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Gentle hands took hold of my arms, and I jumped. “Bella mia,” Levi soothed. I looked up into his gray eyes and even though it was raining, I could see the tears on his cheeks. I could see the pain on his face.

“Levi,” I whispered. “Why did they have to be so mean to me?”

“I don’t know, bella mia,” he rasped and choked on his words. “Please let me take you home… please, baby.”

Levi pulled off his jacket and wrapped it over my arms. I felt weak and broken, but I let him lead me to the car already waiting out front. Stacey and Jake were standing there, clearly having got us the Jeep, but I didn’t say anything to them. A flash of red was suddenly next to Stacey and my stomach dropped when I saw it was Harper.

“Levi, please, I’m sorry, I—”

“Get the fuck out of our way, Harper. I swear, don’t fucking mess with her right now!”

Jake pulled her back. I flinched. This wasn’t Levi. This angry, pissed boy wasn’t the gentle Levi I knew.

The car was warm, but I shivered, the cold from the rain chilling me to the bone. Levi pulled out on to the road, but my head was against the window, hot tears still pouring as I replayed their words, each repeat like a slap to the face: And in bed? What kind of noises must she make…?

Levi didn’t speak. My hands ran over my wrists and I closed my eyes at the way I’d told him what I’d done; what, for months and months, I wished had worked, until I met him.

The Jeep suddenly came to a stop and I jumped out, rushing through the back gate. I heard Levi’s door slam and his feet pounding after me. “Elsie, please, wait!”

But I kept running. I ran past the kitchen of the main house, immediately seeing everyone inside and on their feet watching me closely. Levi entered the yard and caught up to me. “Elsie, please, listen.” His thumbs ran over my scars and he whispered, “What happened, bella mia? Please tell me. I’m losing my mind. Your scars…”

I cried harder at the devastation in his voice, the voice I loved so much. The kitchen door opened. “Please go away,” Levi snapped loudly to whoever it was that came out. But I could see them standing at the doorway and I turned to see Lexi, watching me, eyes red.

“Please!” Levi shouted louder and spun to see Lexi too. “What?” he questioned, trepidation lacing each word. “What’s wrong?”

“Come inside, and out of the rain,” Lexi demanded and went back into the kitchen. I didn’t want to follow. I didn’t like the tone in her voice.

But Levi led me forward, taking me by the hand. We entered the kitchen. I saw Ally’s expression fall when she caught sight of me.

“What’s wrong?” Axel asked, rising from his seat. Fresh tears trickled down my face. Austin stood up too.

“Some girls from the dinner were caught ripping it out of Elsie’s voice,” Levi said angrily, “she heard every word.”

“Fucking cunts,” Axel hissed, but I stared at Lexi, at Lexi’s sad face, and knew it had nothing to do with my awful night. Something else had happened.

“What?” I managed to ask. All voices quieted, all gazes focused on me.

Lexi shook her head, and clutched a piece of paper in her hand. I stared at the piece of paper, at the rough torn edges, at the familiar lines….

And then it hit.

“Clara,” I hushed out and the pain was immediately back on Lexi’s face.

She stepped forward. “I got the call three hours ago. I had to go straight there to deal with the police.”

“Is she okay?” Levi asked when I couldn’t. Lexi shook her head.

She looked straight at me. “Clara threw herself into the river tonight, Elsie. She tied a large rock to her waist and threw herself in. She drowned. Her body was recovered when the night nurse realized she’d snuck out of her room.”

“No,” I hushed out, but barely made a sound. I had nothing left in me to give. I had absolutely nothing left.

“She’d left this in her room. It had your name on the back and a small note. I thought you should see it.” Lexi held out the paper and I took it in my hand. I wiped away my tears. Seeing my poem, I noticed that a tear splash had smudged the title ‘Clawed Heart’. A smudge that wasn’t there when I left her this afternoon, a smudge caused by Clara’s tears.

I stared at my poem, willing myself to turn the page. When I did, I saw the message was short:

Elsie,

In the end it was nice to know that someone understood.

But you were too late.

Thank you for trying. I just can’t hear their voices anymore.

Clara x

I dropped to the floor as I read the words and I screamed. I screamed from my throat until it was so raw that more screams refused to come. Warm arms wrapped around me, but I asked, “What is wrong with people? What is wrong with people that they hurt us until we prefer to die than live in their world? What is so wrong with us? What is so wrong with them? I don’t understand, because I couldn’t ever hurt someone like that. It’s impossible for me to feel anything but disgust at the thought of hurting someone that way.”

I lifted my wrists, and everyone saw my scars. “I couldn’t do it anymore. I wanted to die, but I was found. I was found when I didn’t want to be. I was found when all I wanted to do was go. To finally get their voices from my head.” I hit my chest. “To take away the pain in here.”

“Elsie, please,” Levi said. I lifted my head to see him look—so sadly—into my eyes. He dropped his forehead to mine. “Bella mia, please. Let me take care of you.”

“Why do they do it, Levi? Why?” I whispered.

“I don’t know, baby, but you’ve got me. You’ve got all of us. And we don’t wish you any hurt or pain.”

I collapsed against his chest, and, scooping me up in his arms, he stood.

“Lev, you need help—”

“No,” he cut off Lexi’s words. “She’s my girl. I’ll take care of her. She needs me.”

I held on just that bit tighter as we crossed the yard. Levi placed me on the bed with a kiss on my forehead, then I heard the bath running. It seemed only seconds before Levi stripped me of my clothes, then him from his. He sat us in the large bath, the hot water cocooning us both in warmth. His arms wrapped around my shoulders and he brought my back to lie against his chest, his strong thighs trapping me in his embrace.

Tired and numb, my head fell back against his shoulder. Levi sighed into my hair, his forearm wrapping around my chest. I stared straight ahead, focusing on a single chip of paint on the white wall of the bathroom. My eyes itched at how raw they were, yet my tears had dried. It wasn’t because I felt any less hurt, but my tear ducts were exhausted.

I was exhausted.

I’d been exhausted now for two years.

And I was done.

“Bella mia,” Levi said softly and dropped a kiss on my shoulder, “how are you feeling?”

“Tired,” I replied. Levi’s arm tightened across my chest and I lifted my hands to wrap around his wrist. I needed to feel that he was truly here with me. I didn’t want to be alone. I was tired of being alone. “I’m so tired of it all.”

“Of what, baby?” Levi asked cautiously.

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