Washington D.C., November 16 th , 1869
As they huddled together in the small pen, Michaela looked the other way while Sully hastily changed into the oversized trousers, shirt and threadbare jacket the young Negro woman had brought him, both knowing modesty had to be overlooked given the urgency of their situation. In the meantime, she racked her brains for an idea of where to hide from the soldiers, police agents, and possibly dogs, before making it safely to the War Records Office at six. Shaking with impatience and fear, she took a glance at her pocket watch. More than nine hours left before their rendezvous with General Parker…
She could still hear the soldiers ransacking the shacks and roughing up the poor inhabitants in search of the fugitives, and she felt all the more grateful for their hosts' silent resistance in preserving their whereabouts. It would have been easy for any of them to denounce the whites in their midst… Michaela wondered if this didn't simply mean these people were under no illusion that they wouldn't be treated better whether they turned the fugitives in or not. Her heart constricted with compassion.
Anyway, it was obvious they couldn't stay hidden in the Murder Bay slums much longer. Sooner or later, one soldier might shoot down the dog that was guarding the pen, or perhaps cause harm to the brave young woman and her baby. Michaela and Sully exchanged looks, not daring to speak as more soldiers passed right by the thin wall of wooden planks. One of them seemed to linger for a while, plodding around in the mud. Sully thought he heard the guard sniffing and shot an alarmed glance at his fiancée : her perfume, however dulled by the cloying smell of the mud and the wet wool of her heavy army coat, was still discernible to him… so it was likely the man who was standing only a couple of feet away could smell it as well. If the man had two cents worth of intelligence, no doubt he would realize that such a refined fragrance could not possibly belong to the near-starving women living there!
Michaela understood and grimaced helplessly: nothing she could do about the problem now. She raised her eyes to the cold, cloudy sky and silently mouthed a prayer, asking for safety, hope, help, anything that could get both of them out of that mess. At that moment, she felt as if her faith in God was about the only thing she could turn to and trust.
Mercifully, the soldier moved on, and the sounds of the search party they could hear seemed to come from another part of the slums. Cautiously, Sully checked their immediate surroundings by the gaps between some planks, moving noiselessly in spite of his boots being caked with mud. His posture relaxed slightly, and Michaela knew that they were safe, if only for a few minutes. She breathed a sigh of relief.
"Sully," she whispered, "we need to find a safer place to hide. As long as the soldiers know we're hiding here, they won't leave until they find us. And they won't hesitate to arrest people for harboring and aiding fugitives."
"I know… we'd better get out right now while they're lookin' the other way…"
"Yes, but where can we go?"
At that moment, the young woman reappeared.
"Psst, pssst!… hey, Lady docta! Mista! I got a way to get ya outta here… C'mon."
They followed her, a bit unsure, through a maze of tarpaper shacks and wooden structures that were barely bigger than sheds. They ended up at the opposite end of the slums from where the soldiers were still forcefully searching the fragile hovels. There was a small, rather dilapidated wagon so heavily laden with laundry it was a miracle the wheels were still holding its weight. The fugitives cast puzzled glances at their Good Samaritan.
"Friend o' mine got herself a job doin' laundry and cleanin' rooms for people in da city," she explained, "one of 'em got a boardin' house. Took a likin' to Hattie. Said she could hide ya if'n you gots money…"
Michaela nodded nervously, hoping she had enough money to buy the boarding house owner's silence. She pulled out a couple of bills from the thin wad in her petticoat pocket and handed them to the young woman, who shook her head in refusal.
"Nah, keep it. We're even."
"Thank you – Thank ya, ma'am," both said.
At that moment another young woman, a girl barely older than Colleen it seemed, appeared, holding a homemade quilt that had seen better days. She was followed closely by a tall lanky man.
"Here...we figga if'n we wrap ya up in dis here cova' and hide ya under tha sheets, nobody'll 'spec nothin'," the girl offered, as the man already began making room amidst the laundry. Michaela and Sully cast another disbelieving glance at one another and nodded, wondering how this would even be possible, but trusting their accomplices. After the quilt was placed in the center, Sully hopped with his usual agility into the wagon and reached down to help Michaela climb in. He lay back, pulling her with him and wrapping her tightly in his arms, giving a nod to their helpers. The young people quickly and carefully tucked them in, and then arranged the piles strategically around, trying to keep it from being too heavy on the stowaways. The young man climbed up and took the reins, setting the wagon in motion.
"You all right?" Sully whispered, his lips next to her ear. Michaela tried to nod, but found she couldn't move, so she whispered back, "I think so..." Both were thinking if it weren't for the fact that they were together, their conveyance would feel like a small coffin. Fortunately, laying so close and sharing each other's warmth somehow lessened the claustrophobia.
The ride to the boarding house, though less than twenty minutes long, was not only terribly uncomfortable as they could barely breathe, but also because it made them excruciatingly aware of one another. Once the adrenalin rush from the whole stratagem began to dwindle away, the couple found themselves in quite a predicament. Sandwiched inside the piles of folded sheets, they were pressed intimately close, which for Michaela, was embarrassingly close. They had never, ever been this close before, touching from head to toe, and it only got worse as the jostling of the wagon on the uneven pavement accidentally made their bodies push and rub against each other, in a way that was suggestive of—
STOP! Both their minds scolded, as they each strove to snuff out the desire that had begun to smolder between them by concentrating on thoughts of the frightfully real and immediate risk of being discovered and arrested, maybe shot on the spot. Yet, as hard as they tried, they still couldn't help the heavy pounding of their hearts, thundering so loudly to their own ears, given their confined situation, that they both feared anybody might be able to hear it as well.
