“I heard you talking in your sleep,” he said sheepishly.

“Really?” Was there no privacy in this world?

“Okay. I’m just gonna throw it out there and you can do with it what you want.” He turned his body to face me then took both of my hands. “I am in love with you, Ara-Rose. You were never wrong about that. You never misread anything, okay? I love you.” He squeezed my hands on each of his end words. “I’m a complete moron, and I’m so bloody sorry for that. But I loved you before your mum died, so I’m pretty damn sure it’s not guilt, baby.”

“I...” His words soaked through me. “I can’t respond yet, Mike. I need to think.”

“I know.” He nodded. “So, for now, I’ve arranged with your dad for you to have a few days off school—give you some time to clear your head.” He winked at me and smiled, but it faded quickly, leaving the serious Mike behind again. “Your dad loves you, you know. He was worried about you last night.”

“What did you tell him—about why I was crying?”

“You what!” I jolted forward, nearly sending the breakfast tray flying. “Mike, how could you?”

“Ara.” He pulled my hand away from my mouth. “I know you didn’t want him to know what happened the night your mum died, but he’s your dad and he loves you—no matter what.”

I shook my head. “Not now that he knows she died because of me, I—”

“Ara. Don’t say that.” He grabbed my arms firmly and pulled me in for a short hug. “I’m the loser that turned you down. I’m the one to blame. Not you.”

“No, Mike.” I gently shook my head and closed my eyes, calling on the strength I’d come to know since meeting David, trying to believe my next words. “It was no one’s fault. It just happened and, I guess—” I opened my eyes to Mike’s smile, “—I guess it’s natural to look for someone to blame, but neither of us intended that to happen. We should both stop blaming ourselves.”

He tucked a strand of hair behind my ear. “Your dad was heartbroken when I told him you were carrying the blame. He hadn’t even guessed it, you know. He’s been so worried about you, and when I told him you felt responsible for what happened to your mum, he was actually relived that that’s all it was. He doesn’t hate you, baby, he can’t hate you. He loves you too much. That’s why he let you have a few days off—to be with me.”

“He’s an excellent judge of character.” Mike grinned; I smiled back. I couldn’t resist it. He just had this presence about him that excluded everyone from his inner circle of love, but when he smiled like that, it meant you belonged.

“I can’t believe you told him about us. I yelled at him, you know—when he accused me of loving you.”

“Is that such a bad accusation?” Mike asked, a little insulted.

“Ouch.” He laughed, then leaned over my body with his face right up close to mine. “So? What do you want to do today?”

“Honestly?” I unfolded my arms. “I think I’d like to just sit around and watch movies.”

“I thought you’d say that. But, I get to hold the popcorn.”

“No way! You always do.”

“I’ll fight you for it.” He tickled my ribs.

“Stop it!” I giggled, wriggling about, trying to pull his hand away without knocking the tray.

“Stopping.” He raised his hands above his head and sat back.

Vicki heaped another pile of butter-scented potatoes onto Mike’s plate. “So, what did you kids get up to today?”

“Watched movies,” I said with my mouth full.

“Anything good?” Dad asked, sprinkling salt on his dinner; Vicki just sighed at him as she sat down in the soft light of our candlelit dinner.

“Couple of oldies. Ara made me watch some black-and-white with a curly-haired kid in it,” Mike said.

“I used to love Shirley,” Vicki said dreamily. “I grew up watching those movies.”

Sam slid down in his seat. “You grew up watching the invention of the light bulb.”

“Why the long face, Sam?” Mike asked, passing the peas to Vicki when she motioned for them.

“I got a B on my English paper…”

Big deal. At least you didn’t inadvertently tell your boyfriend you’re in love with another man.

“Dad expects a B-plus-A-minus average,” I said and smiled at Dad.

“It’s not that I expect that, Ara-Rose,” Dad said, “I just know you’re both capable of it. If you aren’t achieving those results, it means you’re not applying yourselves.”

“But it isn’t my fault!” Sam dumped his elbow on the table. “Mr Benson hates me, he’s always in my face about stuff I—”

“Samuel. Teachers do not degrade papers based on their opinions of students,” Dad cut in. “You need to start accepting responsibility for yourself.” When he glared at the tabled elbow, Sam quietly removed it. “You got a B because you prioritised video games over homework.”

“Video games have more value to me than English homework, Dad. How will knowing what a verb is or deciphering Shakespeare get me a job out in the ‘real world’?”

“What do you want to do?” Mike asked, cutting off Dad’s large mouthful of Sam-serving air.

“Video game design,” Sam said into his chest.

Sam looked up. “Really? You think that’s cool?”

Mike looked at Dad; Dad sighed and separated himself from the conversation by pouring gravy. “Yeah. That’s a great business to get into—especially now with all the developments in graphics and, not to mention, you can actually make more money in the gaming industry than the film industry.”

“Dad doesn’t agree.” Sam’s eyes dropped their hopeful glimmer. “He says I need to be serious. That designing games isn’t gonna get me a stable income.”

Mike just laughed. “It won’t—if you don’t have a good education. How many companies do you think will hire a kid who can’t even commit to homework?”

