“Honey.” Dad pulled over in the pick-up zone and placed his hand on mine. “I’m sure you’ll be fine. You may have been apart for a while, but Mike’s been there the whole time. I’ve been talking to him every couple of days—giving him updates on you.”

“Dad?” I groaned. “Really? I mean, I knew you were talking, but—updates? Come on—”

“I don’t know how you thought telling me that would make things better.” I folded my arms and looked out the window.

“Because I don’t want you to feel like he abandoned you by not pushing you to talk to him. He’s just been giving you some space.”

I unfolded my arms and looked beyond the glass entrance of the terminal to the people flooding the airport, gathering around the baggage collection for flight 728. Mike’s flight. “He’s here.” I unlatched my seatbelt, ignoring the intoxicating surge of adrenaline seeping into my arms and chest, making my heart pick up about ten paces. I wished I could see him—just make him out among the crowd so I could sneak up on him—see how different he looked before he saw me.

“Go on.” Dad grinned, watching me edge in my seat.

“I’ll be back soon,” I beamed as I sprung from the car.

People gathered their bags from the conveyer belt and hugged their families. I pushed against the tightly packed bodies, using my elbows to almost swim through the crowd, my gaze shifting side to side.

“You lost, sweetie?” a man asked when I studied his face carefully under his sandy-blonde hair.

I shook my head and hurried past him, stopping dead when I saw a guy on his phone by the Coke machine; sandy-coloured hair, broad shoulders. I squinted, jutting my neck forward as I took baby steps in his direction—seeing only flashes as the crowd of people stole my view several times.

Then, certainty flooded through me when he threw his bag over his shoulder and flipped his phone in the air before stuffing it in his back pocket.

That was him!

I stopped walking; he was so much taller than I remembered, and bigger, too. His blue shirt fit tightly around the softballs in his arms, but there was still that something in the way he held himself—a sort of tall stance with a kind of confidence that came from being an officer of authority. He looked good. Good enough that I felt my cheeks flush as the perfect word to describe him entered my head...sexy.

“Ara?” He spun around suddenly, eyes lighting up.

I couldn’t move. I’d imagined this moment so many times in my mind; how I’d run into his arms and he’d lift me off the ground and kiss me—like he loved me.

However, that was always only a dream, and I left that behind—found another reason to exist. But, as I looked upon my old crush for the first time in so long, my new reason to exist seemed to fade for that one moment, and whether it was by habit or longing, I wasn’t sure, but for that moment, I still wanted Mike just as bad as before.

“Ara? Baby?” He ushered me to him. “What ya waitin’ for, girl, come here.”

With no mind for the family walking in my path, I darted forward, forcing them to part as I launched toward Mike, barely giving him a chance to drop his bag before I jumped into his arms. We stumbled back a few steps with the force of my eager embrace—a physical reaction my steady-legged vampire could never have, unless he was pretending to be human. And I loved how human Mike was right then.

“Whoa, baby. That’s happiness to see me.” His widespread fingers pressed firmly against the back of my ribs.

I squeezed his neck, wrapping my legs around his hips—probably showing my undies to every dirty old man who cared to look. He just felt so good to hold; a little piece of the past, with a warmth that could only be human—as if he’d carried some of the Perth sun all the way to the U.S. with him.

I rested my cheek in his neck and let myself cry like a little girl. “I missed you so much.”

Mike’s arms became a band of restriction, stopping air from coming into my lungs. “I missed you too, kid.”

When he went to lower me, I held on tighter. “Not yet. Just...not yet.”

“It’s okay, Ara. Let go. I’m not going anywhere.” He unwound my arms from his neck and placed me on the ground. I pulled my dress down to cover my legs. “Let me get a look at you.” He shook his head, smiling. “You’ve gotten thinner. Are you eating?”

“You sound like my mum.” I clutched the edges of my dress in fists of nerves. “And, yes, I do eat.”

“What’s this?” He reached for my locket.

“Oh, um. A friend gave it to me.” I took it from his hand and dropped it back into place.

“You belong to me?” His brow folded over one eye.

“Ah, yeah. It’s um, a good friend?” I offered, but from the way his lips meshed tightly and his eyes narrowed, I knew he didn’t like it.

“Maybe?” The corner of my mouth turned up involuntarily.

He just blinked a few times, then drew a deep breath through his nose and placed his arm around my shoulder. “Should I be worried?”

“Mike? You’ve been here for a whole two seconds. Don’t start.”

“I don’t like it, Ara. It sounds—possessive.”

“Jealous, huh?” His face lit up and his eyes warmed with so much familiarity that all the pain of the separation over these last few months melted away. He grabbed my hand. “So what if I am? You’ve always been my best friend. Then, out of nowhere, you meet some random guy, fall in love with him, and he brands you with his mark. Now, all of a sudden, you belong to him?”

Brands me? A quick breath came cold into my lungs as I reached for the yellowing bruises on my neck—the ones from the indiscretion under the stage. But when Mike’s eyes narrowed as he looked at my hand, I tensed from toes to shoulders, realising that wasn’t the mark he was referring to.

He grabbed my wrist and pulled it away from my neck, gasping loudly when he saw what was hiding beneath my carefully styled, bruise-covering hair. “Who did this to you? Was it him?”

I shrank into myself, looking around. “Mike, stop it. Please. People are staring.”

“I don’t care. Look at you. What kind of a guy would do this to a young girl?”

“Oh, really. Then what’s the story, Ara?”

“Look, he wasn’t trying to hurt me, okay? Just stop worrying about me all the time.”

Mike grabbed my chin and studied the marks on both sides of my neck. “Stop worrying, huh? Well, it certainly looks like I should be concerned. Have you seen this? Have you looked at yourself? Jesus, girl.” He released my face gently. “What the hell?”