They had quite the heart-stopping close call at one moment. They only escaped the search thanks to the quick thinking of the driver, who managed to lead the policemen on a false track, or rather on the track they just left. Then the young man messed a little the arrangement of sheets to give the impression their wagon had already been searched, and that's how they passed by a couple of other patrols without being investigated.
The arrival, too, was rife with tension as several policemen were actively patrolling near the building where they were supposed to deliver their "load". This time it was the young woman who created the diversion and managed to steer the patrol away long enough for the couple on the run to slip inside the modest boarding house.
"Quick, get in there," urged the owner, a white, elderly woman who was probably in her mid-seventies. She looked like she had used to be plump but lost some, if not a lot of weight and her unkempt appearance hinted at little self-care and possibly a lack of boarders in the last few years. But she had a kind face, and Michaela felt that she, too, could be trusted. The handful of dollars the doctor would offer were obviously sorely needed and she would give them gladly for the few hours of protection this small harbor would provide.
They were shown to a downstairs room that looked out onto the backyard.
"Here. You should be able to hear soldiers coming down the hall and still have time to escape through the window," the owner explained.
"How can we ever repay you?" Michaela said, tears of gratitude and relief stinging her eyes as she took the cool, gnarled hands of the old woman in her own. Their hostess smiled thinly as if embarrassed, prompting Michaela to press the entire contents of her pocket into her hand.
"Will that be enough?" Michaela asked with uncertainty.
The old woman opened her eyes wide in shock, and gave half of the cash back to Michaela.
"That's too much… here, you keep some, you never know—you might need it later."
"Thank you," the couple said in unison, exchanging looks.
"Hush now—get in there," the woman said, shooing them inside and closing the door behind her.
There was an uncomfortable silence for a while as Michaela and Sully found themselves completely alone for the first time since the rescue the previous night. They could barely allow themselves to relax, instinctively straining their ears to catch any suspicious sound that might herald a patrol coming to search the boarding house. After a few minutes, they heard a shy knock on their door, and then the woman popped her head in, handing them a small pile of newspapers.
"Hattie said you need to hole up till tonight, and that she and her brother are gonna find a way to get you two to the place you gotta go… said you gotta be ready by five… Meanwhile… I thought you could use something to pass the time." She nodded toward the top paper. "That you?"
Both took a look at the headline. It read Fugitive Lovers, Dangerous Prisoner Escapes with Doctor's Assistance. Michaela blushed while Sully nodded somberly, murmuring, "You're gonna turn us in?"
"No. Hattie told me how you two've been helping her people in Murder Bay asking for nothing in return. If you were as dangerous as those newshounds pretend, I figure I'd already be dead by now, right? You don't strike me as the criminal type. And believe me, I've seen my share of them!"
With those words, she exited and relocked the door, and then they heard someone sweeping and mopping the floorboards. The mud! The footprints! Thank goodness they had clever accomplices!
The stranded couple didn't look at the newspapers though, as if afraid the sound of rustling paper would give their hiding place away. There was so much at stake, not just their freedom anymore, but their very lives. They knew that this time, if they were caught before finding the proof that Sully had been used as a scapegoat, he would be executed without delay. And Michaela herself could possibly face a death penalty, or life in prison. The prospect, which had seemed remote as long as they were busy trying to come up with a plan and keep out of sight of the soldiers, was now sinking in. Both were starting to feel the gripping fear of losing their soul mate in those circumstances, and the oppressing guilt of bringing the other into this mess weighed heavy on their hearts.
I wrote chapters 2 and 3 listening to "One Caress" by Depeche Mode
Michaela started pacing and wringing her hands, panic rising within her chest and making it hard to breathe. She felt responsible. She was the one who had insisted they took this ill-fated trip to Washington. Sully had come along only because she had asked him to.
Wracked with guilt that his Heartsong had put her life on the line in a desperate attempt to save him from wasting away in a federal prison, Sully went to her, took her in his arms and gently rocked her.
"I can't believe you went through all this to try and save me, when you could've just walked away… like I asked ya."
"How could I?" She turned sharply in his arms and looked up at his face, her eyes and voice frantic. "How could I have left you behind, Sully? I couldn't have lived with myself… I can't live without you…" she whispered soulfully.
Sully was too moved and overwhelmed by her devotion to him to utter another word. They embraced fiercely, desperately. In both their minds stood a crucial question – what if they were unable to find a clue to prove that Sully had been framed…? Surely the politicians and business men embroiled in this affair had thought of covering their tracks, destroying any evidence… And now that it seemed the Police was corrupted as well… The minutes ticking by could very possibly be bringing them closer and closer to a definitive separation. In a backhanded way, being sentenced to death for treason seemed less cruel. If they both died, at least they would still have the hope to be reunited in Heaven.
