The snow Falls...
Jaylon ran into Jessie as he entered the house through the rear entrance. She held her finger to her lips then drew him away, establishing a distance between themselves and where Aniela now slept quietly in the other room.
Once she was convinced they couldn’t be heard; she whispered, “Aniela just caught you walking in from the stables.” She pushed him towards her father’s study. “She assumed it was Lucian, and I had to pretend I didn’t know who it was.”
Eyes drawn together, he was confused by her continuous attempt to draw him out of the hall and into the study. “Why did you have to pretend Jessie?” he said with growing annoyance. “Lucian and I rode hard to make it here by dawn, and I plan to go see her right now.” He moved to go around her.
But Jessie’s inferior frame blocked his exit. “No, Jaylon,” she whispered anxiously, then reached for the handle and closed the door. “I think it would be best for everyone involved if you left and returned back home to your estate.”
He couldn’t suppress the anger from her remarks. “Are you daft, woman? I am not leaving,” he protested. He commenced to go around her again, but she held firm to her spot. “Please move Jessie.”
She caught the hint of anguish in his eyes, and she almost faltered. “Jaylon, she only just returned home, you need to give her time.” She watched his jaw tighten and his body became tense. She knew he was going to refute her at every step. She glanced down at her hands, contemplating her next choice of words. “Aniela didn’t take the announcement of our father passing away very well, and she has been through so much. I’m afraid the news of you now being married could possibly send her into a downward spiral.” Jessie lifted her gaze, contemplating on whether to reveal anything else to him.
His eyes became angry slits. “She has been through so much?” he repeated incredulous and wielded his hands in the air in frustration. “What about what I have been through, Jessie? Do I not count? Don’t I merit an explanation of where she has been all these years?” He shrugged off his wet jacket, then ran his fingers through his long hair. “I am going to see her. Either you move, or I will have to move you. Then your husband will probably kick my ass, but that’s a chance I am willing to take.” He motioned to the door again and was more than astonished when she didn’t budge.
She pressed her back against the door, and when he reached for the handle to force it open, she blurted, “Wait.” She looked up at him and saw deep annoyance settle in his blue eyes. “If you remain firm on the need to see her, then there are a few things you need to know Jaylon.” She attempted to keep her tone steady but knew she failed horribly. “Please, after I explain, you can go to her. But you need to sit down for this.” She watched him shake his head, figuring it was a ruse. “Please Jaylon.”
Exasperation flashed across his handsome features, but he willingly walked to the couch and sat down. His posture remained rigid, leaning up with his arms resting on his knees.
She could tell by his contemptuous stare; this wasn’t going to be easy in any way. So, she started to speak, telling Aniela’s story the best she could. A couple of times her voice wavered causing her to pause in an attempt to regain her composure. In all, it took over thirty minutes to explain in detail the probable horrors Aniela had gone through at her captor’s hands. By the time she was finished, Jaylon’s sturdy frame appeared bent over and his head was cradled in his hands. He didn’t challenge her words or ask any questions, not because he didn’t have any, but more because he didn’t think he could find his voice to speak.
When she rose, he stood with her and drew her into his arms. “I am sorry Jessie,” he whispered against her hair.
She closed her eyes, hugging him back. “Please don’t hurt her Jaylon,” she whispered, wiping her eyes. “I truly don’t believe she could handle it.”
He released her, then hesitantly walk to the door, he left without saying a word.
Jaylon stepped into the sunroom and had to pause when he saw Aniela sleeping peacefully in an armchair. He lifted his hand to rub his chin, and he sought to reign in his emotions that were now making it difficult to breathe. Taking a few long deep breaths, he composed himself and inched forward to settle before her.
His eyes roamed over her and even with Jessie’s warning, Aniela’s appearance startled him to the essence of his core. But to him, she still prevailed to be the most stunning woman he had ever seen. He knelt to his knees in front of her and reached up to grasp her hand that lay on her thigh.
His eyes wandered over the pink raised scars exposed on her wrist, and he dropped his head. His jaw tensed, provoking him to sigh deeply in an attempt to compose his inner turmoil and growing anger.
Lifting his head, he drew her hand to his lips; stroking her skin with his thumb. “Aniela,” he whispered. She sighed, but she didn’t open her eyes. “Aniela,” he said again pressing her hand to his cheek. “Aniela, wake up.”
