I sighed, linking arms with her as we left the cafe. “Hey, Em? About your dress? We only have five shopping days left—are you sure you didn’t like any of them?”

She grimaced. “No. None of them really felt right. I don’t know, maybe I’ll just go in jeans.”

“Yeah, it might be a bit tricky for Spence to co-ordinate his tux with denim.”

“Well, it’s no big deal, really. If I don’t find a dress—I just won’t go.”

“I…” I frowned. “I guess you don’t.” I hadn’t really thought of that. I was so caught up in our only options being to either find her a dress or have her go in something old and tatty, I never even considered the idea that there were other choices to be made.

Which made me realise…I had options, too—just like everyone else.

Maybe I’d been going about this whole immortal-love-or-eternal-sadness thing all wrong. I’d been feeling trapped by the choice between two paths—David or Mike—but it was the confines of my own mind narrowing those choices.

I walked a little taller as we reached the parking lot, thankful that Emily was distant and distracted herself, allowing me to escape to my own thoughts.

Fate had stepped in and offered me an alternative to eternal blood. But maybe I didn't have to choose either of them; maybe I could choose to be on my own—to go in a different direction altogether and forget love.

Since Mum died, I’d spent so long blaming myself and living with guilt and anguish that I’d forgotten I was a girl of my own rights, and that there was such a thing as choosing how to feel.

Like when Dorothy made it home from Oz, she learned that she was never really gone in the first place—that all the fear and loneliness she felt in that world was in her own mind.

I have control over my own life, and I get to choose what it is that breaks me...

Power of choice lasted about as long as it took me to sit in the nook of my window, diary in lap, and look out at the empty night. Emily was heartbroken about David tonight, and I wondered why he hadn’t at least said goodbye to her. She was right. She never did anything to hurt him. He shouldn’t have left her without a goodbye. And her sadness magnified my own, making my sudden epiphany to be independent null and void. Who was I kidding to think I could just get over David and Mike by choosing to be happy on my own?’

I chewed my pen for a second, then rubbed my ankle, warming the icy chill that whistled in under the slightly open pane. Down in the street, with the moonlight hidden behind a dense cloud, cars and trees looked shadowed and intimidating. It seemed eerily still out there, but the familiar feeling of being watched trickled past my reflection, making me hold my breath a little. I wished it were true—that I was being watched. By David. Except, a part of me was deathly afraid it may be something else—or no one at all. I wasn’t sure which was worse.

‘I never even leave my window open, anymore’, I continued, ‘I don’t want the fresh air, and I’m also a little afraid David’s creepy brother might visit me in my sleep again.

That freaks me out beyond words.’

A loud crack outside startled me, and a bright flash turned my legs white for a second.

I froze, unable to inch the window closed so the menacing storm wouldn’t notice me here. It grew in the sky above me, rolling in over the tops of the trees, carrying every fear, every tear I ever cried, surrounding me, cornering me in this tiny little space, only half covered by glass.

Then, in a second attempt to demonstrate its power, the thunder ricocheted off the distant horizon with a sharp snap, receding to a dense growl. And I believed it, submitting to the taut being it demanded I become. I thought it had passed—my fear of storms. I’d tried so hard, for so long, to grow up and get over it, and only a few weeks ago I thought I’d succeeded, but it seemed that every time something broke in my heart or my life, so crumbled that pillar of strength I thought I’d built.

I looked across my room to my door, knowing Mike would be out there—awake, waiting for me. But he wouldn’t always be there to comfort me through these thundery spells, unless I went with him to Perth.

If I stayed, I’d have to learn to wait out the storms, alone—find a way to live while they raged on.

I leaned my back against the wall and let thought consume my expression for a moment.

The call of the storm howled outside, but inside, my heart battled with my mind, stirring the force of a hurricane, waking my vault of indecision again, opening the overly-traversed door of Mike versus David.

When the next crack of thunder hit, though, I decided then and there that none of it mattered right now. Safety. Warmth. Hiding from that storm was all that mattered. That was all.

I ditched my diary and ran, a something’s-going-to-grab-my-ankle kind of fear moving my feet. But my heart jumped a beat of relief when I looked across the dark, empty corridor to see Mike’s door open. I leaped toward his bed—without touching his floor, and fell into him.

“Hey. There you are.” He wrapped his arm around me as I snuggled up as close as physically possible to his bare chest. “I was wondering how long it’d take you to come in here.” His voice sounded so light. I could tell he was laughing at me. But I didn’t care; I just needed to feel his arms around me—needed to feel him.

“Shh, don’t be sorry, baby. I was actually hoping you’d come in.”

“Why do you think I left my door open?”

I smiled, listening to each beat of his heart come as reliably as the next, letting my shoulders drop as Mike stroked my head, easing away the knot in my stomach. “Thanks, Mike.”

And I knew that was the truth, more than an automated statement. Just like every moment in the past, Mike had and would always be there to comfort me through the storm. “Hey, Mike?”

“Do you remember the year I told my mum I was too old to be afraid of storms?”

“Yeah.” He laughed. “I’m not sure if she actually believed you or just wanted to believe you.”

I snuggled my face into his skin. “I think she knew the truth.”

“Yet you always freaked out when I tapped on your window during a storm,” he mused.

“Of course I did. How scary do you think it is to completely believe The Bogeyman comes out to get you in the thunder, and then see a face outside your window?”

