before the men were throwing Susan out. She was just regaining consciousness, and fell to the hard ground, her legs unable to support her weight.
Jesse's cry was cut off by a brutal slap across his face. His head rang and he saw stars for a moment as the blow jerked him off-balance. Then he was dragged away from the vehicle and into the open.
He blinked groggily. He didn't recognise the place. He had no idea where they were. He didn't even know how long they had been driving. Wherever it was, it was deserted. There were no friendly lights shining from nearby buildings. A shiver ran the length of his spine as a feeling of foreboding filled him. This was the perfect place to dump two dead bodies.
"You! Get over there!"
The cruel voice had procured a gun from somewhere and was pointing it directly at him. He blinked. The whole situation seemed unreal, like a scene from a bad movie. Absurdly he felt an urge to laugh but there was no time as he was grabbed roughly by the shoulder and turned, then made to walk several yards along a rough path. Stumbling along, hampered by queasiness and feeling distinctly woozy from the after effects of the chloroform, he took a chance on glancing around, to find that Susan was in the hands of two of the other kidnappers. They each had one hand wrapped around her arms, which were bound in a similar fashion to his own. She was staring at him with wide, frightened eyes, her breathing jagged and uneven and overly loud in the stillness of the night.
"It's gonna be okay, Susan," he said, trying to reassure her with a smile which he had to force onto his face. "It's gonna be …"
"I said 'shut up'!"
He never saw the blow, but he felt it as his head was snapped to one side with the force of it. He staggered and almost fell, the pain momentarily blinding him, bringing tears to his eyes.
He couldn't do anything to prevent the slap that was meted out to Susan but hatred flared in his heart for the men who were hurting her. He bit his lip, quelling the words which tried to escape him, knowing he wasn't in any condition for another onslaught and he needed to remain conscious for Susan. He could feel something sliding down his cheek and realised it must be blood. The world was tilting on its axis and he struggled to remain upright even as he was tugged further along the path.
They stopped near a group of trees.
Before he could object, he found himself lashed to a sturdy trunk. He couldn't move, although that didn't stop him from trying. Horrified, he watched as the two men escorting Susan tied her to the tree opposite, before standing back, nodding in satisfaction with their handiwork. The man with the gun then strode forward and quite deliberately and very slowly raised his weapon, aiming it straight for her.
"NO!" he roared. "No! Don't! Please!"
The gunman hesitated then turned around to face him. Jesse gasped at the utter coldness in the man's ice-blue eyes. "Don't do this!" he moaned. "Please, don't do this!" He was resorting to begging, demeaning himself in his desperation. But he didn't care. "I don't care what you do to me. Only, please, please just let Susan go. Please!"
The man's expression never changed. Implacably, he regarded the young doctor for a moment then, almost as though he had never spoken, the gunman turned away, once again facing his chosen victim.
Jesse strove against his bonds, but even as he writhed and squirmed desperately, they tightened, digging into his wrists, causing spasms of pain to shoot up his arm. He was oblivious to his own discomfort, his entire attention riveted on Susan and the man facing her.
She stared uncomprehendingly at the gun, then at Jesse, her deep blue eyes wide with absolute terror. She too fought to gain her freedom, to no avail. A sob was wrenched from her as she too begged them not to hurt her.
"Please …" she moaned. "Please …"
They weren't listening. If they were, they didn't care. The gunman cocked the revolver he held, pulling back on the trigger. Susan was crying openly now, pleading for her life, but it was too late.
Her voice rang out in a petrified scream which was brutally cut off as the slug entered her chest. Her eyes widened further for a second as the bullet tore through her then she uttered a soft grunt and slumped forward against the ropes that held her.
Jesse could only stare in mute horror. He had stopped breathing. He was sure his heart had stopped at the same moment as hers. He knew she was dead. His soul recognised the loss. They might as well kill him now, as well. He had nothing left to live for.

