“One does not have to deserve the misfortune they suffer.” His anger landed in my face in dots of saliva. “You were to die by torture for his crimes, but now you will endure it more slowly for your own mouthy impudence, you stupid, stupid girl.”

“Ara-Rose!” Voices echoed off the shallow valley. Jason’s grip on my hair eased until he untangled his fingers gently from the loose remains and removed his hand.

I looked up at him, my scalp burning like the rage rising within me. “Go ahead. Do what you want. It will never change the fact that Rochelle’s dead—and all it will achieve is your own pain when David takes revenge on you.”

Jason just sat beside me on the ground. “Actually, my dear, the laws of our kind prevent he should seek retribution for the death of a human.” He grinned, seemingly pleased with himself. “The unlawful changing of one to a vampire, yes—but not death.”

“I have the right to mutilate my kill in any way I see fit—as long as I eat you. The law will not side with David this time. There is nothing he can do, and he will have an eternity to reflect on the horrific way in which I hurt you. Oh, Ara—” He rolled his head back. “It will kill him inside; the images I will savour for him shall be etched into the iris of his minds-eye for all time.”

“Life is not fair. But you refuse to believe that, don’t you?”

I shook my head, the anger becoming a physical form of hatred inside me. “I won’t let you destroy my faith in—”

“I don’t need to destroy it,” he yelled. “I will destroy you instead, then David’s hope, his faith in life, in love, will be lost forever.”

“No. You will let me go. I will not be the victim in your family feuds,” I said with an unsteady cry, trying to sound strong.

“You know—” he stopped and listened as the hunters came closer, “—you only make this more of a game for me—to see how long I have to hurt you until your faith breaks.”

“And all that will do is prolong my life, because I will never lose faith. Love will prevail. David will come for me, and I will go home and live my life, and you—” I spat the words out, “—will suffer for eternity without Rochelle.”

He reached sideways and knocked his forearm across my chest; I yelped out an odd sounding whimper as I fell to the ground with my hands across my ribs, unable to find my breath for a second. “Keep up this haughty attitude, and I will see to it that death is not the worst you suffer.”

I snickered miserably to myself, pressing my hands to the ground, stretching my arms to lift myself up. “What could be worse than death?”

“Many things,” he scoffed. “How ‘bout if I ensure your replacement lover finds his precious baby girl in such disgrace that he will suffer the nightmares of your naked, mutilated body, for the next fifty years?”

“Please! No!” I jumped to my knees and grabbed his sleeve. “Kill me, do what you want, but don’t let Mike see—I’m begging you.”

“Begging?” he asked, cold amusement oozing through his voice. “I gave you the chance to beg, but you were too proud. Now I will give you no such fortune. Curious though—” He rubbed his chin. “You care not for what I show your true love, but for Mike—you wish him to be free of this detest. Why?”

“He’s good, Jason.” Hysteria turned my words to hiccups. “He doesn’t deserve this. It has nothing to do with him. Please just don’t hurt him like this.”

“Shh, hush now, sweet little girl. It will all be okay—for you. You will be dead in a few hours, and all of this—the cold, the dark, the fear of what his last vision of you will be—will all be over.” Jason softened then and stroked my face, so gently. “How’s this sound? Now that I know how much Mike means to you, perhaps I will make sure that he finds you revoltingly displayed.”

As his laughter filled the silence, images flashed in my mind of so many horrible possibilities. I shook my head, trying to find words in the back of my closing throat. I didn’t want Mike to see. I didn’t want his last memory of me to be something horrible.

“Let me paint the picture for you.” He knelt beside me, tracing his finger slowly from my chin to my collarbones as he spoke. “I could tear a line down the centre of your body and peel you apart, leave your legs spread, intact, so that when he finds your adulterated corpse, his heart will give out, and he will fall to the ground beside you—and die.”

I crossed my hands over my chest and focused on the brown and green stains discolouring my ball gown, blocking out the roar of his hilarity. Mike would break. He would die if Jason did that to me. Already, my mere death would destroy him more than anything in this world ever could.

I had to escape—I couldn’t let him do this to Mike.

“Now, who says I'm merciless?” He continued to laugh, relishing in self-amusement, while I gauged the distance between his hands, sitting loosely over his parted knees, leaving open the one place no man was immune to pain. Then, with every ounce of force I could muster from my weakened body, I lifted my foot and slammed it down into Jason’s groin.

A balk of anguish rang out into the night. The vampire folded in, clutching his weak spot, and as I spun onto my hands and knees and jumped to my feet, his fingers wrapped my ankle. I screamed, kicking them off, but jerked away too fast, losing the grip on gravity. A wicked jolt sent me down to kiss the grass a few feet away from him, and as the blow wore off, I pushed up on my hands, spitting lawn clippings from my mouth.

“Get. Back. Here,” Jason grumbled, so strained with agony I knew there was still time.

I got back up, stumbling onto my fingertips for a second before finding my feet—and ran. Just ran, ignoring the sear of pain in my nail as I hoisted my skirt above my knees, fighting for each step I took. I wanted to look back. Wanted to see if he got up—see if he was behind me. But I’d watched enough movies to know that would be my final mistake. So I ran—my legs hot, shaky with adrenaline, making them move faster than I knew possible but not fast enough; I pictured the face of anger on the vampire behind me, feeling the crawl of my skin as I imagined him rising to his knees, watching me run—giving me a moment to believe I’d escaped.