“It was an accident. I—I bit him,” I said bashfully. “We were just playing around. I let him do it to me, and he—well, we got a little carried away.”

Mike’s arms dropped to his sides and disappointment filled his watery eyes. “Did you sleep with him?”

“Ara. I’m sorry.” He looked around the busy terminal, rubbing at the frown on his face. “Just. Why would you let him do this to you? How do you think I feel to come here after missing you for so long, so worried because I can’t be here to protect you, and I find this—” He held his hand out, presenting the bruise. “God, Ara. You should have more respect for yourself.”

“I know.” My face crumpled and fell into my hands. “I already feel bad enough about it.” About wanting him to do it. “I don’t need you making it worse.”

He clicked his tongue, then wrapped both arms around my shoulders, muffling my sobs against his chest. I hated the fact that our dramatic reunion in the middle of the airport was on display to hundreds of people—all watching. “I’m not mad at you, Ar.” He rubbed my back. “Okay? I’m not mad at you. I’m just—” He sighed and pulled back, wiping the tears from my cheeks with both thumbs. “I’m mad at myself. I never should’ve let your dad take you away. I should’ve come after you—or kept you with me.” He sounded utterly defeated.

I shook my head. “He’d never’ve let me stay, Mike.”

“He would’ve let you stay with me.”

I shook my head again. I was glad I came here; glad I met David—even though I was going to lose him. “He didn’t hurt me, Mike. David? He didn’t hurt me. I wanted him to do it. I liked it.”

“Ara? You’re just a girl. You shouldn’t be playing games like that with boys. He should’ve known better,” Mike said in a singing tone. “Look, I’m sorry. I just lost it, is all. I just never expected to see you with bruises.”

“I know. I said I was sorry.”

“You don’t need to be sorry, Ar. I do get it, okay? I really do. And I’ll let it go. Just, please don’t let him do it to you again. Promise?”

I nodded, secretly crossing my fingers behind my back. I wondered then, if explaining to Mike that David’s actually a vampire might ease his disdain for the whole biting situation—since it could’ve been worse.

When Mike laughed, I half expected he’d read my thought, but he simply shook his head and said, “It’s really damn good to see you, girl.”

Mike reached across and pinched me. “Feels pretty real to me.”

“Grow up,” he said with a grin.

“Shall we go home?” he asked.

“Yeah.” My arms dropped back down to my sides. “Sounds good.”

Mike bent and grabbed his suitcase, then shouldered his backpack swiftly, wrapped his arm around my neck, and we wandered slowly out to the parking bay where I left Dad.

“Mr Thompson. Good to see you again.” Mike shook Dad’s hand firmly.

“Yes, yes, it’s good to have you here.” Dad cupped his other hand over Mike’s in the ‘double’ handshake. “We’ve been hearing a lot about you these past few months.”

“Yes.” Dad grinned. “I started to wonder if you were my daughter’s only friend.”

“Ha!” Mike looked at me with that cheeky, cocky grin. “I am.”

“Are not.” I punched him in the arm.

He leaned away, rubbing off my pathetic effort at violence.

When we pulled into the driveway at home, Mike turned in his seat and smiled at me. “You never told me how beautiful this place is, Ara.”

“It’s all right, I guess.” I shrugged, not meeting his eyes.

Each tree had turned a different colour with the near-autumn air, and as the leaves fell from the branches one by one, they gathered in piles or floated down the curve of the road, leaving a wash of yellows and reds and oranges all over Maple Terrace. But my fairy-tale timeline meant that for every leaf that fell away, so too did the days I had left with David.

Sure, it was pretty, but all that beauty was slowly and surely delivering me to heartbreak.

“Ara would prefer it if they were Gum Trees, I think,” Dad said and hopped out of the car, laughing to himself.

“What’s up, Ara?” Mike asked. “You sulked the whole way home.”

“Nothing. I’m fine.” I climbed out, too, slamming the car door behind me.

I was sure Mike groaned to himself, but he arrived at the trunk with a smile on his face. “I’ll take that.”

“Boy, that’s heavy.” Dad nearly dropped Mike’s bag as he passed it to him. “I must be getting old.”

“Nah. You’re not old, Mr Thompson. I’m just bloody strong,” Mike said. “I’d have to be to keep up with this one.” He ruffled my hair.

“Hey, get off.” I patted it back into place.

“Please, call me Greg, Mike—you’re like one of the family. And who knows—” Dad winked at me, “—with the way my daughter talks about you, maybe one day you will be.”

“Daaa-aad.” I buried my face in my hand.

Mike chuckled. “Not likely, sir, unless you have another daughter I don’t know about.”

“I have a son,” he suggested then frowned.

“Hm. Yeah, not really on that side of the fence,” Mike said.

“Well, I guess we’ll just have to adopt you, then.” Dad patted Mike on the back as they headed inside, leaving me, shouldering a rise of hurt, to trail behind them.

“When did he become the favourite?” I muttered under my breath.

The warm smell of bacon and toast wafted into the entranceway, with the sweet aroma of sugared coffee lingering in a pleasant layer over the top. I stepped in and closed the door, smiling at Sam as he ran upstairs carrying—or dragging—Mike’s suitcase.

“Sure you don’t want me to take that, Sam?” Mike said.

“Now, now, you just let the boy worry about that,” Dad said, leading Mike into the dining area. “I think I smell breakfast.”

I rolled my eyes and pushed past him and Dad to sit at the table and watch them all play ‘happy families’. Mike was such a suck-up. He knew exactly how to get into oldies’ good books and he was holding no bars back. It was also one of the things I really loved about him.