“Stop trying to kill me and I’ll be nice,” I said.

“Right now,” he whispered into my cheek, making my skin crawl with the gentle caress of his fingers down my spine, “I am not trying to kill you.”

“No, but you shouldn’t hold me this way. I don’t belong to you.”

“But you want to belong to me.” His words came out with a smile.

“You’re just confusing my mind. It’s not real.”

“It’s as real as you want it to be.”

I went to speak, but the truth swallowed my retort. I did want him. I wanted him to touch me. I wanted him to move his lips from their gentle caress over my shoulder, to the purlieu of my mouth, and kiss me. I had no control over my hand; I felt myself slowly move it, as if by instinct, and cup the side of his neck, my breath falling heavily against his jaw with soft little kisses. And even when I felt him grow between my legs, not one part of me wanted to move away. I saw what my brain craved, saw myself reaching down to unzip him—slip him inside me, and dared not move in case I obeyed that desire.

“Mmm,” he hummed, running his hands down my thighs. “You’re getting hotter. This will make a nice memory to show my brother—the way you hold me as if I were him.”

“In my mind, it is him,” I whispered.

“And yet—” he grabbed my wrists and yanked me away from his chest, “—when you scream for mercy, it will be my name on your lips.”

I pulled my elbows in to cover myself. “And in that, you will become everything you despise about him.”

“I am nothing like him.”

“An eye for an eye says otherwise.”

Like a flash going off in my face, my mind blanked for a second, waking to a branch against my spine, my fingers clutching it tightly to stop from falling to depths of the empty space behind me. And as the shock of his slap wore down to the pain, I wanted so badly to cry out to the hunters below—to David. To yell out and beg him to save me. I couldn’t understand why he never came. Surely, my dad called him—told him what happened.

“I’m sorry.” Jason gently laid my arm across my bare chest. “It is horrible that he made you believe you meant something to him.”

I looked up, livid with spite. “I meant everything to him.”

“And, yet, you refer to yourself in the past tense. So, you understand then, that vampires move on?”

“I—” I wiped my cheek on my shoulder, trying to blot away the last of his slap. “I don’t know.”

Below, the voices of the hunters became louder over the savage barking of dogs, headed quickly in our direction.

I turned my head to see a shadowed figure drop to its knees at the base of the tree, his anguished, incomprehensible sobs rising up audibly, like I was standing beside him. In his open palms, the lacy fabric laid, spilling the taunting tale—a truth I knew he’d feared this whole time. “Oh, baby. What has he done to you?”

“Mike!” Emily ran up behind him, barely able to catch her breath. “What did you fi—” but her words stopped short as her steps slowed, and a crowd gathered around them, dogs tugging at their master’s leads, eager to catch the scent in Mike’s hands.

“I’ll take that, Mike,” a man said, scooping up the lacy delicate, passing it to a man in uniform.

I looked away, my limbs running hot with shame. All I could control in my world were my own tears, so I held them back—holding my breath as if that might keep them at bay. “You’re a monster, Jason.”

“Let’s see if you can’t come up with a new name for me once I finish with you. Now...” He pressed a flat palm to my chest and slowly pushed me backward. “Shall we continue?”

The scratch of bark on each bone in my spine meant nothing to me. I held onto the branch with both hands, letting tears trickle down my temples and over my ears as I watched my Zorro walk away—stumbling through his own, deep agony. Emily wrapped her arm around him, and as each person finally melted into the shadows, the emptiness their silence left behind took the last promise of survival. I closed my eyes, whispering goodbye.

“Are you done feeling sorry for yourself now?” Jason asked, looking down at me with a smug grin.

“Perhaps not.” He pried my hand away from the branch and held it up, leaning closer. “Do me a favour. Don’t scream.”

Would there be any point?

“No.” He moved in with his mouth open then stopped. “Do you always answer a question with a question?”

“Only when I’m being murdered and have no other means of defence.”

The vampire smiled warmly. “Don’t worry. This isn’t the murder part yet.”

“Oh, good. I can relax then.” I pulled tightly against him as he drew my wrist toward his mouth, the point of his fangs showing in his smile, reminding me of the story David told about the effects of venom on the human condition.

The scar David left on my other hand tingled, and as the cold touch of Jason’s lips mopped my flesh, I shut my eyes tight, digging my nails into the branch, waiting for the sear of his razor teeth. They popped through the surface, like the first cut in the flesh of a peach, and the scream I promised not to release etched its way up my throat. I jammed my tongue against the roof of my mouth, twisting my lips, fighting against all human urges. I felt his bite ease, felt him draw the blood up past his teeth like string up a straw, felt the spicy venom rush along my veins, pulsing and twisting them like worms under sand.

All sound blotted out around me, leaving only him and I in a world standing excruciatingly still. But the subdued cry in the back of my throat turned to a high shriek when Jason’s fangs tore from my flesh without loosening their hold. The skin came away with a long, peeling sensation, each nerve disconnecting with one last shudder.

I couldn’t scream, couldn’t make my voice find my lips; they quivered, sitting parted, fighting to feel the air come past them. But there was none—no air, no hope. The muscles in my wrist had detached from the bone, I was sure, leaving the edges of my skin floating on a wild, hot wind—freezing, then burning as the venom raced back through in the opposite direction. Please stop! Please.

I tried to roll my body—to send myself to the ground—but he held me fiercely, slowly smearing his tongue across the wound. I kicked both legs, hooking my heels into the bark to push my hips out from under his, but couldn’t get free. And all the lies David told me—

“You know I’d never let you fall.”

—thrashed about on the trails of my agony, rising in waves of hatred for all; all man, all vampires, for everything that ever was or ever would be. I wanted it to stop. Life to stop. The world to stop. I wanted to scream, to cry with all my heart and beg him to tell me why. Why? Why aren’t you here? Why did you leave me to die like this?