They stood there, silent and still in the middle of the room, clinging to each other to share love, resolve and strength. It took the heavy bang of the boarding house entrance door being brutally kicked open to break them apart. But they didn't dare move further for fear of giving their presence away.
"We're looking for criminals," a rough male voice barked rudely when the owner protested against the forceful intrusion. A bedroom door was savagely opened, then another. Michaela and Sully crept to the window in preparation of escaping, only to have to crouch down as an armed soldier came in sight, pacing slowly and peering through the glass. Michaela sent another fervent prayer heavenward. With the exception of the time when she had been held captive by the Dog Soldiers, she had never been more afraid…
The old woman tried to pacify the aggressive trooper by offering to open the rooms herself, at the same time pretending to ask for details about the escapees. When she reached the door of the room Michaela and Sully were in, the owner exclaimed:
"Wait a minute… A man with long hair you say? And a woman with even longer hair, wearing a brown dress? Oh, could that be…? I may just have seen them… strange looking couple…"
"Where?" the soldier demanded. He was so eager for any clue that he didn't even think of being suspicious.
"They crossed my backyard 'bout half an hour ago… They were heading west. If they're on the run, they'll probably try to hop the first train or wagon out of here," she offered. Still, she opened the door so the soldier could take a peek inside. It seemed empty. Convinced by the woman's testimony, he didn't bother searching the room, nor the others for that matter, and exited with a cursory apology for the disturbance.
Only when they heard the patrol departing and obviously following the false trail did Michaela allow herself to cough from lying face down on the slightly dusty floor. Sully motioned to her to stay put while he silently rolled out from under the bed. Relying on his ability to move without making a sound, Sully crept to the window to ensure the soldiers had indeed all left, then went back to help Michaela up.
"You all right?" he murmured worriedly. She gave a brief nod, not trusting herself to speak yet. She swatted at the rumpled satin and black incrustations of her dress to remove some of the dust, coughing again. Worried to see her trembling like a cornered doe and how ghostly pale she looked, he guided her to sit on the bed.
A couple of minutes later, another knock on the bedroom door heralded their hostess.
"You're safe for a little while, I guess. I'll keep a look out. You two wanna eat something?"
"Yes, please… Thank you, ma'am," Sully acquiesced.
The landlady came back two minutes later with a tray. She also pulled down the shade to give the couple some privacy, and exited with a benevolent smile and nod.
"We sure are lucky to have someone like her on our side," Sully remarked, trying to engage Michaela in small talk, and shake her out of her unsettling silence.
"Yes we are," she agreed, her voice raspy from barely contained anguish. "I suppose—it's a sign that there's still… hope," she added, heaving a deep, steadying sigh. Sully was relieved to see a tiny spark of resolve returning in her eyes. Then he turned his attention to the food. The mere smell of it nearly made him faint, and within minutes he wolfed down the loaf of bread, the bacon strips and the lump of cheese the woman had brought them.
Michaela, on the other hand, was still too anxious to muster any kind of appetite, merely swallowing small sips of tea while she observed him keenly. Poor Sully! He was literally starving! Not only had his time in jail deprived him of food and sleep, but also he was obviously dehydrated, and his wrists and ankles bore the angry chaffing of his shackles.
She lamented not having her medical bag with her, but she had left it with her trunk and Sully's satchel in the room she had rented in a small hotel after she and the General had been ambushed, when she had realized she would have to take drastic measures if she were to save the man she loved. She had taken an instinctive precaution to register there as Dr. and Mrs. Weston, using her mother's maiden name. Yet, she had not taken her physician's bag along, for it would have been too much of a giveaway, not to mention rather cumbersome to carry around when trying to steal away and keeping out of sight of the soldiers.
Sully needed sleep. He needed all the healing care she could provide for the time being. She would see he had them even if it was the last thing she could ever do for him. And love him till the end—whatever it entailed…
Spotting a china pitcher, a bowl, a bar of plain, faded soap, and some cloths on the washstand, she switched into doctor mode and began cleaning his many abrasions and gashes. Taking one of his wrists with utmost gentleness, she dabbed at a nasty laceration and felt his pulse accelerating under her fingers. She winced in sympathy, thinking his heart was beating faster because his injuries hurt.
However, if she had looked up, she would have seen something other than pain in his eyes. But she was so focused on her task that Sully decided to allow her ministrations. They were together, alone. Doctoring was keeping her calm by distracting her thoughts from the angst regarding their very near future – or lack thereof – and if he was honest with himself, he enjoyed her attention in spite of the stinging of the soap on his wounds. Most of all, he wanted to hold her… even more, to lose himself in her arms. But of course he couldn't. He was sure Michaela would never consider the physical consummation of their love out of wedlock, no matter how dire their circumstances were. As for him, the feeling of impending doom only heightened his yearning for her reassuring warmth, for the softness of her body, as much as the sweetness of her soul. In those dark hours, he needed light. He needed her.
He shifted uncomfortably, more unwilling to risk shocking her and have her shy away from him if she was to perceive his aroused state than truly embarrassed.
"I'm sorry," Michaela said, still thinking his obvious discomfort was solely related to his injuries. I'll put a thick coat of balm on those as soon as I can get my bag back, she thought as she delicately patted his skin dry with a clean towel. She no longer dared contemplating she might never get the chance to bring him back home so they could proceed with their lives, get married, perhaps have a baby… she wanted to believe they would succeed. She needed to believe.