Silence reigned. Somewhere in Jesse's mind it occurred to him that he hadn't heard the shot that had taken the life of the woman he loved. "Silencer' he thought, dully.
He barely felt the hands untying him, flinched but a little when a hard kick was directed at his abdomen, felling him and didn't hear them leave.

When he looked up, he was alone.
They had gone.
The van and its occupants - the murdering bastards who had killed Susan - was nowhere in sight.
With a harsh cry, he was suddenly on his feet, stumbling the short distance to the tree to which she had been secured.
She had been untied. Her body was lying in a small, pitiful heap on the soft ground. A dark stain was discolouring the mud beneath her and she wasn't moving.
Crumpling to his knees beside her, he had flipped her over before he even realised what he was doing, instinct coming to the fore as, ever the consummate professional, he reached out a trembling hand to the carotid artery in her neck.
"No …!"
Stubbornly refusing to accept the inevitable, he commenced CPR, slipping easily into the rhythm that was second nature to him. "One one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand," he intoned, then paused the compressions to slip his mouth over her greying lips, forcing breath into her unresponsive lungs.
Her chest was becoming slick with blood, but his hands were sure and he was concentrating so hard on trying to bring her back to life that he barely noticed the sticky fluid that was coating his fingers.
"Come on!" he urged her. "Come on, Susan! You're not going to do this! You're not. I can't let you. Please …"
She was beyond hearing his desperate entreaties. She was beyond help, but he wouldn't admit it to himself. He wouldn't give up. He couldn't. Even if it took every breath he had in his body he would bring her back …
Half an hour later he was exhausted. His hands ached. He felt light-headed and sick with grief. His attempts had been futile. Nothing was going to bring her back and he finally had to accept defeat.
Panting with exertion, barely even able to think clearly any more, he lifted her still form onto his lap, wrapping one arm around her and tenderly brushing her hair away from her face with his left hand. She was still warm. She could have been sleeping were it not for the blood saturating her dress and the fact that her eyes were open and unfocused.
He couldn't bring himself to close them. He had gazed into them so often. They had sparkled with life, reflecting her joyous and generous nature. There was nothing in them any more - but he needed to see them. He needed to pretend - just for a little while.
"I'm sorry," he murmured, brokenly, bending down to kiss her forehead. "I'm sorry. Susan, please … please wake up. I love you. I need you. You can't leave me. God …" his voice trailed off as he dissolved into helpless sobs. He hugged her tightly, her head lolling against his shoulder, wisps of bright blonde hair dancing gently in the soft breeze. He could feel the warmth of her blood seeping into his shirt but he didn't care. Holding her like this he should have been able to feel her heartbeat but it was conspicuous by its absence. He should have been able to feel her warm breath on his throat but there was nothing except the wind.

The night drew on, the shadows lengthening. His tears subsided and he started to croon her name, rocking her gently in his arms. He was completely unaware of the passage of time and didn't feel the chill biting at him even when he removed his coat, wrapping it around her to warm the cooling corpse.
Hours later, they were chanced upon by a man who had driven there in order to walk his dog. It was their favourite place.
Now it would be forever tainted with blood.

"Your two colleagues were here a little while ago."
Steve grimaced at his father's words as the older man poured himself a reviving cup of coffee. Mark had spent the majority of the morning at Jesse's bedside and had only reluctantly torn himself away to update Steve and Amanda on the young doctor's condition. He had found them seated side by side on the couch in the doctors' lounge, looking lost and miserable.
"I know," said the detective. "Dobson and Malone. They wanted to question Jesse."
"Well, I told them that he wasn't up to seeing anyone yet." The older man brushed a weary hand across his face. He felt like he had aged a hundred years in just a few short hours. "He's still unconscious. I'm not looking forward to him waking up. He has a lot to face."
"Well, don't worry," said Steve, tersely. "Those two aren't going near him."
Mark's eyebrows raised at that, but it was Amanda who spoke. "They … they don't suspect him, do they?" Her voice shook as she voiced the question. The very idea of it was inconceivable.