This pain didn’t belong to me. I shouldn’t be here.

I cried, letting the sound be whatever the agony in my soul needed it to be, and as I imagined my Mike finding me, cradling me in arms of safety, saying, Baby, I’m here. I’m here, you’re safe now, the cry came from a place so much deeper than I’d ever cried before. He’d make it all okay. He’d make it stop.

David? I turned my head to look at the empty expanse of space beside me. David. Please come for me. Please don’t leave me here to die.

Jason drew his lips away, moved them up my arm, over my shoulder, stopping just below the softer skin on my chest. His silky hair smelled like apple, and the softness, where it brushed against me, made me relax a little.

My legs gently fell on either side of the branch, my feet dangling into oblivion. “Is that it?” I asked softly, keeping my eyes closed. “Will I die now?”

Jason laughed against my ribcage. “No. I’m going to bite you again.”

Before I could think to react, the sear of venom barred my tears and the weight of his body against mine forced the branch into my spine, as if it would rip me in half. I opened my mouth to scream, but Jason pinched the base of my throat, gagging me with my own tongue.

I let go of the branch and dug my thumb into his wrist, merely making him hold tighter—trapping my anguish inside of me.

Then, like holding your breath for a second too long before finally inhaling, he released my throat, leaning back to look down at me.

Tiny, rasping breaths of agony lifted my chest in quick jolts. I ran my swollen tongue over the roof of my mouth, trying to open the passage again. “I can’t—” I stammered. I can’t breathe.

“Okay, just calm down. I’ll fix it.” He rubbed his thumb across the lump in my throat, and the tension eased, oozing past my dry lips, as if the venom in my limbs had finally seeped into my muscles. I could actually feel it assimilate, like a drop of food dye in a glass of water, making the burn in my arm feel like hot sauce on raw skin.

The predator wiped his sleeve along his mouth, breathing heavily as if he’d just enjoyed a swig of cola on a really hot day. “I knew you’d taste lovely, Ara-Rose. After all, my brother always did like them... sweet.”

I didn’t see how that was relevant. I really didn’t care to know how he enjoyed my blood; all I could focus on was the violent quiver of my jaw, making my teeth clatter in my mouth, and the deepest, most binding cold I’d ever suffered. “K…K…”

“What?” He pressed his ear to my lips.

He sat back, a cruel smile shining out under the blood. “Only if you beg me nicely.”

Nothing but a breath of perfect silence passed me, a cool breeze parting my lips, lifting my hair from my face as the ground rushed up to meet me.

Sharp vibrations rattled through my core, resonating with the sound of dry pasta snapping between teeth. The impact of the fall struck me only as a memory when my body came to rest in a dishevelled lump at the base of the tree.

Jason appeared beside me, crouching into a soft landing. Though I was weary and suffocating under pain, I could see his face perfectly in the darkness now. His tight lips broke into a malicious spread as our eyes met, and he reached down to shift my body, curving my rag doll limbs to the correct position. I could feel them move, but they felt lank and hollow, like the empty sleeve of a coat.

“Shh,” he said, brushing my cheek. “Don't cry.”

I tried not to—tried to breathe, but every time my lungs expanded, a sharp jab made me stop. I just wanted to be dead.

“You will be soon, sweet girl. And it’s better this way—if you can't move.” He sat taller, indulgently eyeing my half-naked form. “It won't take me as long if I don't have to pin you down.”

My lip folded down tightly, trembling. I held perfectly still, wiping an imaginary cloth over my body to rid the creeping, icky feeling tingling up my spine—branching out from where his hand rested against my leg. I didn’t want this end. I didn’t want to lose my virginity like this. I just wanted to be loved—to feel the touch of a person that wanted me like I wanted them. Please not this, Jason, please—kill me, but don’t do this to me.

He studied my face for a long moment, the crease in his brow slowly growing deeper, his lips going tighter, his eyes narrowing.

Warm tears ran in streams over the sides of my face, and the burning in my limbs ceased, giving way to a dull, knife-like sear. But my mind focused only on Jason towering over me—my legs apart beneath him, his body free to enter mine, as I had no way to stop him. I just wanted to bend my knee and kick him in the groin again, send his balls into his throat.

“Now, now, sweet Ara. Be nice.” He rose up over my body to wipe the tears from my cheeks, but stopped, his head cocked. “Look at you—so broken, so sad, but still just so pretty.”

And he was just so much like David. If I watched his face, ignoring the deeper, almost timid tones of his voice, I could almost imagine he was David—almost needed to imagine he was so my heart could survive the fear. They say that fear paralyses, but that was the wrong word. It felt more like running full speed, then stopping at a dead end with no air.

Each breath I took responded to my panic, rising inch for inch with Jason’s lips moving down my body. He kissed me sweetly on my rib, running his thumb over the bite, then moved down along my flesh, coming to a halt at the very top of my inner thigh.

“He wanted to bite you here—that day he drank your blood.” He kissed me there. “He was afraid you’d die if he bit you. But, luckily—” He looked over his shoulder for a second, “I don’t have to worry about that.”

The familiarity of leaves rustling above me with the garden-scented breeze made my heart ache for normality. Even the stars, once so mysterious, seemed only so recognisable to my weary eyes as I watched them, wishing on each one for something, anything to come along and save me from this.

“I’ve already bitten you, Ara. Only death can save you now,” he said, and like a serrated clamp broke the flesh, he sank his teeth into my leg. A surge of agony stole a squeal from my lips; it split the air like a thousand knives through an eternity of silence and echoed off the emptiness all around me. My thigh bone seemed to lengthen with the ferocious burning, making the scream move deeper into my soul—resounding from the back of my throat in the highest save-me-God-save-me pitch I’d ever heard.