Their eyes met.
The towel dropped on the floor.
Slowly, inch-by-inch, they leant closer… closer… so close… until they could feel the other's breath upon their lips. Their willpower was crumbling under the irresistible magnetic force that flowed between them. They simply could not suppress it. Then their lips met, and the contact was like the steel striking the flint, firing all their senses.
They didn't pause to question the sanity of their actions as they nearly collided together, kissing breathlessly and clinging to each other even more desperately than before. The kiss was deepening dangerously fast, their lips and tongues engaged in a frenzied battle between their frayed emotions and what common sense and propriety would have dictated. A little voice in Michaela's head screamed shrilly that they ought to stop now, but was quite powerless in the face of her more pressing need: losing herself in the arms of the man she loved. What if this were her only chance to really feel his love? Before she knew it, she was lying with him across the bed, letting him kiss her with as much reckless abandon as she allowed herself to kiss him. She needed to forget fear, danger and soldiers for at least one last moment—her mind couldn't finish— before they were separated forever.
She didn't shy away this time when she felt one of Sully's hands starting to roam, inching up her ribcage toward her breast. He stopped one hairsbreadth and one second away from touching her more intimately that he had ever done before… he had never dared be this forward, knowing his shy fiancée's reserve. It hadn't been that long since they had sat on the porch stairs, discussing Michaela's fears of intimacy, so he fully expected her to stop him, or at least to protest. But she didn't. She didn't! What's more, when he tried to back away, she clung to his shoulders more tightly, and let out a moan that left him baffled. Could she be willing to…— his mind went blank as he was slammed with a powerful rush of adrenaline and desire.
He gave in to his need, pressing himself closer into Michaela's embrace as their kiss escalated passionately. She shuddered and emitted a shocked gasp, as she perceived the reality of his arousal for the first time. Overwhelmed, she broke their kiss and hid her flushing face against his neck as she tried to get her breath back under control, yet unable to muster the will to push him away. Her entire body was tingling so forcefully she couldn't have said whether it was painful or pleasurable, and her cheeks felt afire with both amorous fever and embarrassment at her own physical response. Could he feel the tension and heat from her body like she was feeling his?
Sully was as torn and confused as he was breathless. What was he to do? His hands crept up to her nape and gently framed her head, coaxing it back enough so he could peer into her face and ascertain her frame of mind. Did she want him to stop? Slowly, she opened her eyes, and the hazy shimmer in those distinctive windows of her soul made him catch his breath. Her swollen, reddened lips were quivering with a few labored sighs. He'd never seen such desire radiating from her countenance before.
In the feeble light of the dreary, rainy November day, Michaela could see how the hypnotic blue of his irises, now no more than thin rings around his passion-dilated pupils, stood out, captivating her all the more. She could only initiate another kiss, she had no choice… His mouth… oh his mouth… Never before had she allowed herself to acknowledge how hungry she was for the silken softness of his lips, for the warmth of his breath—for how he tasted, when his tongue met and caressed hers in the most sensuous way. It was the kiss of life, the pleasure it gave her so undeniably carnal that under other circumstances she might have been disgusted with herself. Ashamed. Yet unabashedly, she opened her body further to him as his hips slid to settle more intimately between her thighs. She whimpered as she felt his hardened manhood pressing against her, in direct contact with her own most private area. Hopelessly trapped in the whirlwind of her own contradictory feelings, she had neither the strength nor the will to stop what was happening. It was definitively happening…
Sully, overcome by her uncharacteristic abandon and taking her movements as an invitation for more, lost all the restraint he had left on his desires. He could feel her physical response, despite the many layers of clothing between them – her body was so clearly calling out to him. His head swam as if he was solidly intoxicated. He knew he would not be able to stop himself if he tried. It was too late now to retreat. Instinct took over. As his mouth assailed hers more wildly than ever, his hand sought the hem of her dress, and then rummaged through the petticoats. His fingers slipped under the lacy edge of her bloomers at her knee, creeping higher and higher until they encountered the velvet-soft flesh of her inner thigh.
They both knew it was wrong, that it was neither the right place nor the right moment to surrender to this powerful temptation of their senses. But such a strong foretaste of what could have been their marital bliss seemed to only fuel their mutual desire as much as the semiconscious awareness that they were probably living their last moments together.
Sully groaned as he perceived Michaela shiver at his intimate touch. The words of the newspaper headline, Fugitive Lovers, seemed to be whispering somewhat tauntingly in the recesses of their minds, as if to dare them to prove the phrase to be true.
A soft whimper escaped her throat as Michaela felt herself acquiescing to him. She felt his hand inching even higher toward the juncture of her thighs, while the other curled around her breast, his thumb brushing across the little bump created by the firm bud straining against the layers of fabric. She moaned a little louder, definitively swept away. There was no resisting the unavoidable, now…
Immersed in the deepest kiss they had ever shared, the sensuous rhythm of which was clearly prefiguring the imminence of their coupling, Sully feverishly reached for the row of tiny buttons at the back of her dress, his fingers fumbling to free them from the loops. The brief contact he'd had with the delicate, silken skin of her inner thigh had been enough to send sharp jolts of pleasure through his own flesh. Though his arousal had already sent his body out of his control, in the recesses of his mind, he was still fully aware of how absolutely forbidden such access to her body should have been—under any circumstances. Yet, she was neither pushing him away, nor even just allowing him do as he pleased with naïve passivity… NO! Every nuance of her body language, her moans, the ardor with which she responded to his kisses and caresses—Oh God!—the mere feel of her fingers on his skin when they slithered under his shirt! He had never known a sweeter torture… everything told him of her willingness. And he was only a man! Nothing but a man head over heels in love with the woman who was literally offering herself to him, despite all his faults and how his sins could have, in a way, tainted her pure heart and soul.
