“Oh God,” Jase groaned, rubbing a hand down his jaw. “She’s a friend, Dad.”
“Uh-huh.” His father backed up, picking up the bucket. “Friends with a pretty gal like that, then you’re doing something wrong, son.”
My smile reached my ears as I turned to Jase slowly.
“Don’t even think it,” he warned. He looked like he wanted to strangle his dad as he reached down, wrapping his hand around mine. “Come on, before I embarrass my father with a good ole-fashioned redneck thumping.”
His father chuckled as he gave our joined hands a pointed look. “Friends?”
“Dad.” Jase sighed.
I giggled as he tugged me toward the fence and his father disappeared back into the barn. “I like your dad.”
He snorted. “I’m sure you do.”
“He acted like you don’t bring . . . girls here a lot.”
“I don’t.” Stopping, he let go of my hand and faced me as he stepped over a small retaining wall. “Then again, you just met my dad, so I’m sure you can understand why.”
Part of me was flattered that he had brought me to his home, a place where no other girl had traveled. But I was his friend and the other girls probably weren’t that.
“Here,” he said, placing his hands on my h*ps and lifting me up over the wall like it was nothing to him. “There you go.”
“I could’ve done that,” I murmured.
He shrugged. “I know.” Taking my hand again, he carefully led me through the high grass, toward the edges of the split-rail fence. “Be careful. There’s a damn groundhog or a family of them living on this farm. Holes everywhere.”
“Okay.” I wasn’t thinking about farms or groundhogs. Focused on the weight and feel of his hand wrapped firmly around mine, I had little room in my mind to worry about holes in the ground.
He was quiet as he guided me toward the gate in the split rail. Letting go of my hand, he unhooked the lock. Hinges groaned as the metal gates swung open.
I hesitated. “I don’t know about this.”
An easy grin appeared as he swaggered up to where I stood. “Tess, come on. You said you trust me.”
Shifting my weight from foot to foot, I stared over his shoulder. At the other end of the large pen, two horses grazed, their black tails flicking idly. “I do trust you.”
“Then come with me.”
One of the horses, its coat a mixture of black and white, reared its massive head. It turned, angling its muzzle toward our side of the fence. Neither of the horses had saddles on.
“They’re not going to trample you to death.” He took my hand again. “And I don’t even expect you to get on one.”
My chin jerked up. “You don’t?”
He smiled slightly as he caught a piece of hair that blew across my face, tucking it back. “No. This is a horse meet and greet.”
“I’ve never done a horse meet and greet before.”
“You’re going to love them.” He pulled me forward, and my lips twitched. “They really are gentle. Jack’s been on them a million times, and if I thought they were dangerous, he wouldn’t be anywhere near them.”
That was a good point. “Okay,” I said, taking a deep breath. “Let’s do this.”
He didn’t give me a chance to second-guess myself. Within seconds we were inside the pen. Another steel bucket sat on the ground, full of grain. “I’m going to call them over, okay? They’re going to come flying. It’s close to feeding time. So be ready.”
Throat tight, I nodded.
My fear seemed a little unreasonable up until Jase lifted two fingers to his perfectly formed mouth and let loose a high-pitched whistle. The horses’ heads jerked up and then they took off, their hooves pounding on the beaten earth, racing straight for us.
I took a step back, hitting an unmovable wall of muscle that was Jase and bouncing off. An arm wrapped around my waist from behind when I started to move away, keeping me firmly in place, his front pressed to my back.
“It’s okay.” His breath was warm against my ear, and I was torn between being freaked out over the dinosaurs heading our way and freaked out over the fact I was in Jase’s arms. “You’re doing great.”
I gripped his arm as I squeezed my eyes shut. My heart worked overtime, jumping around in my chest as the thunder of the hooves grew closer, shaking the ground. A sudden plume of dust filled the air and a warm, wet breeze caressed my face. I pressed back against Jase, straining away.
“You got a visitor, Tess.” He rested his chin atop my head, which caused my pulse to try to outrun my heart. “Two of them to be exact.”
There was a pause. “Are your eyes closed?”
His chin slid off my head and then his chest rumbled as he laughed. “Your eyes are closed.” He laughed again. “Open them up.”
Cursing under my breath, I pried one eye open and then jerked against him. His arm tightened. “Oh wow . . .”
The black-and-white horse was the closest, standing mere feet away from me. The brown one wasn’t too far, shaking its head and making soft snorts. My eyes were wide as they bounced between the two creatures. “They’re not carnivorous, right? Because at their size, they could eat me.”
Jase laughed deeply as his hand shifted up, resting in the center of my stomach, just below my breasts. “Horses do not eat people, you little idiot.”
I started, eyes narrowing. “There’s always a first.”
The lips pulled back on the black-and-white horse as if it was smirking at me.
“This one right here? Mr. Friendly? Jack calls him Bubba One,” he said in a quiet, calming voice. But air hitched in my throat when his thumb moved in a slow circle over the thin material of my tank top, hitting against the wire in my bra. “And the brown one is Bubba Two.”
Mouth dry, I wetted my lips. “That’s good for remembering names.”
He chuckled as his pinkie and forefinger started to move up and down, reaching my belly button and then sliding back up. It was almost as if he was unaware of what he was doing, or the electrifying response the tiny motions were dragging out of me. “I think so too, but his real name is Lightning.”
Said horse shook his head, tossing the shaggy mane.
“Lightning seems to be a more suitable name,” I admitted, relaxing as the seconds passed. Maybe that was his intention. Distract me with the soft, almost innocent touches. It was working. “What about Bubba Two?”
“Ah, the one who is staring at the pail like it’s the holy mecca of grain?” His cheek grazed mine as I laughed. “That’s Thunder. And we’re going to feed them. Together.”
