“You could...” I swallowed, trying to force down the rising heat in my cheeks. “You could kiss me. That’s always a start.”

But he laughed at me instead. “I want to...kiss you. So bad it’s actually causing pain in my chest. But I just don’t wanna get it all wrong.”

“Mike?” I pulled his face toward me and closed my eyes tight. He smelled so fresh and sexy—a vibrant, musky cologne. I just wanted to press my face into his neck and breathe him in. “What can a kiss hurt?”

“Everything. I’ll go too far. I won’t be able to stop. My knees are shaking, baby—” He laughed and looked down. “I’ve wanted this for too long. It’s taking everything in me right now not to throw you on the bed and tear off your clothes.” He chuckled, but stopped, a frown blending with his smile. “I probably shouldn’t have said that.”

“Mike. Just shut up and kiss me.”

He looked down into my lap, his shoulders sinking.

“What’s wrong?” I made him look at me.

“And, I…” He scrunched my shorts up in his fist. “I'm afraid I might want more of you than I should take.”

The breath he was obviously holding burst out of him. “Oh, baby. Don't say things like that to a guy who’s trying not to seduce you.”

“You just asked me to marry you—that goes beyond seduction.”

“No.” He shook his head, moving out from between my legs to sit beside me. “That’s even more of a reason I should be careful with you, Ara. You’re so young and so full of life. I know you want this, baby. I know you’ll ask me to…you know…” He nodded toward me, hinting the obvious.

“So, you’re seventeen, girl. Wait a few years, at least until we’re married.”

“Oh, God.” I rolled my face into my hand. “Not you too.”

“Did David put you up to this?”

“Virgin?” My neck jutted forward with incredulity. “Yes, Mike. Oh my God. I can't believe you asked that. And I already told you, at the airport, that I hadn’t…you know.”

“I'm sorry, baby, I didn't believe you.” He shrugged, hands out, looking ultimately innocent and sweet.

By the time my infuriation simmered and I looked over at him, he was shaking his head, smiling down at his lap.

“I…I always wanted to be your first.”

His glittering grin infected my scowl, making me smile. “Well, you could…you know, you could do it now.”

He shook his head, sliding closer, taking my hand. “No way. You are the only girl left on this planet that still has her innocence. There is no way I'm taking that from you until we have officially tied the knot. We’re gonna do this the right way, Ara.”

“And I'm—” I bounced my feet a few times, feeling the heat rise within me. “I'm…I want it, Mike.”

“Oh, baby, I know, but it’d be your first time. Why not just wait, just a bit. Wait ‘til we’re back home, in a place we both feel comfortable, so I can take my time with you—” His imagination spilled ideas across his face, “—enjoy the first time we get to be naked together; touch you slowly, kiss you in places I only ever dreamed of.”

I took a quivering breath and moved his hand closer to the apex of my thighs, keeping my fingers twined in his so it seemed like an innocent gesture. He caught on though, and pulled our hands back toward my knees.

“You’re really going to hold firm to this, aren't you?” I said.

He nodded. “It’s not easy. But, you’ll thank me one day, baby.”

“Always the upstanding citizen, never the bad boy.”

“I’ve done the bad boy thing, Ara, with a lot of girls,” he said; we both laughed. “I never respected or loved any one of them, okay? But I love you, and out of respect for you, and for your father, I am not going to have your innocence when you're seventeen, before we get married, in your dad’s house, while he’s at work, earning money to care for you. Okay, so, stop breathing like that and stop moving closer.” He grinned.

I bit my teeth together and pulled my hand from his so I could fold my arms.

Mike just laughed at me. “Don't be such a baby. It’s not the end of the world.”

“It’s not the end of the world if we make love, either. It’s not like you’re going to eat me alive.” Like my last boyfriend.

“You mean like the last guy who put his mouth on you?” Mike laughed; I looked up at him quickly, then touched my hand to the aged bruising on my neck again.

“No, it’s not.” But he kept laughing anyway.

“Now?” He touched my face and turned it toward him. “Now, I'm going to kiss you.”

Inch by inch, his face moved closer to mine, his hot breath sweeping my chin. I swallowed and moistened my lips with my tongue—not daring to breathe, hoping my peanut butter breakfast wasn’t still on my breath. And the smile I gave when Mike tilted his head made him laugh just as our lips touched. Finally touched.

He was so warm, so solid, so real.

His stubble scratched against my chin, while the air from his nose brushed over my upper lip, but it was perfect—gentle, loving—not wet or sloppy, like Emily described Spencer’s kiss.

He closed his lips around my tender pout, held there for just a second, then pulled slowly away, keeping his eyes closed for a second.

We looked at each other and both broke into a smile.

My body refused to move—even as he took my rigid hand and ran his thumb over my ring.

“Yeah.” I reached for my locket, dropping my hand when I realised it wasn’t there. “I guess…I guess it just sunk in, you know? I’ve kind of been waiting for that kiss since before…” We both knew what came after ‘before’.

He cupped my face, his sympathetic gaze easing my soul. “It’s all okay now, Ara. We’re gonna be fine. We’ll go home, we’ll get married, and everything will be okay again.”