The detective shook his head. "No," he replied. "But he's the only witness to what happened. Anything he can tell them about the perps would be helpful."
"You said Dobson and Malone aren't going to get near him?" Mark prompted, curious as to what Steve meant, although he had his suspicions.
His son smiled. The expression was completely devoid of humour. "I convinced them to let me handle it," he enlightened them. "I figured it would be easier for Jess."
"I don't think anything is going to make this any easier for him," declared the older man grimly.
Tears welled in Amanda's eyes at Mark's words. She couldn't even imagine the pain that would be awaiting Jesse upon his awakening. Performing the autopsy on Susan had been hard enough and she was just a friend. Jesse had planned to commit himself to the blonde nurse. She had felt like weeping when she had discovered the modest solitaire on Susan's left ring finger.
"Amanda?" A warm hand squeezed her shoulder and she looked up, meeting Mark's eyes, finding strength, understanding and concern. Suddenly it was all too much for her. "Oh Mark," she cried. "Jesse asked Susan to marry him last night. She was wearing the ring."
"I know," he said, sadly, "I saw it. I knew he intended to do it. They must have been so happy."
"Yeah, right before she was murdered and those bastards ruined his life!" snarled Steve. He leapt to his feet, striding across to the window as his fury rose, threatening to devour him whole. "I swear, when we find the guy responsible for this, I'm gonna kill him!"
Mark and Amanda exchanged looks. Steve had braced his hands against the narrow window ledge, his forehead resting against the glass. His entire body radiated anger and frustration, his head bowed under the weight of it.
"Steve …"
The detective rounded on his father, his face dark with barely contained rage. "I mean it, dad. Whoever did this …"
"I know, Steve. I know." Mark held up a conciliatory hand. "I feel the same way."
"So do I." Amanda joined in. "Steve, do they have anything? Anything at all?"
The gentle question deflated some of his wrath. "They recovered the slug - a 22," he informed them, returning to his seat next to the pathologist, facing his father who was seated opposite. "It was lodged in a tree. There were traces of blood on the bark. It looks like Susan was tied up there and then shot."
Amanda felt sick. "Oh god!" she gasped.
Steve eyed her in sympathy. "I know," he agreed.
"Anything else?" asked Mark, his tone heavy.
"Partial boot print," came the curt response. "Forensics doubt they're going to be able to do much with it. It was too degraded. There was nothing recovered from the van."
"They probably cleaned it."
"Probably," Steve concurred, gloomily. "And one witness said the guys were dressed all in black, with black gloves."
"So no chance of prints."
"Virtually nil, well, none at all. Forensics has crawled all over the van. The bastards were good. Very good."
Amanda glanced from one to the other, dawning realisation filling her with dread. "So we have nothing? No clues? Nothing to tell us who did this and why?"
Steve sighed, rubbing his forehead with his thumb, trying to belay the incipient headache. "They're looking into Susan's background," he said. "The fact that she was killed and that Jesse escaped virtually unharmed… " He let his words tail off as the implications of his own statement sank in. 'virtually unharmed' was a relative term. Jesse may have escaped serious physical damage, but the injury to his heart was incalculable.
"It was a contract killing," concluded Mark, grimly.
Steve stared at him. "What? How did you … no, scratch that," he amended. "Stupid question. He's right." He turned to Amanda, who looked appalled at the announcement. "Everything points to it. The fact that although they were both taken, and Jesse was roughed up a little, only Susan was killed, point blank with one bullet. It was cold-blooded and obviously meticulously planned. That's why it's imperative that we get as much information as we can from Jesse - although I'm not looking forward to asking him about it."
"It's going to be hard - on both of you." Mark was well aware that this was the understatement of the year. He suppressed a shudder at the prospect of questioning his young friend about the murder.
"Yeah," Steve said, heavily. "Yeah, it is."

A series of soft whimpers preceded Jesse's return to consciousness.