Her eyes creased open, and she gave him a vacant stare, but she didn’t move or even draw a breath.
He was stunned by her non-reaction to him. “Aniela,” he said, kissing her hand again, imploring for a response. He knew the very second her hooded eyes realized it was him.
She slowly lifted her hand to touch his face. “I am dreaming aren’t I?” she whispered with a half-smile.
“No, you are not dreaming,” he said, maintaining to keep his voice steady. He closed his eyes, and he settled his head onto her lap, battling to fight off his tears of both anguish and contentment.
Hesitantly, she set her hand on him and started stroking his hair. Tears pooled in her eyes until one slid down her cheek. “I have dreamt of you for so long, it’s hard for me to determine what’s real and what’s an illusion,” she whispered with melancholy. “I am still half afraid I am about to wake up from this dream, and you will disappear like so many times before.”
He lifted his head and moved to wrap his arms around her. “I can assure you, madame; I am very real.” He pulled her tighter into his arms.
Tentatively Aniela’s arms extended around his body, and she closed her eyes breathing in the essence of him. If this was a dream, she never wished to wake up again. The touch of his hands drifting up and down her back generated a sob to flow from her lips.
Jaylon rose to his feet pulling her with him. “Sshhh,” he soothed, murmuring against her hair. He looked up just as he spied Jessie lingering down the hall, observing him. He could see the anguish in her eyes. “You are safe now Aniela,” he said, allowing his hands to stroke her back.
Pulling from his arms, she stepped away from him, then her eyes followed his gaze, catching a glimpse of Jessie as she left the hallway. Humiliation started to take hold of her, and she looked down at her feet, wiping her eyes. “H-Have you already talked to Jessie and Lucian?” she asked as her chest became uncomfortable and tight with each breath.
Confusion dotted his brow when he reached for her and she backed away. “Of course I have talked to them,” he explained, with his eyes drawn together. “How do you think I found out you were home? Lucian came to see me yesterday, and I rode back with him.”
Shaking her head, she felt an oppressive heat rise to her face. “That’s not what I meant.”
“Aniela,” Jessie interrupted from behind her.
Aniela spun around to face her. “You told him,” she cried, not trying to conceal her accusatory tone. “Why... why would you do that?”
Jessie’s face fell, she could feel her sister's anxiety hit her like a physical blow. “I had to tell him,” she pleaded, taking a few strides towards her.
A chill ran up Aniela arm’s as she took a step backward and looked at Jaylon. “So you are here out of pity,” she charged, her voice so low it was barely audible.
“No!” Jaylon blurted. “I swear. When Lucian came to inform me you were home, he didn’t mention anything else. I didn’t know until Jessie told me about an hour ago.”
Again she glanced at Jessie with hurt and condemning eyes. “Why did you feel the need to tell him?” She folded her arms around herself and her abdomen tightened with knots.
Jaylon looked between the two of them and watched Jessie stumble for words. “Because of me!” he exclaimed, stepping forward. “I was so angry at you Aniela, for leaving me the way you did.”
“So, she told you because of your resentment towards me?” Aniela asked with a shaken voice.
He shook his head. “No,” he, declared, frustrated. “You’re twisting my words.”
Aniela spun on her heels to leave, but Jaylon grabbed her arm, halting her. “Please Aniela,” he implored, seeking to make her understand.
Blank eyes glanced down at his hand on her arm. “Let go of me Jaylon.”
“Not until you listen to me, Aniela,” he challenged, his eyes drew together. “I came here for you, not because of empathy or pity.”
She raised her eyes giving him a vacant stare. “Are you finished?” She didn’t wait for him to answer before she yanked her arm free and rushed from the room.
He moved to go after her, but Jessie stopped him. “Let her go Jaylon.”
He reeled around and shoved his hands in the air in frustration. “What just happened?”
“You need to give her time,” Jessie said, observing him begin to pace around the room. “This is why I warned you; she has been through so much. I know you care about her...”
He interrupted his pacing to stare at her incredulously. “Care about her?” he blurted. “I am in love with her. I have always loved her.”
“What is all the yelling about?” Roseanne asked as she stepped into the room, rubbing the lasting sleep from her eyes. Jaylon turned around and a pleasant smile formed on her lips. “Jaylon, when did you get here?” She moved to him and pressed a kiss to his cheek.