“Because it’s not just about what you learn at school. It’s also about proving you have the ability to put your head down and do the work, especially if you care nothing for it. If you can’t do that, Sam, you don’t have the right to a job you love doing, and I can tell you—” Mike scoffed, “—even in a job you love, there’ll be moments you hate.”

Sam became smaller in his chair.

“Point is, mate, you work hard through the crap so you can enjoy the other eighty percent that’s good. Not to mention, if you want to design games, you will need English—and math.” Mike winked at me. “Creativity, passion, and some mad computer skills won’t be enough if you want a stable income. You need that piece of paper they call a degree. That’s all there is to it. So, in that way, your dad’s right. But—” he held a finger up while he shovelled a spoonful of potato in and swallowed, “—if you just do all the hard work while you have nothing else to worry about except being a kid, when you grow up and you want the job stability you care nothing for now, you won’t have to fight for it—it’ll be yours.”

Sam’s eyes changed, narrowed with thought, then he stood up and dumped his napkin on his beef and gravy.

“Sam, where are you going?” Vicki asked.

“I just realised I didn’t do my essay,” he called from the stairway before we all heard his bedroom door close.

Dad grinned and patted Mike on the shoulder.

Then, the conversation went on without me, while I pushed the food around on my plate. I just wanted to go upstairs and wait for David to come. Despite enjoying watching movies with Mike, I found myself checking the length of the shadows outside his window for most of the day—just waiting for night to fall.

“Maybe you should get an early night.” He pushed my fringe off my face.

Vicki held back a smile, watching us, then quickly looked at Dad.

“You do look a little tired,” Mike added after a lengthy silence.

I stared into his face with narrowed eyes. I wasn’t really tired at all. I just said that so I could excuse myself early to be with David. “Well, I feel tired,” I said, wondering if “you look tired” was guy-speak for “you look hideously haggard. Go see a beautician.”

“Well, why don’t you head up now and take a shower?” He nodded toward the archway. “Doesn’t look like you’re getting any closer to consuming your dinner by transforming it into a plate.”

I looked down at my canvas of mash and gravy. “Can’t yet. Gotta do the dishes first.”

“Ara—” Mike’s brows lifted, sarcasm hovering in his tone. “I’ll do the dishes for you. Just go get some rest.”

I shook my head. “No way. You’re a guest. Guests don’t do dishes, right, Dad?”

Dad looked at Mike, then shrugged. “I don’t see why not—if he’s offering.”

“Dad! You never side with me!”

“I’m sorry, Ara, but Mike’s not really a guest, is he?”

My mouth hung open, allowing only a breathy scoff to show my disapproval.

“Besides, Ar, you always made me do the dishes at your old house,” Mike added with a cheeky grin.

“Ara?” Mike scratched his eyelid and sighed. “Go to bed.”

“Make me.” I folded my arms; he merely glared at me with one brow arched and a look of intent behind his half smile. “Argh, fine!” I stood up, slapping my napkin on the placemat. “You’re all traitors.”

As I reached the stairs, Mike’s laugh echoed out in response to some comment of Dad’s—probably about my mood swings.

Stuff it. As if I cared. They could have their little laugh—maybe they’d annoy me just enough to make me accept the offer to run away from all of them forever.

My room greeted me with the crisp scent of fresh linen under a diluted waft of coconut soap and strawberry shampoo. “David? You in here?” My gaze subconsciously flicked to the window; closed.

Maybe it was too early.

I took a shower, changed into some pyjamas and curled up in bed with a book. But I couldn’t focus. That dream I had last night—the ruby slippers, the bouquet, the look of acceptance on David’s face as he backed away—kept playing in my thoughts. And a gooey filling of dread burned a giant hole in my heart with its acid.

What if he wasn’t coming back? What if he took me literally—what if he thought I agreed with Fate’s decision?

The book landed on its side between my bed and the wall as I jumped up and, with rather quick steps, walked to the window and threw open the curtains.

No. No way. He promised he’d never leave without saying goodbye. He was just late, that was all.

In one sweep, I sent my orderly homework into a spread of disarray over my laundry-rug, then climbed over the wood top and tucked myself into a ball against the cold glass of the window.

Pale blue light filtered in from the world outside and lit the edges of my desk and bed, casting soft shadows across my floor. The streetlight below seemed to sing loneliness down onto the vacant sidewalk, and clouds hijacked the stars from the sky. There was nothing out there that resembled life tonight, and strangely, though my heart was beating, there was nothing here that much resembled it either.

With a long, dejected sigh, I lowered my head onto my knees and closed my eyes.

A loud chime set my heart ablaze with a start; I looked up from my knees, instantly regretting having moved my stiff neck. I rubbed the top of my spine and looked around my room, then down into the street below, counting the chimes I heard in my head.

One, tw—There were only two. There should’ve been more than that. I came to bed at seven. It couldn’t be two in the morning.

My window was still shut fast into place, no sign of any vampire having entered, and as I rubbed the tingle of pins away from my toes, realisation sunk right into my heart. It really was two in the morning. David never came. He just left me here to fall asleep in the windowsill—by myself, cold and alone.

I buried my head in my arms, holding back the tears. What did I do to him? Why didn’t he come back to see me?