That thought went straight out of his head when the buttons suddenly came free and his lips came in contact with the creamy skin of her neck… her shoulders… her upper chest. They both gasped, their senses heightened to another threshold. He heard her moan with pleasure, felt her hands rise higher on his back, felt her lips graze a sensitive spot on his neck, felt her warm breath on his skin. Did she realize what she was doing to him? He was going out of his mind! He was one movement away from stepping off the edge of the cliff and plunging to the deep waters below. His breath coming fast, he allowed his mouth to roam over the softness of her bosom as his hand dragged the edge of her dress and chemise down to uncover one of her breasts, its firm nipple immediately being engulfed by his hungry lips. The action made them both groan with intense pleasure. Mindless with need, his hand, with a mind of its own, began to slide down between their bodies, hitching up her skirt and petticoats and fumbling with the closure of his trousers…
Michaela knew what he was about to do, but for the first time in her adult life, she didn't care. She had shut the door of reason within her mind and only allowed her emotions and sensations to triumph. Just the thought of how close she had come in the last few days to losing the man she now held in her arms was enough to spur her on. Images flashed in her memory of when they dragged him away from her… seeing him in chains… hearing them pronounce his sentence… the agony she had felt when the horrific vision of her beloved being blindfolded, tied to a wall, and shot to death had swm before her eyes, the image so vivid she had screamed… watching him fight to get loose and go to her… Things could still take a drastic turn for the worse. What if they were caught? What if they couldn't prove there was a conspiracy going on? What if they were charged with the felony and ended up facing the firing squad…? What if…?? The plaguing anguish compelled her to cling to him even more desperately, seeking his mouth once again for a fierce, impassioned kiss, her abandon complete and uncompromising.
Sully broke their kiss with a tortured moan, shifting to put his weight on one forearm as he followed the age-old instinct of joining with a woman… but just any woman... His love. His soulmate. His Heartsong
Suddenly, loud banging, shouts and a dog barking in a neighboring house jolted them out of their passion-induced trance. Both their hearts hammering frantically, they instantly broke apart and sprang up from the bed to hide under it again, only stopping short when they realized that the noises had nothing to do with the search parties.
Still, the interruption was enough of a frightening shock to bring them back, thankfully, to their senses. Embarrassed silence loomed between them as they straightened their clothes and resumed their previous position of sitting on the edge of the bed, trying to calm down, unable to look at one another. Trembling and still breathless, Michaela sat with one hand against her mouth, the other arm wrapped tightly around her stomach. Sully sat forward, elbows on his knees, head in his hands as he fought to catch his breath and slow his racing heart. Neither knew what to say. Should they apologize? Act as if nothing happened? Behave as if they didn't know that they were in a desperate situation? They were both outlaws now!
To think—they had come to Washington to try and prevent Black Kettle's tribe from being further mistreated by ruthless government officials, and they had so innocently believed that they had succeeded… For Heaven's sake, they had even become acquainted with the President himself! But where did that leave them? There they were, stranded in a gloomy, shabby room, in a working-class district of the capital, hiding from scores of armed soldiers and policemen, with only a sliver of a chance and hope that they might find a way to prove that Sully had been set up. And as if they hadn't enough circumstances stacked against them, they had just come dangerously close to adding another complication to the list…
Finally, unable to withstand the silence or her frustration and anguish one second longer, Michaela jumped up and darted across the room to try and put some space between them, her hands twisting anxiously. Tears of shame and gripping fear fast filled her eyes and rolled down her cheeks, as suffocating sobs wracked her small frame.
Alarmed, Sully immediately went to her and cradled her in his arms. There had been times in the past where he had left her to deal with whatever was troubling her on her own, just as there had been times when he had known she needed his shoulder to cry on, or simply a hug… when all he had to do to soothe her worries was to assure her that everything was going to be all right. Of course, right at the moment, neither solution seemed to fit. He half expected her to push him away and keep him at a safe distance, and any word of comfort was sure to sound shallow. He was close to tears himself. He wanted to tell her to leave without him, run, go back to Colorado, or maybe return to Boston—but he knew she would have none of it.
"I'm sorry, Michaela… Oh God, I am so sorry… I never shoulda got ya inta all this," he repeated as he held her tightly, his voice breaking as remorse hit him hard. He had condemned his Heartsong to share his grim fate, when her sole crime was to love him to the point that she had risked everything to try to save him, with that courage of a warrior of hers that could move mountains… At that moment, he felt anything but worthy of such devotion, and yet, his weary soul longed to absorb some of that courage to restore his own, to face whatever was awaiting him.