“I arrived last night with Lucian.”
Roseanne’s scanned their faces. “Did you see Aniela yet?”
Jaylon walked away in frustration, choosing not to answer.
“Yes,” Jessie said, as she watched Jaylon commence to pacing. “That’s what all the yelling was about.”
“Oh dear,” Roseanne said, halting her steps and turning to face them. “What happened? Is Aniela okay?”
“My God!” Jaylon suddenly blurted. He rushed to the window and braced his hands on the glass. He prayed his eyes were playing tricks on him. “Where does she think she is going?”
Both Roseanne and Jessie scrambled to the window to see what he was talking about.
Jaylon pounded on the glass, yelling Aniela’s name. She turned and glanced at them, but carried on her way dismissing their shouts. They watched as she hoisted her cumbersome skirts and proceeded to stumble through the deep snow out to the stables.
The morning skies rolled with dark and ominous gray clouds spewing a squall of snow so dense it blinded your vision. Today was not a proper day to partake in a casual ride, even for the most astute horsemen. A mutual panic seeped through all of them.
“You have to stop her Jaylon,” Jessie cried, frantically pounding on the window trying to get Aniela’s attention.
But he had already left the room and was scrambling to find his jacket. “Are there trails she would know to follow?” Jaylon yelled, hastening with his boots.
Jessie shook her head. “I don’t know,” she said, disconcerted. She glanced at Roseanne for assistance.
“There are a few trails, but I don’t think they are visible with this amount of snow covering the ground,” Roseanne gasped, concern outlining her eyes. She shuffled around the room behind Jaylon, giving him instructions as he dressed to leave. “Don’t wander very far away from the trees and there are some steep ravines along the trails. You need to pay heed to them, or it can be dire for both rider and the steed.”
Pulling on his gloves, he lifted his hood and bolted through the sunroom to the kitchen; then he made his way out the rear door.
Jessie and Roseanne remained at the window watching him until he disappeared into the stables. Time stood still for them until they saw him leave on his horse, following Aniela’s already dwindling trail.
Jaylon’s horse advanced through the deep snow for over an hour before Aniela’s tracks became almost undetectable. For a brief second, he wondered if maybe she had doubled back on him, but he recognized it was improbable. She had to pass him to return to the house. Or go entirely off-trail.
He couldn’t see her putting herself in such danger. But then again, he never imagined her riding out into this snowstorm either.
As he trekked on, the snow came down heavier, pelting his face and inciting him to lower his head with only his hood to shield his eyes. With every step forward, he became more soaked, and his horse began to display signs of distress from laboring the deep snow.
He contemplated on going back.
Turning his horse around, he halted to cock his head. Closing his eyes, he listened more intently to his surroundings. The wind ripped through his jacket and he opened his eyes to peer up at the trees as they disposed of the overload of snow weighing down their branches.
As the storm whistled all around him; he swore he could pick up the muffled sound of a horse running. Pivoting in his saddle, he scanned the trees but could see nothing out of the ordinary or identify any form of movement. The sound seemed to swell and grow louder. Then suddenly he captured a glimpse of something on the trail about fifty yards away. His eyes strained, seeking to determine what it was and the longer he watched it; he recognized it was a horse galloping straight for him. He breathed a sigh of relief and praised the heavens that Aniela had come to her senses,
Squaring his shoulders, he waited for her steed to greet him on the trail. He braced himself to seize hold of the reins, but as the horse drew closer, to his horror, it carried no rider.
Seizing hold of the reins, he leaped onto the frantic horse halting its frenzied retreat. Its mouth frothed, and a lather formed on its coat from the labored run. Jumping to the ground, he checked the saddle for a loose buckle or ties but detected no visible defects.
He glanced back up the trail again squinting and shielding his eyes from the snow. Apprehension settled over him. He realized that she most likely had either been thrown or fell from her mount and could be down in one of the steep ravines in real trouble.
Jaylon swatted her horses behind, knowing it would find its way back home. He swung back up onto his steed and headed up the trail following its fresh tracks.
It almost felt daunting until the tracks suddenly ceased. He turned again in his saddle confused and searching every direction.
She couldn’t have vanished into thin air.
Leaping from his mount, he walked around the last obvious marks her horse left on the trail, and he was dumbfounded by the absence of any human tracks. Then he spotted what looked like a fresh skid or drag marks across the snow. He commenced walking along the ravine, searching down into the gully for any further signs of disturbed snow.
