I looked at the blood on my hands. No . . . . Not him. Not now. It's too early. I didn't want this to happen. Ever. No . . . . I listened to his shallow breathing as he lay still, fighting for his life. I stared blindly at the blood on my hands. His blood. A tear ran down my cheek, crossing a fresh slash. The salty sting of the tear on the cut brought me back. He might die. I couldn't let that happen.

"Den," I murmured. "I can't let you go. I can't. It's too soon."

I fumbled for my phone which I'd stuck in my pocket as I'd left the house that morning. The battery was almost gone, but perhaps I'd have enough to get through to 911. I stood, shakily, wincing as my foot protested under my weight. I dialed the number and held the phone to my ear.

"Hello?" a woman's voice sounded on the other end.

"Hi," my voice cracked. "I need help."

"Go ahead," the woman said patiently when I paused. "Maybe you can tell me where you are."

"I—hold on." I walked to the edge of the street and squinted at the street signs. "I'm on Dawson. Halfway between Parker and Luminary."

Another pause.

"The men are on their way. Can you tell me what happened?" the woman asked.

"Den—Den came to my rescue. He—" I couldn't continue, the happenings to fresh in my memory. I stifled a sob.

"Ma'am, can you tell me how Den is?" the woman asked, clearly sensing that something was wrong.

"He's breathing. But he's—not responding to me." I answered, stiffly. "He's bleeding. There's blood all over. He—he dove over me to protect me and got hit in the—" I choked "—the side. He's lying quite still now." I looked back at Den's body lying flat on the cold hard concrete behind me.

"I see," the woman said brusquely. "Do you have anything to cover him with?"

I looked down at my jacket. It was rumpled, torn and blood stained.

"My jacket," I told the woman.

"Good," she said. "Put it over him until the ambulance comes. Prop his feet up on something as well."

I nodded; then realized that she couldn't see me. "Thank you," I managed to croak into the phone. "I need to hang up to do as you directed."

"God be with you," she murmured, and then said, "When you hear the sirens please stand where they can see you, so they know where you are."

"Alright," I said and hung up.

As gently as I could, I pulled my jacket off, wincing as it dragged on several bruises. I placed the jacket on Den and limped around, searching for something to prop up his feet. I found several old pieces of rotting wood. They would have to do for now. As I propped his feet up, he moaned.

My heart ripped. I felt two more tears course down my cheeks. Not Den. He'd been laughing and joking with me only this afternoon. Now—now . . . I didn't want to think about now.

I looked at the back of my phone, which I still held in my hands. There was a bloody hand print on it. My own. I looked at my hands. They were caked with dry, brown blood. I shuddered and tried to scrub at my hands, but only succeeded in putting myself in pain.

Den moaned again, and I went to his head and sat cross-legged, placing his head in my lap. Tears fell freely now, stinging the cuts on my cheeks.

After what seemed like forever I heard sirens and quickly got up, gently placing Den's head on the ground again. I went and stood on the side of the street, shivering in the sudden breeze. It got suddenly light as red flashed about me and sirens wailed up the street.

Almost before I knew it, men were piling off the fire engines. One of them came to me and reached to touch my elbow. I jerked at his touch as my mind came rushing back in a tumult.

"Excuse me, ma'am," he said backing up slightly. "Where is he?"

I turned and pointed at Den's still figure lying in the shadows. "There," I managed to get out between cracked lips.

The ambulance wailed up and pulled to a short stop. Paramedics jumped out and rushed, stretcher in hand to check on Den. I couldn't stop myself. I followed them and watched as they urgently checked him out. I don't remember what they did, but I had an overwhelming feeling of relief as they gently placed him on the stretcher and carried him into the ambulance. I slumped against a building and covered my face with my bloody hands as the firemen and the lone police man scanned the area for clues as to what happened.

A young woman, a paramedic, spotted me and rushed over.

"Please, come to the ambulance. I need to check you out." She told me urgently, pulling me up. I winced, and numbly followed her, limping behind like a stray, dazed, injured kitten.