Michaela pulled back, and gazed at him earnestly, her eyes shimmering like two jewels with the waterfall of her tears.
"No—Sully, don't… It's all my fault," she squeaked. "I was the one who asked you to come to Washington with me… I was the one who couldn't stay in her place and just had to—to…"
"To do what your heart was tellin' ya t'do… Michaela, you came here to speak up for the Cheyenne! And you did it! Thanks to you, maybe the next agent sent to Colorado is gonna treat the tribes decently…"
"But I failed you," she countered mournfully.
"No, you didn't! Don't ya see? I woulda died a thousand times if not for you…" He gently pulled her back into his embrace, one hand softly pressing her head into the curve of his neck as he shut his eyes and cuddled with her. "Oh 'Chaela," he murmured against her ruffled hair, a tear finally escaping. Michaela shivered, registering the tender, slightly bittersweet familiarity with which he had just addressed her. In a way it was fitting. Their level of intimacy had grown by leaps and bounds in the last few minutes. The aching shame she had felt at letting their moment of passion go so far that she had come within an inch of giving herself completely to him, all but vanished. She nestled up even closer, soaking in the warmth of his embrace, savoring his scent, still discernible in spite of the filth and sweat, aware that he was doing the same thing with her, his nose pressed to her temple.
"Sully…" She was at a loss for words, and she was even afraid to think of anything but just him—being with him. Her heart was breaking at the thought that their wedding might never occur, that Matthew, Colleen and Brian might end up motherless again… Though her reason was berating her for how impetuously and impractically she had acted, still, leaving the man she loved with every single fiber of her being was beyond her strength. The feeling of helplessness was returning with a vengeance, and there was nothing she could do… their only plan was to meet with General Parker at the War Records Department, search for evidence that might no longer exist, provided that Detective Simpson wasn't waiting for them over there with a police squad… and then what? Once again, she stepped away from his arms and resumed her pacing, still shaking from fear, impatience and the remnants of her unsatisfied desires.
Knowing his fiancée like he did, Sully surmised that her restlessness might have something to do with being forced to stay put and wait. He certainly felt a bit like a sitting duck himself, in spite of the generous help and protection they had been afforded by the people of Murder Bay and their anonymous hostess. He knew they didn't have much of a choice right at the moment, but to indeed wait—and stay on their guard. At least he would be… Now, if I only could get Michaela to rest… who knows when was the last time she got any sleep…? He knew too well her penchant for forgoing necessary rest – all night at times – whenever she had to face a difficult challenge.
"Michaela, please, come back here…"
She shook her head vehemently, without casting so much as a glance at him, her brow furrowed in concentration. He had seen that same frown and pinched lips so many times before, which he inwardly called her frettin' face. Only her fretting was no longer amusing or even endearing.
He managed to grab a fold of her skirt when she passed close by in her panic-stricken motion.
"C'mere," he requested again, the plea in both his eyes and his voice evident. "You should try and get some rest."
"Rest?" she echoed in disbelief, as if it was the most preposterous idea she ever heard of. Still, it struck a chord within her consciousness. She approached him, seizing his wrist with her natural authority to guide him back to the bed, and then placing a firm hand on his shoulder to push him down in a reclining position.
"Yes… I mean—no… you're the one who should be sleeping, Sully. Don't—don't worry about me," she stammered automatically.
Sully didn't let himself be placated that easily. He offered a compromise, "How about we take turns, huh? We got a few hours 'fore we go. Plenty enough for each of us to take a nap, while the other can keep the lookout, dontcha think?"
He slipped an arm cajolingly around her waist to bring her closer. When she didn't stiffen like she usually did, he had the impression she was close to relenting, so he argued further, "Better make the most of the time we gotta stay here. We're gonna need to keep our minds sharp, and energy too, for after…"
Michaela thought of a hundred reasons to counter him, but she had to admit to herself that her own fatigue was starting to weigh down on her. She plopped down next to him.
"All right… all right," she conceded, raising her hands in mock surrender, before pointing sternly at the pillows, "But I want you to nap first. No buts."
Sully chuckled, seeing her bossiness returning as a reassuring sign. He reclined obligingly, but as he settled, he grasped her hand and tugged gently. "Why dontcha lay down with me, keep me company?"
"Sully, I… I don't think that's a good idea," she breathed, her voice faltering because the temptation remained strong. A rosy tinge returned to her cheeks, which were still pale from the scare they just had.
Sully understood she was referring to their heated embrace earlier. "I know what you're thinkin', but don't worry, I ain't plannin' to let that happen again."
"Sully… No—I mean…"
He sat up and cupped her face in his hands, in a fair echo of his proposal six months before.
"Michaela, listen. I love you more than I can tell ya or even show ya. If I could, I'd get us to the first church I could find and we'd get married right now…"
"Sully—" she tried to interrupt, but he wasn't done.
"But it wouldn't be fair to ya… Even though, to me, you're already my wife, in here," he murmured passionately, pressing his fist to his chest, "we can't be takin' chances like what almost happened just now. What was I thinkin'? I already gotcha in this mess with me… And look what I did!" he lamented. "What if I got ya pregnant, and we got caught tonight, or had to be on the run for who knows how long…"
Another wave of tears rolled down her cheeks as she placed her hand on his, their joined hands covering his heart. The deep shame and the reality of the risk they both had come so close to taking hit her hard, and she shuddered imagining herself giving birth all alone in a filthy jail cell, only to have Sully's child, their child, ripped from her arms soon after and sent to some orphanage, with both its parents mentioned as criminals in its record.