When he spotted a glimpse of her maroon riding jacket, his heart froze in his chest. He skidded down the ravine and when he finally reached her, she laid motionless face down at the threshold of an iced covered stream.
In her struggle, she had broken through the ice and her lower torso had submerged in the icy water. By the disturbance on the surrounding snow, she had used all her strength trying to pull herself out.
“Aniela,” he choked, turning her over. Her lips were already blue, and her skin felt frozen to the touch. He hoisted her in his arms, and he struggled to haul her back up the ravine in the deep snow. A couple of times he lost his grip on her wet clothing and fell to his knee’s almost dropping her.
Once at his horse, he draped her over the saddle, then pulled himself up behind her. He boosted her to lean on his chest, and he folded his arms around her. “Aniela,” he shouted, as his hands frantically rubbed up and down her arms trying to get the circulation to flow into her limbs. He recognized if he didn’t get her warmed up she had little time and he couldn’t let her die. He refused too. Looking back towards the trail, it would take him over an hour to get her home.
The thought of their helplessness caused him to curse under his breath until he recalled the small hunting cabin he passed along the trail during his search. It was at that moment he realized he had to take her there. He turned his horse and headed back down the path, back-tracking his trail.
When they finally reached the cabin, Jaylon noticed it was smaller than he expected but nonetheless sturdy. It had a mortared chimney protruding from its roof, which meant he could start a fire and get her warm. He prayed it held dry wood inside.
He slid from his horse then reached up and gathered her into his arms. Snow was heaped upon the door, and he pushed it aside with his feet, then booted the door open.
The wind blew snow inside as he entered, and he turned booting the door shut. A stone fireplace blanketed the whole side of the one-room cabin, while the opposite wall held shelves stocked with dried fruits and meats. There appeared to be a sufficient amount for someone to sustain themselves for at least a month. He studied the various sized furs and blankets piled high in one corner; then kicked them to the ground allowing them to scatter across the floor. He gently laid Aniela down on top of them and covered her up with what remained.
Pushing back up to his feet, he blew on his cold hands and rubbed them together, attempting to get the heat back into at least part of his extremities. He inspected the room, then glanced back at her unmoving form. He moved to the ample amount of wood stacked along the wall and lifted as much as he could hold, carrying it to the fireplace.
It wasn’t long before he had a fire going at full force, and the warmth it generated was already giving relief to his numb hands. He rose from his hunches and turned towards the pile of furs and moved a bundle back to lay them in front of the fireplace. Once a makeshift bed was established, he went and lifted Aniela in his arms, laying her down gently on top of them closer to the heat.
Her lips remained a gray-bluish hue, and he bowed down laying his head on her chest. Her breast rose and fell with steady shallow breaths; prompting him to lean back closing his eyes in silent prayer. Without hesitation, he started to release the buttons on her jacket, recognizing he needed to remove her wet clothes for her body to absorb the much-needed heat the fire would produce.
It didn’t take long for him to find out removing clothes from a limp and unresponsive body was no easy task. After he was done, he quickly removed his own clothing and dispersed them all about the cabin to dry. He walked back to where she laid and lifted the mound of furs to slide in beside her with all intention to use his body heat to help warm her up.
Rubbing her arms vigorously, he called out her name, “Aniela, wake up.” He knew how lethargic the brain becomes with lengthy exposure to frigid cold. “Aniela, I need you to open your eyes.” She groaned and grimaced, prompting him to check her for injuries. He sat up and ran a path down her body with his hands; probing for bumps or openings in her skin.
Laying back down, he pulled her to his body until her back rested against his chest. Within a half-hour, he noted the healthy pink color slowly coming back to her cheeks and lips; and he now perceived she would end up being okay. He listened to her calm, steady breathing, and it drew him into a relaxed hypnotic state. It wasn’t long until he succumbed to a dreamless sleep.
Aniela opened her eyes blinking back her confusion for where she was and how she had gotten here. She allowed her eyes to travel down the muscular arm settled around her waist ending only at Jaylon’s well-manicured hand. She immediately recognized his gold ruby ring on the small finger of his left hand.
Her and Jaylon’s argument came surging back, and she surmised he must have followed her along the trail, but she couldn’t bring her mind to recall what had transpired. Or how they both ended up here in one of her father’s small hunting cabins.