He laughed loudly. “But you knew it’d just be me.”

“Yeah. After a while, anyway.” I closed my eyes and let myself remember laying with him—in his arms, safe and happy all those nights. “Mike?” I whispered.

He laughed and kissed the top of my head. “I know, baby. I know you’re scared.”

“Ara, baby, we’ll talk in the morning. It’s after midnight—go to sleep.”

I swallowed my courage and stuffed the words I love you back down where I’d stored them all these years, then closed my eyes and let Mike’s heartbeat take me away to the peace and silence of dreamland.

A songbird announced the arrival of morning, waking my mind from the best sleep it’d found in ages. I inched one eye open, blinded by the glare of sunlight streaming in—its soft, yellow glow making me smile because, finally, the rain had passed.

If I could sleep like that every night, I’d make it my occupation to go to bed. But the bed moved under me, rising softly before warm, moist lips touched my brow.

I pushed up onto my hands and knees. “Mike!”

“Yeah.” I rubbed my face, checking to see if his door was shut. It was. “I did, actually.”

I blinked a few extra times to focus properly on the way the morning seemed to make his skin look like honey and his eyes as warm as hot cocoa. He was very beautiful in the morning. “Um, yeah. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to fall asleep in your bed.”

He laughed, shaking his head, then just looked at me for a few seconds. “And I’m sorry it doesn’t storm like that every night.”

My cheeks lifted first, forcing my lips to follow.

“Come here.” He placed a hand on my shoulder and tugged.

My muscles were so stiff that I slumped down heavily on his bare chest, and every inch of skin that wasn’t covered by my tank top touched his, making me shiver inside—a good shiver. “Why did you keep me last night, Mike?”

“Are you kidding?” His arms tightened around me for a second. “You snuggled up so close to me, Ara, with your face and your soft breath over my chest. Why on earth would I put you back in your room?”

“So you keep telling me, but yet...” He motioned down at my hand over his heart.

“What time is it?” I asked, moving my hand onto his stomach.

“Um—” He stretched his arm out around my back and looked at his watch, forcing me closer. I liked this closeness. “Midday.”

“Wait a sec.” He grabbed my arm as I leaped for the side of the bed. “You stay. I’ll get breakfast. Well, brunch now, I suppose.” He grinned, and his unshaven, sandy-brown stubble did nothing to hide the sexy indent in his cheek—not even a little bit.

As he gently pushed me back onto the pillows, everything from my heart down went numb. His soft, partially open lips came toward me so slowly that I closed my eyes and held my breath, waiting for them to touch mine. But, he kissed my forehead and walked out the door, leaving me breathless.

I rubbed at my face, as if maybe I could chafe off some of my awkwardness. I wasn’t sure I’d ever get this boy thing right. I don’t know, maybe I’d just waited too long to have him kiss me and now I was plotting scenes in my mind that were completely opposite to what was going on the real world. For all I knew, he hadn’t even woken up beside me this morning. I could be in my own bed right now and not even know it.

Spreading the covers out neatly over my ribs, I drew a deep breath of the morning, smelling the warm scent of toast beneath it. Mike would come back up soon. I needed to compose myself.

I cupped my hand and blew into it, nodding with approval when my breath came back scentless, then knotted my fingers through my hair in a desperate attempt to tidy my probably very haggard appearance. Okay, so that wasn’t composure. But I’d been crazy over Mike for so long. I wanted him to come back up those stairs and look at me like I was the only girl in the world, then take me in his arms and kiss me—on the lips. Not the forehead.

“What ya thinkin’ ‘bout?” Mike asked, leaning against the door with a tray in hand.

“I hope so. From the look on your face, you like whatever you were thinking about.”

“Maybe I do; maybe I don’t.” I tried not to grin.

He rested the tray on the foot of the bed and his homely smile set my heart racing like—like I was the only girl in the world.

“Where are you, right now?” he said softly.

I came back to my own head, smiling sheepishly. “Sorry. Did I faze out again?”

Mike wiped his hand across his mouth, then laughed once; a short, breathy laugh. “Okay, well, that’s a good sign, right?”

“But…” He patted my leg through the covers. “You don’t think straight when you’re hungry. So, I'm not gonna read into that too deeply.”

“God, I hope not,” he said in a breath, sitting down beside me.

I bit my lip. He knew too well what I’d been thinking—he didn't need to be like David to be in my head, which was as comforting as it was…awkward.

“Here.” He passed me a plate and I swapped my lip for toast; the peanut butter swirled around on my tongue with the jelly at the prefect consistency; it didn’t even stick to the roof of my mouth.

“Mmm. You’ve always been the best at making toast.”

“Must be the chef in me,” he joked.

“So, if the chef in you makes good toast, what can the cop in you do?” Oh, that was suggestive, Ara.

“I could arrest you? For dangerously good looks.”

I choked on the toast for a second, nearly losing it out my nose. “That’s the worst joke I’ve heard in ages.”

“Right? I forgot about that,” I mused. “No one here gets it. They think you’re just trying to be funny and not succeeding.”

“Don’t worry. I get ya.” His teeth showed with his gentle smile.

“Pardon the bad joke again, but...” He leaned forward and stroked my cheek in a melodramatic fashion. “You’ve always been my queen.”

The rumble in the back of my throat couldn’t decide if it was laughter or a giant scoff. “Yeah, that was a pretty terrible joke.”