posted on September 2, 2009 by Catherine Mann
“Marry me… please.”
Major Lucas Quade almost missed Sarafina’s gasped appeal as he sprinted toward the embassy with her bullet-riddled body in his arms. Explosions and gunfire from behind the dense trees all but drowned out the shouts of military security around them.
He focused on reaching the side entrance rather than risking even a glance at the pale face of his friend of six months, his lover of thirty days and the only woman who’d ever come close to stealing his heart. “Helluva time to change your mind, Sara.”
Her limp arms around his neck tightened a hint. “A woman’s prerogative and such.”
Bullets from local crime lords hungry to take over the tiny coastal country tore the ground by his feet. The surprise attack had interrupted an argument with Sara nearly as explosive as the munitions lobbing over the fence. Five yards away, a grenade landed, blasting a shower of leaves, branches and orchids. A tree crashed to the ground in front of him, so close to having flattened them both.
Damn it. Quade darted left around the uprooted oak, hunching forward to shield her as best he could. Debris pounded his back, but he kept Sara clear, easier to accomplish than blocking her surprise proposal from his mind. She must be freaking delirious.
Zigzagging across the lushly landscaped lawn, he raced toward the side entrance of the stucco building. He stayed close to sprawling trees, off the stone path, his eyes on the portico. The mini-jungle landscaping in the middle of the city offered plenty of vine-covered trunks to duck behind – for him and the enemy.
Sara’s chin-length hair tickled his face, hints of her floral shampoo blending with the acrid scent of gunfire. Her curves fit against him with familiarity, her hot blood soaking through his flight suit.
He refused to accept that this would be the last time he held her. Even the thought threatened to send him to his knees. Not the first time he’d been leveled by this woman.
She’d first knocked him on his ass six months ago in a press brief. The stunned feeling hadn’t come close to fading while he’d worked with the embassy interpreter during his stint as an assistant air attaché, or even when he and Sara had started sleeping together.
He wanted to remember Sarafina Tesoro that way, not torn apart from rebel gunfire on the front lawn of the U.S. Embassy in Cartina. His Sara dying when only minutes ago they’d been feeding the birds while sharing a couple of beefy churrascos, for God’s sake. Why the hell hadn’t he just appreciated that moment rather than arguing with her over her latest refusal to marry him unless he turned himself into some flipping sensitivity guru?
Instead he’d walked away, pissed off. If only he’d been a second faster in throwing himself over her. He’d seen the suspicious “tourists” gathered outside the iron gates, had been turning toward Sara, opening his mouth to call for the guards when…
His combat boots landed on the first stone step up to the looming door. For the next ten strides he would be out in the open. Exposed. His back a target. But he had to get her inside. The level of fighting didn’t show signs of easing anytime soon, and he knew without question that seconds would count in saving her.
A whistle sounded overhead. Damn. Damn. Damn it all.
A column gave way, spewing chunks and shards of stone. He rammed the side entrance with his shoulder. It gave. The weighty door creaked open to a corridor packed with guards darting for position, civilians seeking cover.
Quade booted the door closed behind him. The cacophony outside was muffled.
“Guards,” he shouted even as security personnel poured around the corner. “Alert a medic or doctor. Now.”
He ignored offers to pass Sara over and pounded down the winding hall toward the small on-site clinic.
She clutched his wrist, her hold a fading echo of her usual strength that only yesterday had left scratches down his back. “We have to keep Tomas safe.” Not surprisingly, she focused on her teenage brother instead of herself. “He is too young, not a man yet in spite of what he thinks. Promise me you’ll take care of him.”
Her brother had no family except Sara since their father had died two weeks ago. Without her, Tomas would be a vulnerable fourteen year old. So young, but old enough for “recruitment” into local rebel armies renowned for underworld dealings, even some with terrorist ties.
Now Lucas understood the reason for her surprise proposal. She wasn’t delirious after all. As Lucas’s brother-in-law, Tomas could leave the country.
He should have known she would only marry him if desperate. He’d asked her to be his wife more than once over the past month, and she’d always said no. But nothing mattered now except easing her worries so she could focus on surviving.
Or dying in peace.
“Yes. I’ll marry you.” He knew she only asked to secure Tomas’s safety and somehow that made Lucas respect her even more. He understood all about survival and paying any price to protect others. “But you have to stay alive. Got it?”
“Si.” Her eyes slid closed.
“Sara!” His arms convulsed around her while he checked that – yes – she still breathed, shallow but steady.
He kicked through the clinic door, only to be stopped short by the press of walking wounded. Blood streamed down the groundskeeper’s face. A secretary cradled his mangled arm to his chest.
