“You and Avery coming to the party tonight, right?” Jase asked, taking a sip of the tea.
“It’s the luau. We’re not missing that.” Cam grinned, revealing the dimple in his left cheek. “You guys need help setting it up?”
Jase shook his head. “The newbies are in charge of that.” He glanced over at me, and I thought for a second that he’d ask if I was coming. “I’ve got a few things to take care of here first and then I’m heading back home.”
The stinging disappointment rose swiftly, mixing with the burn in my throat. I opened my mouth, but immediately snapped it shut. What could I say in front of my brother?
A small hand tugged on the hem of my shirt and I looked down, into gray eyes that were both young and soulful.
“Hi,” Jack said.
My lips stretched into a small grin. “Hi to you.”
“You’re pretty,” he said, blinking.
“Thank you.” A little laugh escaped me. It was official. I liked this kid. “You’re very handsome.”
Jack beamed. “I know.”
I laughed again. This boy was definitely Jase’s little brother.
“All right, that’s enough, Casanova.” Jase finished off the tea and tossed it into a nearby garbage can. “Stop hitting on the girl.”
He ignored Jase, sticking out his hand. “I’m Jack.”
I took the little hand in mine. “I’m Teresa. Cam’s my brother.”
Jack motioned me down with his chubby finger and whispered, “Cam doesn’t know how to saddle a horse.”
I glanced over at the boys. They were talking about the party, but Jase was watching us. Our gazes collided, and like he’d been doing ever since I started at Shepherd, he broke eye contact with a distressing level of quickness.
A pang of frustration lit up my chest as I returned my attention to Jack. “Want to know a secret?”
“Yeah!” His smile grew big and broad.
“I don’t know how to saddle a horse either. And I’ve never even ridden one before.”
His eyes grew as wide as the moon. “Jase!” he bellowed, spinning toward his brother. “She’s never ridden a horse before!”
Well, there went my secret.
Jase glanced at me, and I shrugged. “It’s true. They scare the crap out of me.”
“They shouldn’t. They’re pretty chill animals. You’d probably like it.”
“You should show her!” Jack rushed up to Jase, practically latching himself onto his pants legs. “You could teach her like you teached me!”
My heart lurched in my chest, partially at the proposition of Jase teaching me anything and due to my fear of those dinosaurs. Some people feared snakes or spiders. Or ghosts or zombies. I feared horses. Seemed like a legit fear considering a horse could stomp you to death.
“It’s ‘taught’ not ‘teached,’ and I’m sure Tess has got better things to do than ride around on a horse.”
Tess. I sucked in a breath. It was his nickname for me—the only person who ever called me that, but I didn’t mind it. Not at all. While Jack demanded to know why I had told him my name was Teresa and Jase explained that Tess was a nickname, I was sucked back into the memory of the last time he’d called me that.
“You have no idea what you make me want,” he said, his lips brushing my cheek, sending shivers down my spine. “You have no f**king clue, Tess.”
“Mind if I use the john before we get out of here? I’ve got to get back,” Cam said. “I promised Avery dinner before the party.”
“I’ll show you,” announced Jack, grabbing Cam’s hand.
Jase arched a dark brow. “I’m sure he knows where the bathroom is.”
“It’s okay.” Cam waved him off. “Come on, little bud, lead the way.”
The two of them headed off toward the farmhouse, and we were officially alone. A hummingbird took flight in my chest, bouncing around like it was going to peck its way out of me as a warm breeze picked up, stirring the hairs that had escaped my ponytail.
Jase watched Cam and Jack jog over the patchy green grass like a man watching the last life preserver being taken as the Titanic started to sink. Well, that was sort of offensive, as if being alone with me was equivalent to drowning while being nom nom’d on by cookie cutter sharks.
I folded my arms across my chest, pursing my lips. Irritation pricked at my skin, but his obvious discomfort smarted like a bitch. It hadn’t always been like this. And it definitely had been better between us, at least up until the night he’d kissed me.