Apprehension causes her to tug on her lower lip, and a shiver coursed down her body from the fur blanket tickling across her bare skin. But she would be lying to herself if she thought the fur was the only reason her body had a sudden pulsating quiver. She closed her eyes as Jaylon’s warm breath flowed over the sensitive skin on her neck and shoulders.
Please God, give me strength.
She opened her eyes and stared at the glowing embers in the fireplace, following the smoke as it danced its way up into complete nothingness. For a moment, she wished that she could be like the smoke. Disappearing never to be seen again.
Her tormented mind is what ultimately compelled her drift away from his protective embrace. She gently lifted his arm from her waist; then gradually rolled clear of him and rose to her feet. She stepped to the woodpile and carried a few pieces back to the starving and dwindling fire. As she tossed the log onto the remaining embers, her eyes followed the red glowing sparks as they danced their way up the chimney.
Turning her head, she peered at Jaylon to see if her actions stirred him. His steady breathing suggested that he remained asleep. To her chagrin, the fur draped on his shoulders had drifted off, and his chest was now exposed for her eyes appraisal. His arm rested under his head while the other dangled where she had lifted it to set it on his slender waist. She followed the rhythmic rise and fall of his chest. With each of his hypnotic breaths, she had a sudden remembrance of that day on the Ocean Monarch. She wanted him so deeply that day, and they almost made love, but he stopped. He wanted everything to be perfect between them. So he curbed his desire because he aspired to marry her.
But that was then, and this is now.
She closed her eyes struggling to release the memory, and a surging heat rose to her face. Sighing, she sat down between him and the fire; then turned and glanced at him once more. To her dismay his eyes were open. She lifted her knees and peered back towards the flames praying for strength.
“Aniela,” he whispered, reaching his hand out towards her.
She lifted her chin towards the ceiling for a moment; then she turned her gaze back to him. She looked down at his outstretched hand and her gaze wandered up his arm until it resolved on his smoldering blue eyes. He was silently begging her to place her hand in his. She knew that as certainly as she knew to draw her next breath. As if having a mind of its own, her hand moved and settled on his; allowing their fingers to become entwined. She wasn’t surprised when he lifted her palm to his lips. The feelings it stirred was more than she could handle and prompted her to try pulling away, but he held her firm.
She had an abrupt awareness that she only wore her thin shift, and he was nude from at least from the waistline up. “Y-You shouldn’t have followed me, Jaylon,” she whispered.
He mulled over her words for a moment. “I know what you are thinking, and I vow that I didn’t come to you out of pity,” he declared, choosing to ignore her statement. “I came because even after all these years my affections haven’t...”
“I don’t want you here,” she blurted, pulling her hand from his and shifting to stare at the fire. “You should go.”
He sat up suddenly. “I should go,” he said dismayed. “Are you serious? If I hadn’t come after you, your family would certainly be searching for a corpse. Do you understand that?”
She turned her head and blankly stared at him. “Maybe that would have been best for everyone involved. Then there would be no further suffering for anyone. Not even me.”
“You can’t mean that Aniela,” he rebuffed, unable to comprehend her words. “Nothing is so bad that you can’t overcome it. I refuse to accept that you would rather be dead.”
“Well, believe it,” she whispered, allowing a tear to drift down her cheek. “I have endured enough pain in this life, and I can’t take anymore.”
He pushed up to his knees and settled himself behind her. Her shift slipped down one shoulder, surrendering it bare for his roaming eyes. He lowered his head and placed a soft kiss on her skin, but she flinched away from his touch. So he stared at her back with a feeling of helplessness and his hands fell to his side.
And that’s when he caught the outline of a thin pink scar showing just above the material on her back. He reached up and gently pushed the material away, allowing his eyes to catch the complete impact of what she had been through. His mouth went dry, and a hand moved up to rub the back of his neck. “Who did this to you Aniela?” he whispered, his voice threaded with torment and disbelief at what his eyes beheld. “I demand to know his name...”
She reeled around to face him. “What does it matter?” she cried. “What’s done, is done. There is no turning back.” She could see the benevolence in his eyes, and she couldn’t bear it. So she turned back to face the fire. “Like I said Jaylon, you can go. Please send Lucian back to retrieve me.”