She led me up into the ambulance and when she turned to look at me, her face went white. "Oh—oh my . . . . Please—please sit down!" she gestured to a small fold out chair. I sat, grateful for the support of the chair. My knees had suddenly gone wobbly. Den was still on the stretcher in the middle of the ambulance. Still unconscious, my mind whispered.

I stared blindly at his profile; his strong brow, his long, straight nose, and his soft pliable lips, now cracked and bleeding. The paramedic, seeing that I was in no state to do anything, gently pulled my longish bangs back from my face and wiped a sterile pad across the cuts on my face. A young man came over and watched as she tended to each cut.

"How is she?" he asked, looking at my blank face.

"This is as far as I've gotten," the woman replied. "The cuts aren't deep. Merely shallow incisions. Looks like someone might have backhanded her while wearing a sharp ring. I haven't gotten further down."

"We need to get this man to the hospital. It looks like she needs to come as well. The police will just have to take the statement later."

"Right," the lady said and folded another chair down beside me, pulling a buckle across my lap at the same time.

Den lay so quietly. People were busy tending to him. Hooking him up to IVs and most importantly trying to stop the awful flow of blood from his arm and side. I heard nothing except from at a distance. My foot was starting to feel painfully swollen; my face stung from the disinfectant the woman had put on it; my arms hurt from where they were wrenched; I felt sore in numerous places, but I couldn't think of any of that. Den was always in front of me. Still and pale.

The paramedic sitting next to me place a gentle hand on my shoulder as the ambulance lurched forward. I must have gasped in pain because she quickly removed it and gave me an odd look.

I sat there listening to the mournful wail of the sirens and watching Den's pale face. My mind raced back to what had happened, just a short time before. I'd been over at Den's house. He'd asked me to come for a movie at his house. Two weeks before he'd asked me to marry him. I'd said yes. We were going to talk about wedding plans before the movie. All we'd figured out was that I was going to wear a gorgeous white dress with a long train, and who we wanted at the wedding. We'd picked the date. May 20th, little more than a year from now. After the movie, I'd decided to walk to the train station. Den argued that it wasn't safe to walk to the train station alone at 11:00 at night. Especially not in the city. I ignored that fact and left him with a small peck on the cheek.

He was right. The train station was a good ten minutes walk from his house; five by car. I was a little less than half way there when someone wolf whistled at me. I'd looked over my shoulder to see five guys trailing me. My heart started pounding like a bass drum in the percussion section of an orchestra.

"Come here, pretty," one of the men sneered behind me. I could hear it in his voice.

"Look at the legs on her!" another exclaimed.

"No . . . ." I muttered desperately. I began to walk faster. Then I ran.

They growled like wild dogs angry that their prey had gotten a head start and before I knew it, I heard pounding feet behind me. They're catching up! My mind screamed and I ran harder.

It was no use. The tallest, skinniest man rounded on me in a couple of minutes. My lungs were screaming for air, and my legs were sore, so I simply crumpled against the nearest building.

Before long all five men had hemmed me in. They had a hungry look in their eyes that made me shudder inwardly. I tucked my chin to my chest, but the leader didn't like that. He stepped up to me and commanded that I lift my face. When I didn't, he laughed and yanked my head back, hair first to get a look at my face.

"Oh, ho!" he cried, delightedly. "We've got ourselves a pretty one this time, fellows! What are yew doing out so late at night with no hubby to protect you?" He leered in my face.

I tried to stare defiantly at him, but he just grinned.

"And she's stubborn too! Not only do we get to have fun wi' 'er but we also get to teach her a lesson!"

The men roared and the sound sent shivers down my spine. I wished I'd listened to Den. I wished that Den was here. No amount of wishing would bring him though. He was safe at home.

The leader must have seen a vacant look in my eyes because he scowled and backhanded me. He wore a ring on his finger. It had a sharp protruding object and as his hand dragged across my face, I felt my skin open up beneath his fingers. As my knees buckled, his hand gripped my arm and drew me up right. One by one all four other men stepped up and backhanded me. Each wore a ring. When they'd finished I had five gouges on my cheeks. Three on one side; two on the other.