“How’s the leg?”
The fact that he’d spoken startled me, and I stuttered, “Uh, it’s not too bad. Barely hurts anymore.”
“Cam told me about it when it happened. Sorry to hear that. Seriously.” He paused, squinting as the line of his jaw tightened. “When can you get back to dancing?”
I shifted my weight. “I don’t know. I hope soon, as long as my doctor clears me. So fingers crossed.”
Jase’s brows knitted. “Fingers are crossed for you. Still, it sucks. I know how much dancing means to you.”
All I could do was nod, affected more than I should’ve been by the genuine sympathy in his voice.
His gray eyes finally made their way back to mine, and I sucked in a breath. His eyes . . . they never failed to stun me into stupidity or make me want to do crazy-insane things. Right now his eyes were a deep gray, like thunderclouds.
Jase wasn’t happy.
Thrusting a hand through his damp hair, he exhaled deeply. A muscle in his jaw began to tick. The irritation inside me turned into something messy, causing the burn in the back of my throat to move up to my eyes. I had to keep telling myself that he didn’t know—that there was no way he could’ve known and that the way I was feeling, the hurt and the brutal wound of rejection, wasn’t his fault. I was just Cam’s little sister; the reason why Cam had gotten into so much trouble almost four years ago and why Jase had started making the trip to our home every weekend. I was just a stolen kiss. That was all.
I started to turn, to go wait in the truck for Cam before I did something embarrassing, like crying all over myself. My emotions had been all over the place since I injured my leg, and seeing Jase wasn’t helping.
“Tess. Wait.” Jase crossed the distance between us in one step with his long legs. Stopping close enough that his worn sneakers almost brushed my toes, he reached out toward me, his hand lingering by my cheek. He didn’t touch me, but the heat from his hand branded my skin. “We need to talk.”
The piece of hair that Jase had reached for blew across my cheek untouched as those words hung between us. My stomach dipped like it did those seconds before I stepped out onto the stage. Fear had always formed an icy ball in the center of my chest when I stopped before the judges and poised, waiting for the music to begin. No matter how many competitions I had entered or how many recitals I performed in, there had always been a second when I wanted nothing more than to run off the stage.
But I hadn’t run away all those times and it was the same with Jase. I wasn’t going to run from this conversation. Long ago, I had been a coward. Too scared to tell the truth about what Jeremy—the ex-boyfriend from hell—had been doing. I wasn’t that girl anymore. I wasn’t a coward anymore.
I took a deep breath. “You’re right. We do need to talk.”
Jase lowered his hand as he glanced over his shoulder, toward the house. Without saying a word, he placed a hand between my shoulder blades. Unprepared for the contact, I jumped and then flushed.
“Walk with me?”
“Sure.” The hummingbird was back with a vengeance, pecking a hole through my chest.
We didn’t end up walking that far as we were still in plain view of the house. With all this land, I figured there were places that offered more privacy, but he steered me to the nearby split-rail fence surrounding the pasture opposite the field where the horses grazed.
“Sit?” he asked, and before I could say standing was fine, his large hands settled around my hips. I gasped as he lifted me up like I weighed no more than his little brother and sat me on the top rail. “This has to be better for your knee.”
“You shouldn’t be standing around.” He folded his arms.
I gripped the rough wood, only relenting because the last thing I wanted to do was talk about my knee. He didn’t say anything as he stared at me and I wanted to sit there mute, forcing him to broach the subject.
My silence lasted all of five seconds before I blurted out the first thing that came to my mind. “It’s stupid.”
“What?” He frowned.
“The name of the town.”
He knocked the longer strands of brown hair out of his face. “You’re mad over the name of the town?”
“Is Spring Mills even a town? You kind of live in Spring Mills, right?” At Jase’s confused stare, I shrugged. “I mean, isn’t it really just Hedgesville or Falling Waters? Just because you build a super Walmart, that doesn’t make it a town.”