“I—” I looked at my ring. “Marrying you I'm sure about, but…I don't know if I'm ready to leave Dad, you know. He’s—”

“He’s your dad.” Mike nodded. “I get it. We don't have to think about that part yet, okay? We’ll figure all that out later.”

“Okay,” he said, then kissed my forehead. “Hey, I gotta go tell my dad. He’s gonna be so happy I finally asked you.”

“Okay.” I smiled, sweeping the lingering tear from my eye as Mike leaped off the bed and headed for the door.

“Baby?” He barely got a step away before turning back and kneeling down in front of me again, taking my hand. “You. Have made me. The happiest man alive.”

I looked up from our hands and into his smile.

“I was sure I’d come here to say goodbye,” he said. “I—I was ready to leave with a broken heart, but instead, I’ll be bringing yours home with me.”

I smiled, even though one part of that story was wrong. I didn't want to go back to Perth—I wanted to stay here, in New England, where David may one day return.

As Mike stood up again and walked away, I twisted the ring around on my finger. It was so delicate that if I knocked it the wrong way I was sure it’d break. I was happy though.

“Dad says it’s about time.” Mike popped his head around the corner, phone in hand.

“Yes, Dad. I did.” He turned away again. “No. Well, I need to be home next week, but we haven’t told Ara’s dad yet.”

My smile dropped when Mike disappeared down the hall—leaving me alone with my thoughts.

What would my dad say? He’d probably make me wait until I turned eighteen—or twenty-one. I knew what my mum would’ve said. She’d be happy. Even though I was young. She would’ve been able to see that I loved him; she would’ve taken me shopping for a dress, and....

I let that thought slip away with the agony it brought.

What would David say? After all, he wanted this—he gave me away. He must’ve known, when he told Mike to have me, that this would happen.

I wondered where he was. If he was far away—if he was working in New York, or maybe flying silver planes over pyramids along the Nile. My heart allowed a small smile, thinking of the song he was referring to when he said that. I knew he intended that phrase as a sort of statement. And that made me sad to be wearing an engagement ring to another man.

But the next thought was a warm one—a happy one, because Mike’s voice, deep and husky, travelled down the hall and into my ears. I could lay all day and listen to him talking—especially knowing he’d come back in here after to see me, because I was his world.

I looked down at my left hand and traced my fingertip over the ruby. It really was such a pretty ring, and I couldn’t help but to smile at the odd significance of the single red rose.

A pale blue light filtered between a crack in my curtains, casting shadows of raindrops across my carpet, while memories of David paraded in my mind.

The celebration dinner Vicki made for Mike and I tonight kept me distracted until I was tired. But all it did to be distracted was make me realise, even deeper, how hard it was going to get to find things every day that made time pass until I grew old and died.

“I dream about you, you know?” I whispered, imagining David sitting beside me on the bed. “When I close my eyes, I see your face. Will it ever stop hurting?”

The apparition shook his head and reached out to touch me, then, like a cloud of steam brushed away by a hand, he vanished. Only a streak of yellow light remained in his place, filtering in from the hallway. I looked up and smiled at Mike, who leaned against the wall with two steaming mugs in his hands. “You awake?” he whispered.

The clock beside me said midnight. “I am now,” I lied.

“No. Wait. I’m awake. Please, come in.” My feather quilt ruffled as I sat up.

He closed the door with his foot and walked through the darkness to my bedside. The cups clinked together on the nightstand, and as my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I noticed his look of concern.

“You were quiet tonight—at dinner,” he said. “Is something bothering you?”

“What makes you think there’s something bothering me? Maybe I’m just tired.”

“Ara, come on. Don’t play games with me. I’m the one person in the world you can say anything to—without consequence.” He placed the warm mug in my hand, securing my fingers around it before letting go. “Don’t try to lie to me.”

I sighed and looked down at the creamy layer of warmed milk, forming a white coating of froth in the mug. “I was in love with him, Mike.”

“David?” He nodded after a deep breath, sitting down. “I know. And I know you probably always will be. I do understand that, Ara.”

“Because it’s…I mean, how can you want to be with me—knowing I’ll always have another man in my heart?”

He paused, and thought changed his expression. “Ara, I love you—everything about you—past, present, future. He was obviously a big part of your life the last few months and, you know, he kept you safe while I wasn’t here,” he said simply. “So, if you always have a place for him in your heart, baby, that’s something I can live with.”

My eyes filled with liquid. I smiled down at my hot chocolate, then took a sip through my teeth.

“You don’t know how happy I am to see this on you.” Mike unfolded my ring hand from the cup, pressing his thumb firmly to the stone. “I dug it out so many times, practiced my speech, then put it away again.”

“How long have you had it?”

“I, uh—I designed it when I was seventeen—” He scratched the back of his head. “Ara, I’ve been in love with you for forever. I was just too stupid to do anything about it. So, finally, about a year ago, I took the design to a jeweller and had it made.”

He sighed a few times, opening his mouth to speak then stopping, until finally, he quietly said, “Your mum said the same thing.”

“No.” He smiled. “I mean, yes, Vicki knew about the ring—”