"You're right… and I feel the same… especially now. I just can't bear the idea of losing you. Moreover because of… some political scheme for which you were merely a disposable pawn."
"Michaela… please. I love you for tryin' to offer me excuses, but it was still me who pulled that trigger, that day. It was me who killed an innocent m—"
"NO!" Michaela exclaimed. "You were merely a soldier following orders in a time of war! The law makes a distinction in that…! So, don't you try to turn me away from you by making me feel angry or repelled, just because you think you'll spare my feelings that way! I will not let you," she vowed passionately.
"I still owe you an apology. Wasn't right of me to try and take advantage like t—"
"You weren't taking advantage of anything, Sully," Michaela countered firmly, despite embarrassment at her own behavior returning to stain her cheeks a bright scarlet. "I am the one who should apologize—for that…"
Sully shook his head with a disenchanted chuckle, then raised his hand to her lips to quiet her.
"I reckon we could argue 'bout this for hours, but please, Michaela, quit shoulderin' all the blame. Blamin' never solves anythin', you know that… C'mon, let's get some rest."
She eventually nodded, relenting at last. "You rest. I'll keep watch," she said, her tone brooking no argument. She wanted to sleep as well, but she was still too wrought up. She needed time to collect her thoughts and appease her raging emotions. As he settled down, she sat next to him, her back to the headboard. Her hand instinctively found his, theirs fingers laced together tightly in loving allegiance. She watched him close his eyes, and when she was satisfied that he was finally getting the sleep he needed, she allowed her own eyes to slip shut and her thoughts to focus on devising a plan, wondering about what solution young Hattie and her brother, who had already risked so much in aiding them, would come up with to secret the two fugitives away from the boarding house all the way to the War Records Office. And from there and then? What would happen next?
Chapter 4: Epilogue
Michaela stirred from a deep, dreamless doze, to Sully's fingers softly raking through her hair. She remembered falling asleep like that, lulled by his gentle caresses, and his whispered reassurances that they had to have faith, that they would get out of this mess, that they had too much to look forward to not to do everything in their power to succeed… However, the brief moment of security and contentment she felt from his touch was short-lived and it didn't take long for adrenaline to race through her veins again as her surroundings and circumstances rushed back to her consciousness.
But she didn't have the time to ascertain whether Sully had recuperated or not for the landlady was already knocking at their door: it was time to go.
This time, with the help of the early November nightfall, Hattie and her boyfriend found it much easier to smuggle the fugitives out of the boarding house and through the busy streets of central Washington. Using the decoy of a large two-wheeled cart full of empty crates, piled up high upon a curled-up Sully, while Michaela was rolled into a striped awning draped over the mule's back, they were able to walk through the many roadblocks of policemen patrolling around the capitol's commanding buildings without being stopped, searched… and discovered. If one of them had had the idea of looking a little more closely at the strange form of the awning, he might have thought this particular young Negro couple, apparently on their way back from the market, quite suspicious.
From the second they ventured out to meet with Parker, to both Michaela and Sully, everything felt like a huge, whirling blur; the unbelievable luck of being able to slip in and out the Department of War building without being detected; the victorious excitement of discovering a solid proof of Senator Stewart's involvement in Sully's framing; and last but not the least, upon arriving at the White House, the horrific realization that what they had feared – a sniper poised to shoot at the President during the concert – was indeed happening, despite Parker's assurance that security was way too tight that night for anyone carrying a weapon more dangerous than a nail file to get through the White House gates...
Adrenaline buzzed in their ears as they rushed into the concert hall. Time felt distorted again, the events unfolding as if in slow motion, and yet too fast for them to collect their thoughts and act carefully. Sully literally flew over the rows of chairs to knock the President out of the way of the bullet, the loud detonation of shattered glass followed by the terrified screams of the guests, and the roars of the security agents. Barely aware of the two hands closing on her arms in an iron grip, Michaela screamed even louder than everyone as she watched, helpless, a policeman violently bringing down his club onto Sully's head, who collapsed. With an energy only despair could give her, she shook herself out of her guard's clutches and ran to Sully only to be caught again, this time by two policemen.
Her relief at seeing Sully still conscious and able to stand on his two feet, apparently unharmed, was short-lived, however. Their last hope was presently held in the President's hands. Time stopped altogether, their fate suspended…
Michaela could hear what President Grant was saying, saw Senator Steward and Inspector Simpson taken away in shackles, shook the President's hand and hugged the First Lady; she felt her children's hugs crushing her – the children!? where did they come from? – and yet, she could not grasp that he whole ordeal was over. After all they had been through, the quick pardon and their subsequent release felt utterly inconceivable.
It was not until the police and the guests had cleared the concert hall, and the First Lady had left them momentarily to give the staff all the necessary orders to accommodate her husband's savior and his family for the night, that Michaela, Sully and the Cooper children could have the chance to sit down and process all that had happened since the previous night.
"So what happens now?" piped up Brian, more than ready to go home.