Jase stared at me a moment longer and then he laughed deeply—the sound rich and yummy. God help me, but I loved it when he laughed like that. No matter how irritated I was with him or how badly I wanted to karate kick him between the legs, when he laughed, it was like the sun was shining in my eyes.
He leaned against the fence and as tall as he was, we were at eye level as he reached over, draping an arm over my shoulders. He tugged me in close—close enough that if I lifted my head, our mouths would be inches apart. My heart literally did several pliés in my chest. If talking about fake towns and Walmarts got him in the hugging mood, I’d start naming other places like Darksville and Shanghai and—
“Sometimes I don’t think you’re right in the head.” He squeezed me as he dropped his chin to the top of my head, and my breath caught in my throat. “But I like that—I like you. I really do. Not sure what that says about me.”
Pliés? My heart was now a ninja. Maybe this conversation wasn’t going to make me want to go rock in the corner. I relaxed. “That you’re awesome?”
He chuckled as his hand slid down my spine and then was gone. He hoisted himself up beside me. “Yeah, something like that.” There was a stretch of silence and then his gaze settled on me again. His eyes were almost a pale blue now. “I do like you,” he repeated, voice softer. “And that makes it so much harder to figure this out. I don’t know where to really start, Tess.”
The ninja in my heart keeled over dead. But I had a good idea of where he could start. How about why he hadn’t returned a single e-mail or text since that night a year ago? Or why he stopped coming home with Cam? I didn’t get the chance to ask those questions.
“I’m sorry,” he said, and I blinked as the air went out of my lungs. “What happened between us? It shouldn’t have, and I am so very f**king sorry.”
My mouth opened, but I couldn’t make a sound. He was sorry? It felt like he’d punched me in the chest because to be sorry meant he regretted what he’d done. I didn’t regret it, not one bit. That kiss . . . the way he had kissed me proved to me that there really was a such thing as uncontrollable attraction, that yearning for more could be painful in the most delicious way, and that there really were such things as sparks flying when lips touched. Regret it? I’d lived off that kiss, holding it up high and comparing everyone in the past, which was not many, and everyone after him, which was even fewer, to that kiss he regretted.
“I’d been drinking that night,” he continued, that muscle in his jaw thrumming along with my heartbeat. “I was drunk.”
I snapped my mouth shut as those three words sunk in. “You were drunk?”
He looked away, thrusting his hand through his hair again as he squinted. “I didn’t know what I was doing.”
A horrible twisty feeling coiled in my tummy. It was the same feeling when I had come down from my jump wrong. That horrifying, sinking sensation that had been a warning to the burst of pain that had come next. “You drank like two beers that night.”
“Two?” He wouldn’t look at me. “Ah, I know it had to be more than that.”
“Had to be?” My voice squeaked as a different kind of emotion started to fester inside of me. “I remember that night clearly, Jase. You barely drank two beers. You were not drunk.”
Jase didn’t say anything, but his jaw worked like he was about to crack his molars as I stared at him. Apologizing was bad enough, but claiming he was drunk? That was the worst kind of rejection.
“You’re basically saying you wouldn’t have kissed me if you hadn’t been drinking?” I slid off the fence and faced him, resisting the urge to plant my fist in his stomach. He opened his mouth, but I rushed on. “Was it really that disgusting to you?”
His head swung toward me sharply and something flared in his gray eyes, darkening the hue. “That’s not what I’m saying. It wasn’t gross. It was—”
“Damn straight it wasn’t gross!” There were a lot of moments in my life when Cam would tell me that I didn’t have the common sense to keep my mouth shut. This was cooking up to be one of those moments. “You kissed me. You touched me. You said I had no idea what I made you—”
“I know what I said.” His eyes flashed an angry quicksilver now. He looked me dead on as he hopped off the fence with the kind of grace that was almost predatory. “I just don’t know why I said those things. It had to have been the beer, because there is no other reason why I would’ve done or said any of those things!”