Where the hell was a doctor, nurse, anyone? Or a medevac helicopter out would be damn welcome right about now. He opened his mouth to bark an order – but a medic acknowledged him from across the room, leaning to whisper to the overworked doc.
Lucas spotted an empty gurney in a far corner, tucked sideways through the mass of people and lowered her, carefully, slowly. As she peeled away from his chest, fresh blood pumped from her side onto the sheet.
“Doc! Speed it up,” Lucas shouted as he sealed his hands to her wound, speaking while searching over his shoulder. “Hang in there, Sara. You’re going to be fine. By the end of the week, I’ll be giving you bed baths that will drive us both crazy.”
“Senor,” called the overworked doctor. He slid between Lucas and Sara, rolling the tray of medical supplies to a stop by the gurney. A medic trailed behind with IV bags. “If you will step aside, por favor.”
Quade clasped her fingers in his, moving closer to her head, their hands slick and red with the same blood oozing from her side as the medic cut away her blouse.
“Swear to me.” She clasped Quade’s hand tighter. “Swear you’ll take Tomas out of here. Don’t let Tio Ramon near him.”
Ramon Chavez, her father’s best friend rather than an actual relation. Chavez was a slimy bastard with enough money to buy invulnerability in this corrupt country.
Damn stubborn woman. “I won’t let anything happen to your brother.”
“You’ll take him with you when you leave.” She insisted on nailing him to a specific promise even as she winced at the jab of an IV needle.
“We’ll take him with us.”
“Of course we will.” Her accent grew thicker, the normal perfection of her multi-lingual skills seeping away in time with her blood. “But to be safe, marry me now, so you are his legal guardian.”
Lucas sliced away the thought of a world without Sara as effectively as he blocked the clipped orders of the doctor probing her side. She’d painted his stark life with bold strokes the first time she’d swished in to translate for a press conference.
He would take her any way he could have her.
Pivoting, he barked to the Marine sergeant standing guard at the door. “Find a priest.”
“We already have, sir. Anyone who requests it will have last rites.”
Last rites? Denial howled through him. Not to mention rage.
Lucas eased from the gurney, strode across the room, his face right in the sergeant’s, his voice low. “To perform a marriage ceremony.”
The seasoned Marine’s eyes radiated a pity Lucas hadn’t seen since a teacher slipped him an extra apple in elementary school. “Of course, Major, I’ll see if I can hurry him up.”
“Lucas?” Sara’s weak voice pierced through the pandemonium.
“I’m here.” He took her hand again.
“I want you to know, just in case–”
“Damn it, Sara, quit wasting energy talking.”
Another blast outside echoed his command. Plaster rained from the ceiling.
Way to go, grouching at a bleeding woman. Of course he’d never been much for pretty words or flowery sentiments. His emotions were too raw, especially for a guy who preferred to keep life even, unemotional. Objective.
Sara blew his objectivity right out of the sky on a daily basis. Who knew what she saw in him, enough to be his friend, then his lover.
He wrestled his emotions and tone to softer levels. “You’re going to be fine. You’re a tough lady, Sarafina Tesoro. You’ll be chewing me out for being a grouchy SOB before sunrise.”
“I look forward to it.”
The door flung open, slamming against the wall. Lucas reached for his M9 strapped to his waist, ready to fling himself over Sara again if necessary. She wouldn’t shed one more drop of blood on his watch today.
The sergeant raced through the door with a young man in jeans, a black shirt – and thank God – a priest’s collar.
Sara’s hand drifted back down to rest on her chest. While the harried doctor rolled her to her side to evaluate another wound in her shoulder, the priest leaned down to Sara. She whispered, quickly, something that obviously convinced him, as if her condition wasn’t cause enough.
The priest straightened. “I hear we need a wedding performed.”
The surgeon didn’t so much as glance up from his patient, his jaw going tight at a newfound slice on her shoulder. “Short version, Padre, this lady has a date with me in surgery.”
Searching the doc’s world-weary eyes, Lucas found determination – and not much hope. Dread sucker punched him.
Words and vows passed in a blur as he spoke and ran alongside the litter being raced to the next room – a piss poor tiny facility when she needed the technology of a major hospital. He wanted to growl orders at everyone around him, command them to wipe the fatalistic looks off their faces. She would not die.
The priest raised his hand for a final blessing of brief vows Lucas couldn’t remember repeating. So little time. Her eyes slid closed and he could only seal their marriage with a brief kiss to her blood-covered hand before they rushed her away. He watched the door slam closed, blocking her from sight, but not from his mind’s eye.
He refused to accept he would never see Sara again…