"No . . . . Don't." I whispered, my knees no longer supporting me.

"What?" the leader cried, clearly startled by my protest. "Does she still resist? Let's see if she can resist me!" He shoved his mouth on mine and when I gasped, stuck his tongue in my mouth. I bit it. His screech hurt my ears, but I felt good after that. The high feelings lasted for only a second because he shoved me back into the wall, but I twisted so instead of hitting my head against the brick building, he crushed my arm into the wall.

I cried out, and tried to resist him, but he ground his booted foot onto mine and then threw me to the ground, growling.

"Teach her a lesson, boys." He barked, and stood back in satisfaction as they converged on me, kicking me and picking me up off the ground to slap me and then drop me again. I saw stars and the pain was so intense that I simply curled up and took it. I felt broken and crushed and as I covered my face with my arms, I felt tears run, warm upon my cold, striped cheeks. Just when the stars started to overwhelm me and I felt like I couldn't take it anymore, a clear, sharp voice rang out.

"Stop! Don't do that! Get away from her."

All five men stopped what they were doing in surprise.

"Who's there?" the leader called to the darkness surrounding us.

I knew that voice though. Den . . . . my heart thundered. He'd come to rescue me. Then my heart plummeted. He'd never be able to fight off all five guys. All five guys looked at him, as he stepped out of the shadows and then guffawed. The leader ushered them all forward and let them go. Like a pack of dogs, they tried to overwhelm Den. For a minute he went down. Then, as I lay curled in a ball on the ground, the leader pulled a gun from his pocket and aimed it at me.

"We've gotten nothing out of you. You don't deserve to live." He growled at me, and Den must have heard it.

"You leave my girl alone!" He shouted at the leader and with energy born of desperation, thrust his way out of the crowd.

As he dove on top of me, a shot rang out. Den cried out and twitched. The leader growled in frustration and just as Den moved pulled the trigger again. This time Den didn't move. He didn't cry out either. He just whimpered.

His body lay still on top of me, and his dead weight seemed to crush me. The men seemed to think that nothing more could be done and after patting Den down for anything valuable, wandered off into the night.

My thoughts came to a halt with the ambulance as it pulled up to the hospital door. Den had an IV in his good arm and gauze wrapped his side. He was hurried off down a corridor, a very white sterile corridor.

A nurse took charge of me and hurried me into a small room. This one was a pale peach color, and as the nurse began to examine me all I could do was focus on the color. It was the color of spring and of the blossoms on the cherry trees. It was almost winter outside, with the wind coming in cold gusts, but inside the walls were a pale peach and everything was soft.

I don't remember most of what she did, but there are several vivid things that come to me, that I will probably always remember. First is the white expression on the nurse's face when she got a good look at my rib cage. The second was the sympathetic look that the Doctor gave me after she'd checked me out. The third was after I'd unintentionally mumbled Den's name. The nurses—there were more in the room now—looked at me as one of them said, "It's alright, sweetie, he'll be ok." I remember thinking, How do you know? He might be dead. And yet I desperately wanted to believe her. If he'd only get better.

The last memory was when one of the nurses looked at me and murmured to another nurse, "Look, she's crying again, poor thing." It was at that moment that I realized that tears were running down my cheeks. I hadn't been crying in large gusty sobs, but the rest of the night I was peripherally aware of constantly wet cheeks.

At last, they carefully sat me in a wheel chair and pushed me through the same white corridor that they had pushed Den. My heart jumped that I might be able to see him again, but they pushed me into a room with a bed in it, and helped me into bed. Earlier, my clothes had been discarded for a hospital gown and now as I got into bed, a nurse told me that my clothes would be used as evidence against the men who hurt me so I wouldn't be getting them back. I must have nodded because she looked satisfied and left the room.

I tossed and turned and tried to get comfortable, but all I could think about was Den. He was in the hospital somewhere. Laying cold and still . . . . my mind whispered.

"Not Den," I mumbled softly to the sterile smelling covers. "Oh, Den," I cried, choking back a sob, "Why you? Why couldn't it have been me?"