His hands fell to his sides, and his eyes narrowed. “Even if I could leave right now, I am not leaving you here alone.”
She shook her head and a deep laugh spilled from her lips. “I don’t want you here.”
He moved up again to his knee’s behind her and hesitantly placed his hands on her shoulders. Just as he expected she moved away from him and they faced each other with challenging stares. “We are snowed in here Aniela,” he asserted. “Neither of us is going anywhere right now.”
As if just regarding the one-room cottage, her eyes examined her surroundings. “I am not staying here with you,” she announced, pushing up to her feet. “If you want to remain...then you stay, but I am leaving, and I’m taking your horse.” She walked over to her scattered damp clothes and began picking them up.
He rose up halting her. “You aren’t leaving Aniela,” he warned, moving to snatch the clothes from her hands.
She jerked the clothes from his reach. “You can’t stop me,” she opposed.
He gripped her arm and roughly hauled her to him. “I can stop you,” he declared. “And I will. Don’t be irrational in thinking you are indeed going back out there in this storm. We are stuck together in this cottage until at least tomorrow. So take this foolish notion out of your head Aniela because you aren’t going anywhere.”
She jerked her arm free from his grasp and hurled her wet clothes to the floor. She watched him step away from her, shaking his head. He walked towards the stockpile of wood along the wall and carried an armload to the fire. While his back was to her, she glanced at the door. If she fled right now, his horse was only a few feet away. She sensed she could make it. Walking lightly, she stooped down and picked up her coat. It was yet damp, but it was better than nothing, and her boots rested by the door.
Jaylon was staring at the flames when he heard the door bang shut. He glanced around the room with the realization Aniela was gone. Running to the door, he jerked it open and saw her attempting to dash for his horse, but thankfully the deep snow slowed her down. Not bothering to put on his jacket or boots, he took off after her and reached her just as she was about to set her foot in a stirrup. He seized her arm and spun her around. “Are you daft woman?” he yelled.
She shoved on his chest, expecting to knock him off balance. But all it achieved was for her to stumble and fall onto her backside in the deep snow. “I am leaving Jaylon, with or without your support.”
He ignored her statement and bent to hoist her in his arms.
She struggled against him. “Let go of me.”
Dodging her flailing arms, he scowled when her fist connected with his cheek. “You know I should let you freeze to death out here.” He tightened his grip, arresting her struggles.
Back inside, he stomped to the mountain of furs and set her down hard on top of them. “You will not attempt that again,” he charged between clenched teeth. “Is that clear?” he waited for her to acknowledge her compliance, but her only response was to turn away from him and stare at the wall.
Her audacity angered him. “Take off your wet coat,” he ordered, as he walked to the fireplace to recover the warmth he lost. When she turned her back to him again, it induced his blood to flow hot. He went to her and sank to his knees behind her. He reached for her jacket and moved to retched it from her frame.
She recoiled from his touch. She spun around to face him and what he saw in her eyes caused him to pause.
It was unbridled fear.
He watched her as she attempted to scoot away from him and clench her coat tighter to her torso with trembling hands. He dropped his head and shame caused his face to burn, disturbed by his actions. “I’m...I’m sorry Aniela,” he whispered. “You know I would never harm you. You need to take off your wet coat, or you will lose body heat. Please. In these conditions, you can’t afford to lose any more heat. Please.”
Her eyes pooled as they raked over him and her teeth chattered. She realized he was right. “I’m sorry too,” she finally whispered between trembling lips. “You were right. I should never have tried to leave. I should have listened to you.” She eased her grip on her collar, but was shaking so bad; she didn’t have the power to remove it from her body.
He went to assist her. “May I?” he asked, calmly reaching for her coat. When she nodded her head, he gently pressed her hands down and worked to remove her jacket until it slipped from her shivering body.
“Thank...thank you,” she stammered with chattering teeth. She watched him throw her coat across the room, then reach behind her and drag one of the heavy furs up onto her shoulders.
Jaylon didn’t care if she resisted, he pulled her into his arms. Trying to rub and massage heat back into her. Then to his surprise, she laid her head on his chest and bound her arms around his torso.
Exhaustion overwhelmed her, and uncontrolled sobs began to torment her already stressed body. “I’m sorry,” she hiccuped. “I’m sorry...I’m sorry.” Echoing the words until the blackness took hold.