Chapter Eighteen

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My eyelids slowly peeled apart, squinting at the shadowed ceiling above me. My eyeballs felt sore and swollen in their sockets, and one side of my face was a steady throb of pain. I lifted a hand to touch my cheek. Already it was swollen, and blood from the split skin had formed a lumpy scab.

My hands were clean; Luke must have washed the blood off while I slept, but I could still smell it, sharp and coppery.

Luke sat by the side of the bed, his head resting on his elbow. He didn't stir when I moved. Even asleep, he looked exhausted, strain carved out in lines on his face.

I wanted it all to be a nightmare. I wanted to go back in time and scrub away the last few hours, stop Ava before she made that terrible deal with Rachel, stop her before she even left the house.

"Why?" I whispered, pain gathering into a thick ball in my throat. "Why didn't you just listen to me?"

I'd told her how strong Rachel was. I'd told her about the vampire's sick games. She had thrown away everything – her entire life – for the sake of a man who didn't deserve it, and I was terrified that I was partly to blame. Ava had been desperately lonely, trying to break away from the team and find a new life, but she couldn't slot back into place as my mother because that spot was no longer available. I'd built a new family around me, filling the gaps that my old one hadn't been able to, and Ava had never felt like she could fit in with that. If she lost Noah she would be totally, utterly alone in the world, and that future must have been too grim for her to bear.

But she should have known that I would never have left her completely alone. She should have known that, however long it took, we would have forged a genuine, long-lasting relationship. Maybe we'd never have been mother and daughter the way other people were, but we would have had something.

I wouldn't have turned my back on her and left her out in the cold.

Ava's face played endlessly through my mind, the horrible gash in her throat, the glassiness of her eyes, the last words she'd tried so hard to whisper.

My...beautiful...girl.

She'd never actually spoken the words, but her voice was so real in my head it was like she was still here. I actually scanned the room for her before savagely reminding myself that I was never going to see her again. The last touch of her hand on my cheek felt imprinted into my skin, and I lifted my own hand to touch that spot, as if I could somehow salvage a tiny piece of her from the imprint.

Pressure built inside me, a cresting wave of grief that burst out of my mouth in a long, low moan.

Luke startled awake. "Hey, hey, hey," he said, climbing onto the bed next to me.

"Why?" I whispered again, clutching fistfuls of the covers.

Empathetic pain contorted Luke's face and he reached out to touch me, but I shied away.

"Why did you stop me?" My voice was so low and ugly, I hardly recognised it.

Luke froze, his hand suspended in midair.

"Rachel was injured – we could have taken her, and you stopped me." I had to keep holding onto the covers to control the mounting urge to lash out at something.

"Kiara," Luke whispered, and his voice shook with pain. "We were all hurt – we weren't strong enough to take her."

"We could have tried."

He bit his lip, his eyes conflicted and bright with tears. "I was trying to protect you –"

I couldn't find words this time, just an ugly, angry snort. Deep down, I knew that Luke had done the right thing by getting me out of there before I got myself killed, but I still couldn't help lashing out. It was the only way to rid myself of that awful pressure inside me, the pressure that felt like it was slowly crushing my heart into a tiny ball. And I lashed out at Luke because he loved me enough to take it, and because he understood me well enough to know that I didn't really blame him.

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