Hope filled my chest as I reached the border of the trees, my feet slipping for a second on the skinny dregs of pine needles, and searched the darkness for a shadow—a figure, a person that might have wandered away from the hunting party. And the beat of my heart thumped so ferociously I could hardly breathe, but I took a gulp of the icy night air, shaping it to scream, “Hel—”

My body shot backward, like a lasso had snagged my neck. The iron grip of the vampire cut any hope of rescue, muffling my scream; only a whimper escaped, lost to the empty silence of the dark night. No one would hear it. I was too late.

I dropped to my knees, trying to loosen his hold around my throat.

“You cannot outrun a vampire. It is pointless to even try.”

A series of consonants rolled from the back of my tongue, trapped by his stranglehold, my nose and cheeks pulsating with blood—like they were about to pop open.

“I want to kill you, right here, right now,” he said through his teeth, his voice quivering. “But I will not show you such mercy.”

Nearby, the hunters finally came so close that I could hear their private chatters and the instructions being called out to each one from the voice of my fiancé. If they’d only been there two seconds ago they might have heard me.

Jason squeezed my throat tighter as I wormed my fingers under his.

“Do you think I care? If I had any compassion for your adversity before, you just destroyed it,” he said, his grip easing. “Your blood will no longer be enough to satiate my thirst for revenge.”

He moved quickly, folding my chest across his arm while the other hand tore the back of my dress open, leaving my skin bare to the prickly grass beneath it as he threw me down onto my back.

“No!” I coughed the air from my lungs, nudging my elbows into his chest, but he separated my hands in his tenuous grip and forced them onto either side of my head.

“I wasn't going to do this to you, Ara, but I need him to see you suffer, and this is the only way.”

“Keep begging, human—” He slipped my dress quickly down my waist, jolting my hips upward as he tore it past my legs and tossed it away. “It turns me on.”

I wedged my knees tightly together. “This is rape, Jason. This is worse than murder.”

“I thought you said death was the worst one could suffer,” he said cynically, winning the battle to compress me into stillness.

I shook my head, panting heavily beneath his weight, my teeth so tightly knitted I felt a chip come loose and fall under my tongue. I never even contemplated this. I never even imagined he would be capable.

I searched the grounds for a distraction, digging deep for the training Mike gave me—for the times he laid on me just like this and wouldn’t back down until I broke free. But it was gone—all of it. I couldn’t sidestep the paralysis of fear enough to think straight.

But I wasn’t about to let him have me, either.

I kicked my heels into the ground, rocking my whole body from side to side.

“Stop struggling.” Jason jammed the full force of his elbow onto my shoulder. I cried out, my upper body locked into submission. “Shut up or they will hear you.”

“I don’t care,” I cried. “I don’t want you to do this to me.”

“I know.” His palm forced me into silence; only a weak sign of terror survived in the back of my throat. “But I promise, if you lie still, I will only hurt you enough to make you cry. After all—” He pushed his knees into my thighs, forcing my legs up and open, “You are a virgin. There are bound to be a few…rips.”

My soul drew away inside me; Oh, please, no. Please don't. I closed my eyes—tried to escape to someplace else in my mind.

“I’m going to enjoy this.” He repositioned himself, then froze, looking up as a yellow beam of torchlight flashed across my face for a single second. “Shit.”

My heart skipped. I looked up just as Jason looked down at me. Please don’t kill him, Jason. Please don’t. Oh God. I wished he’d just taken me far away. I couldn’t die knowing Mike would too.

“If he finds us, he has to die. All of them do.” Jason released me.

“Please. Please, don’t kill them! Do what you want with me, but, please just let them live?” I begged, staring into his softening eyes.

His brow pulled tightly together. He gently took my wrist, tugging it to roll my shoulders off the ground and cradled my face close to his chest. “Shh. Okay, just hold tight.”

Before I had a chance to react, he flung like a rocket into the trees outlining the field. My stomach dropped into my hips; I wrapped my fingers firmly around his jacket, letting go once we landed on the long, scratchy limb of the tallest tree—what seemed like miles off the ground.

“You just remember this when I come to lie between your legs again.”

I shivered all over, everything south of my hips going tight. The air up here was cooler, thinner, making the cloud in my head fizzle away a little. My heart was so confused by the combination of terrors that, if I was afraid of being this high up—of looking out across the city and the steep valley of trees beyond the gardens, feeling as though I could land on the ground miles from this spot if I fell—I didn’t notice it, even though my only beams of safety right now were the splintery shelf of branch, only as wide as my hips, and the secure grip of the predator’s fingers around my arm.

Jason watched the men scour the scene below, then looked back at me. “You know, I’m in the mood for a little game.”

He turned and smiled at me. “You’re funny when you’re frightened.”

“It’s a common emotional reaction,” I said, kind of embarrassed by it.

Jason just laughed through his nose, his eyes filling with fondness before he looked back down at Mike, standing a few hundred feet away—talking on his phone. “If I were a human attacker, he’d have found you by now.”

“Let’s have some fun with him, shall we?” he said in an unsettlingly smooth tone, then reached behind my back. “And since you won’t be needing this.”

My hands shot up to cover my chest as my bra came loose, leaving a cool feeling around my ribs.

“Just think of the things he’ll imagine when he finds it.” Jason laughed, and we both watched as, like a ribbon on the breeze, blue lace floated to the earth below—a part of me finally to touch the hands of the man I loved once more.

Jason smiled down at my crossed arms—the kind of smile David would use. “Are you cold?”

I hadn’t felt it before, but while the hope of rescue faded, a chill had seeped in. I nodded softly.

“Here.” He lifted me into his lap and wrapped my body around him; my legs on either side of his hips; my chest against the silky fabric of his suit. Perfect position to scratch his eyes out. “Be nice, Ara, and you shall live longer.”