Mark had barely had time to resume his place at the young doctor's bedside before the first signs of his awakening became apparent. He leaned forward in his chair, trying to steel himself for what was to come, even as an expression of distress swept across the expressive features.
Dark eyelashes flickered feebly against the wan cheeks, one of which was marred by a spectacular-looking bruise. It was one of the outward pieces of evidence of Jesse's ordeal, the others being deep dark contusions on his upper arms and chest where he had been forcibly restrained and raw, jagged wounds on his wrists, where the rope had cut into his soft flesh.
The blond head tossed to and fro as Jesse mumbled under his breath. Most of the words were incomprehensible but Mark's breath caught in his throat as he recognised one of them.
"Susan …"
Slowly - almost painfully so - the blue eyes blinked open. It took several moments before Jesse's bleary-eyed gaze finally settled on Mark, but when it did, the older man was rewarded by a wan smile.
"M … Mark?"
"Hello, Jess," he said, gently. "How do you feel?"
The younger man opened his mouth to respond, then, as though a switch had been clicked on, his face lost every trace of colour and his expression crumpled.
"Susan!" he gasped. Tears flooded the azure eyes and for a moment, Mark was sure he was going to break down. Then he heaved in a huge, shuddering breath and, although it obviously cost him dearly, blinked away the moisture, although he couldn't prevent one lonely teardrop from escaping. It slid slowly down his face into his hairline.
"I … I'm okay," came the strained whisper, accompanied by a small quirk of the lips. It was the saddest smile Mark had ever seen and it almost broke his heart.
"Jesse, do you remember what happened last night?" It was the hardest question he had ever had to ask.
Jesse turned his face away. "Yes, I remember," he replied, hoarsely.
"Do you want to talk about it?"
The categorical refusal didn't really surprise the older man although he was disappointed by it. Undaunted, however, he tried again. "You're going to have to talk to someone, Jess. If not me, then to the police. They have some questions they need to ask you."
"I don't want to see anyone." The petulant response was camouflage for his grief, Mark knew. Jesse was trying so desperately to hold himself together, to keep from unravelling. It was his nature. He didn't verbalise his deepest feelings very well, tending to be dismissive of his own hurts, as though they were unimportant and unworthy of consideration. He saw it as a flaw in his personality. It was a trait he shared, to a great extent, with Steve.
"Well, the police need to talk to you …" At the rebellious look that garnered him, he temporised, "but not until you're ready. But, Jess … the sooner you talk to them and tell them what you saw, the sooner they can arrest these people."
"I didn't see them." The tortured admission came from nowhere. Jesse's face was suffused with torment as his memories of the previous night haunted him. "They wore black. I don't know who they were, Mark. I don't know who they were! I … I don't understand. Why did they kill her? Why did they have to kill her? What did she ever do to them? I loved her, Mark. I loved her so much …" The pain-roughened voice brought a constriction to Mark's throat. His friend looked so small and lost, lying there in the hospital bed, his eyes once more bright with tears he refused to shed. He clasped one slender hand between both of his, unable to think of anything else he could do to ease Jesse's heartache.
"I'm sorry, Jess," he said, quietly. "I am so, so sorry."
"I asked her to marry me, you know," said Jesse in a faraway tone. "She said yes. We were so happy …"
Mark bit his lip, glancing upward as though for divine guidance. What could he say in the face of such devastation? Platitudes were trite and meaningless. All he wanted to do was to take Jesse's pain away and he didn't have any means of doing that. "I know," he said, finally, meeting the anguished gaze once more. "I know you were, Jess." He squeezed the hand he held. "I would have liked to have been there to see that proposal."
The younger man nodded forlornly. "I wish you had too," he admitted, in the smallest of voices. "You would have loved it, Mark. Susan literally flew across the table at me … she loved me. I know she did."
"Yes, she did. And don't you ever forget that." It was all Mark could offer. The memory of their last night together, a moment of happiness that Jesse would treasure, tainted forever by the subsequent events.

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