"Are you really free to go as if nothing happened?" asked Colleen, doubtful.
"I ain't sure. President said we'd be cleared of all charges, but maybe we gotta go through some legal procedure… I dunno… Do ya, Michaela?"
She jumped a little, startled by the question. An inexorable weariness was creeping up on her, making her mind slower than usual.
"I… I don't know, I'm not sure… Maybe if the presidential grace is directly issued by the President himself, it shouldn't take too long?... Oh!" she exclaimed, looking aghast.
"What?" said Colleen, worried her mother's sudden outburst might mean the whole pardoning process would be much more complicated than what they were hoping for.
"Our things! And my medical bag! I left them at the hotel!"
Matthew jumped up. "I'll go fetch 'em, Dr. Mike, don't worry!"
"That's sweet of you, Matthew, but I was the one who rented the room, I should go…"
"It can wait till tomorrow, Michaela," interjected Sully.
"But Sully, I must tend to you, yours wounds need a proper dressing, and I must examine you for any sign of concussion…"
Just then, Julia Grant reappeared, and said with her natural decisiveness, "I couldn't help but overhear. Dr. Quinn, Mr. Sully, if you need to go anywhere, we will provide a cab and an escort, and you'll be back in no time. Yet, we have everything you might need to care for Mr. Sully right here. I only need to summon our personal physician, so you can sit back and rest, Dr. Q… Michaela."
It was finally decided that Matthew would indeed go to the small hotel to collect his mother's bags, accompanied by a staff member of White House. The hotel manager made no difficulties, with the help of the generous handout from the White House employee. Matthew thought to himself that it was a good thing Dr. Mike and Sully hadn't come along, for they would have certainly protested about the money.
Meanwhile, Michaela was given all she needed to tend to Sully's wounds, which she did somewhat mechanically, yet as meticulously as ever, without having to wait for Matthew's return. The happy outcome felt so unreal to her that she might as well have been the one who had been clubbed over the head instead of Sully. It wasn't until she found herself alone in the luxurious guestroom that reality could finally sink in, in the form of body-wracking sobs of relief. She barely heard the discreet rap at her door, but she knew right away it wasn't one of the children. She'd recognize that knock anywhere.
Indeed, it was Sully. He had paced for quite a while before coming to her. He had meant to apologize, and had even thought of trying to talk Michaela out of their engagement in a bout of self-loathing and shame. But he didn't have the strength to follow through with that – he needed her too much. He knew that if he were to lose her, this time Cloud Dancing wouldn't be able to restore his will to live. And he needed her love, her strength and her generous heart to help him forgive himself for his sins. She was his reason to live and to want to be a better man.
He opened the door and slipped silently inside the room at her invitation to come in. No other words were exchanged as he enfolded her in his arms the instant he saw her stricken face. He felt pretty close to tears as well, awash with a maelstrom of emotions, the first of which feeling more in love with Michaela than ever, followed closely by the immense debt of gratitude he owed her. Over and over, he murmured "Thank you, thank you, thank you," like an impassioned, chanting prayer of gratefulness and reverence. Too choked up to articulate anything coherent, she only hugged him tighter. As she shook in his arms, he eventually let his own tears silently fall onto her hair…
And then before they could make sense of what was happening, they were kissing each other's tears away, on cheeks, noses… chins… lips. Once their mouths met in a charged, desperation-laced kiss, as if they still believed they were going to be separated forever, they couldn't part. Their intimate embrace at the boarding house, although interrupted, had nevertheless caused quite a breach in the reserve they usually maintained around each other for propriety's sake. Neither had had enough time to rebuild their defense, and in the wake of their present emotional release, the need to hold, to touch, to kiss, to unite was terribly potent.
She leaned into him, instinctively signaling her acceptance, her abandon… her usual reserve and self-control were in shreds, still numb from the shock of the past hours. Even though they were now safe and about to head back home, to resume their life and the preparations for their wedding in the Spring, it was hard to ignore the nagging need within her to join with him fully. Still, she forced herself to break off the kiss, and the frustration was like a hard punch in her stomach. They couldn't afford the luxury of throwing away caution now and forgetting about social conventions any more than they could have run the risk of getting pregnant while they were on the run, when the possibility of being sent to prison or facing a firing squad was hanging heavily over their heads…
Sully didn't protest, despite his obvious state of arousal, his entire body tense and giving off an inviting heat. He only gave her forehead the softest kiss and one last hug – Oh, how she loved the way he held her, how safe and cherished she felt when his hand rested so protectively and caressingly on her nape, and she could bury her face in the crook of his neck!
He whispered, "Good night, Michaela," against her ear and then he was gone, slipping out of the bedroom as if he was a murmur himself. She remained rooted to the spot for a few seconds, staring at the closed door, before realizing that not only was she alone again, but that her earlier state of shock was all but vanished, replaced by a feeling of peace. She smiled softly as she realized that Sully's tenderness, strength and courage had healed her frayed nerves.
As she slipped under the covers a few minutes later, she looked to her left where Sully could have been laying had she invited him to stay with her. Soon, she thought, trying hard to convince herself it wasn't that long.
Soon they would become lovers. But not as desperate fugitives. They would come together lawfully. Blessedly. As married lovers.
Without a doubt, she knew it would be worth the wait.