The friction his fingers created with my shirt sent tiny shivers up and down my back. “With our hands?”
His answering laugh tipped the corners of my lips up. “Yes. With our hands.”
“After checking out the choppers on them, I’m not so sure about that.”
“You’ll be okay.” He slid his hand off my stomach and wrapped it around my wrist. Slowly, he lifted my hand out in front of me. “Hold still.”
My heart lurched. “Jase—”
Lightning trotted forward and pressed his wet nose against my hand. I cringed, waiting for him to eat my poor fingers. The horse didn’t. Nope. It nudged my hand as it whinnied softly.
He guided my hand up over Lightning’s jaw, all the way to the pointy, twitchy ears. “See?” he murmured. “That’s not too bad, is it?”
I shook my head as my fingers curled along the soft coat. Lightning seemed to anticipate the direction of the petting, pressing his long head against my hand as my fingers tangled in his mane. It wasn’t bad at all.
Jase shifted behind me, and in an instant all thoughts of the horses evaporated. His h*ps lined up against my backside, and I bit down on my lower lip as I focused on the white splotch covering Lightning’s muzzle.
I could feel him—feel Jase. And there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that he was affected by how close we were standing. That knowledge and the hard length of him left me dizzy, just like it had done that Saturday night. An all too warm flush spread down my neck. In the back of my head, I was rationalizing his physical reaction. He was a guy. Our bodies were pressed together. If a wind blew on a guy’s private area, they got hard. So I should just ignore it, but my body was so not on board with my head. My body was operating on a different playing field. An ache centered low in my stomach. A sharp and sweet yearning raced through my veins.
“Not so scary, right?” His voice was deeper, richer. “They’re like dogs. Well, like a dog that can carry around two hundred pounds, if not more.” Hand sliding off mine, he stepped back, and the sudden emptiness of his body was like a cold shock. “Trust me.”
Then he smacked my ass.
I yelped, eyes widening as I started to turn toward him, but Lightning, apparently annoyed with the lack of attention, nosed my arm. “Uh . . .”
“It’s okay. You were just petting him. And he didn’t eat your hand.”
I considered that as Lightning stared at me with dark eyes. Scratching him behind the ear, I was still scared out of my mind. The size of the horses was astonishing up close, and I honestly couldn’t ever picture myself sitting astride them, especially one named Lightning.
Jase returned to my side, sitting the bucket between us. Thunder followed, tail twitching in impatience. After kneeling and scooping up a handful of oats, Jase rose. The brown muzzle immediately went for his hand as Jase looked over at me. “It’s that easy.”
While letting a horse eat out of my hand wasn’t something I imagined doing, I didn’t complain when Jase dumped some oats in my open palm. Face scrunched, I offered my hand to Lightning.
“You should see yourself right now.” Jase laughed as he shook his head. “It’s cute.”
And probably a bit ridiculous. My cheeks warmed as Lightning nosed around the oats in my hand. “Picky eater?”
Jase grinned as he rubbed Thunder’s neck with his free hand. “I think he’s taking his time because he likes you.”
“Is that so?” I smiled as I slowly reached out with my other hand, caressing the elegant muzzle. Several moments passed as I considered how I ended up here. This was more than just a horse meet and greet for no reason. I got what Jase was trying to do. It all stemmed back to the conversation in his Jeep. Substituting the rush of adrenaline and pleasure dancing brought me with something else.
The fact that he even cared enough to do this, to take the time, moved me. More than a stolen kiss a year ago or brief touches now could. Emotion clogged my throat as Lightning nibbled at the oats, tickling my palm.
I didn’t know why Jase was doing this for me. Yes, we were friends—friends for a while now. When he visited Cam, he’d also visited me, but this seemed like more than what a friend would do.
Then again, I wasn’t an expert on friends.
As I stood there, the light breeze doing nothing to erase the fine sheen of humidity coating my skin, I realized with sudden clarity that I was really quite . . . friendless. Because if Sadi or any of my studio friends were true friends, we’d still be in contact even if we no longer shared a common goal. It wasn’t just envy or bitterness that stood between us. Without dance, there just wasn’t anything there.
I swallowed the burn in my throat. “Is it really like flying?”
Jase glanced over at me and nodded. “It is.”
Pushing the thickness down again, I returned my attention to Lightning, scooping up more oats once he’d finished with what I held. There was something peaceful about all this—the quiet of the farm, the simple act.
“This isn’t bad,” I admitted quietly.
“I know. It will be better once you understand what here is to you.”
I bit my lip, remembering what I’d said in the Jeep. “When did you get so wise sounding?”
“I’ve always been extremely wise. So much so, I consider it a curse.”
I laughed softly.
“Actually, it’s experience. Things come along you don’t expect all the time, Tess. Trust me. Things that change everything about your life—about what you thought you wanted, who you thought you were. Things that make you reevaluate everything and even if it doesn’t sound like a good thing in the beginning?” He shrugged as he settled his gaze on Thunder. “Sometimes they turn out better than you could’ve ever imagined.”
The way clarity rang in his voice, I had no doubt in my mind he had firsthand experience with the unexpected.
“You know something?” Jase asked after a couple of minutes passed. “What Jacob said in the Den yesterday wasn’t true.”
The swift change of the subject startled me. As Lightning ate out of my palm, I looked at Jase. “What?”
Thunder, done eating, turned and trotted off as Jase wiped his hands along his jeans. He sauntered up to where I stood, idly scratching Lightning’s ear since I dropped my free hand. “You know what I’m talking about, Tess. And I know why you left immediately afterward.”
My first response was to deny, because denial was almost always easier than facing the truth. Especially when the truth was sort of humiliating. But Jase had intimate knowledge of said truth. Right now, denial would just make me look stupid.
“I don’t want to talk about it.”