I must have cried myself to sleep because the next thing I knew, a nurse was leaning over me checking my temperature and numerous other things before she left. I glanced at the digital glow-in-the-dark clock. It was close to two in the morning. I sighed and rolled over, wincing as my bandaged shoulders and ribs tried to hold my weight.

The night in the hospital was restless. When I wasn't wide awake and thinking about Den, the nurses would be in my room, checking to make sure I was alright.

I spent several nights there and my family came to visit me. My mom cried. Even my Dad looked teary eyed. We all prayed for Den. No one had told me how Den was doing, and I didn't dare to ask. I was to chicken. But I thought about him constantly. What he'd done really affected me. He really cared about me. He had thrown himself in the path of a bullet to save me. My world was rocked. I thought that I'd known what love was, until Den saved me. I wanted to run and find him and express my love in the best way possible. What that way was, I didn't know. I wouldn't know until I got to see him, I told myself. If you ever get to see him again, a niggling part of my brain told me.

Police came to visit me to get my statement. My church poured in, in the form of flowers and cards and the occasional visitor. I hate to say it, but many of them left soberly confused because most of the time I couldn't think of anything to say. All I could think of was my growing love for Den. Only by thinking of his love for me could I drown out the shame I felt from my experience. He'd seen what they were doing to me and he'd still come to my rescue. He'd saved me. By the time several days had passed my tears were tears of joy mixed with tears of sorrow, instead of purely sorrowful.

Then one day my mom and dad bustled into the room. They seemed like they were hiding something from me, but in my emotional state I didn't notice. My reverie was broken by my mom, when she excitedly placed a bag on my bed and motioned for me to open it. I looked at her and then at the bag and reached for it. Inside sat a pair of jeans and a new t-shirt, underwear, a pair of socks, my hairbrush, a ponytail holder, a towel, some soap and shampoo and conditioner. I looked up at Mom again and she smiled.

"You are finally allowed to get up! I thought that you might want some things to wear. While you get dressed in the bathroom, your father is going to go get a wheel chair. We want to show you something."

I stared at her, and she finally rolled her eyes and laughed.

"Will you help me to the bathroom?" I finally found my voice.

"Of course," she replied, and shooed my dad from the room.

On shaky legs I made my way to the bathroom with my mother's help. When I came out twenty minutes later, my mom clapped and beckoned me to come and sit down on the chair in front of her. When I finally got there, she took a towel and dried my hair. Then with my brush she gently combed out all the gnarls and tangles that had accumulated over the past five or so days. She pulled it back and French braided it nicely before hugging me gently from behind and opening the door.

My dad came in with the wheel chair and a nurse to push it. When he saw me he coughed and turned around, brushing at his eyes. The nurse exclaimed over how nice I looked, even with the lumpy bandages under my baggy t-shirt. They sat me in the wheelchair and then the nurse slowly pushed me out of the room.

"Here we are!" my mom exclaimed after several halls, turns and an elevator ride later.

We'd stopped outside a door, and I held my breath. It looked like an ordinary room. Den, my mind whispered. When my mom knocked on the door and then threw back the curtain covering the open door, I saw a bed and a man lying in it. My heart stopped.

"Den," I managed to get past the lump in my throat.

To my great joy, he turned his head and looked at me.

"Anna." His voice was gravely from disuse.

"Oh, Den!" I gulped again and with strength born of love launched myself from the wheelchair at him. When I reached the side of his bed, I reached for his face, longing simply to hold it. He was real. Alive. My body moved by itself and sat down on the edge of the bed while I simply looked at him.

"Den—" I choked out again, tears spilling. "Oh, Den, I love you." And I buried my face in his chest. He was real. He was alive. He was hugging me with all his strength.

"Anna," his voice cracked. "I love you, too."

He placed a kiss on my hair and when I looked up, I saw that he, too, was crying.

"You scared me so badly, Anna. I thought I was going to lose you."

"Den," I whispered, stroking his face. "Thank you. Thank you for loving me, for giving me my life back. My love for you is stronger than it was five days ago. I want to be with you always."

The rest of my words were strangled as he pulled my head down and kissed me.