I blinked. “Ah . . .”
He grinned. “There really isn’t anything like it. I’m telling you, Tess. You ever feel like you’re flying when you’re dancing?”
“Yeah,” I whispered, sort of stunned. I missed that most of all.
He nodded. “That’s how it feels to be on top of a horse. You should try it. I think you’d love it.”
I shifted, having no idea what to say to that. Was it an invitation to his parents’ farm? Did it matter? Getting in a saddle was tantamount to playing chicken with a pissed-off T. rex to me.
“Hungry?” he asked, changing the subject before I could answer. “I’m heading over to the Den. Cam and Avery are there. They’ve got to have better food than the dining hall.”
They did. I shrugged.
“Come on.” He reached over, nudging my arm. “Come on and eat with us.”
My lips twitched as I glanced at him. This . . . this was the Jase I remembered. Teasing. Open. Fun. Someone I could talk to and be honest with. As stupid as it was, I found myself wishing that he’d remembered what had happened after he stepped into my dorm. Then again, it was probably better that he didn’t. “I don’t want to come across as the little sister tagging along.”
I shot him a dry as sand look. “I’ve tagged along half of my life. I followed him to college.”
“You didn’t follow him, Tess.” He paused as he slowed for the stop sign, glancing over at me. That half grin was back. “And guess what?”
My lips responded, curving up at the corners. “What?”
“He doesn’t care if you did follow him here. He’s happy that you’re here,” he said. “I don’t care if you did follow him. And I’m happy that you did.”
I stopped fighting Jase on the whole riding-versus-walking thing pretty quickly, especially as the leaves from the huge maple trees planted throughout the campus turned from bright green to a beautiful array of red, gold, and brown. September eased into October with a spell of rain that seemed to be never ending. Fall was well under way, and every morning and night, a chill rolled off the Potomac, warning that this could possibly be a very cold and a very wet winter.
And at least once a week, he’d stashed a cupcake in the Jeep, keeping it cool in a little cooler in the backseat. On the way to east campus, we’d share the tasty goodness. He was going to make me gain ten pounds this way, but so far I’d had a variety of cupcakes—Twix, Oreos, strawberry, white chocolate, Skittles—that was kind of gross—banana and chocolate, and a dark chocolate cupcake that was so decadent I felt like I had to go to church after eating it.
Today we shared a red velvet cupcake with some kind of cream cheese icing.
It was divine.
Wherever he got these cupcakes from deserved a gold medal in f**king awesome.
Thick, fat clouds crowded the sky by the time music class let out on Wednesday. It was going to rain. Again. With my knee, I had to be super-duper careful on the slick sidewalks. Busting my ass would be as embarrassing as it would be devastating.
I waved good-bye to Calla as I climbed into the Jeep. The second after Jase turned the ignition, the Elvis Presley channel on XM kicked on. Ugh. As he backed out, I leaned forward and turned it to the Octane channel.
Jase stopped—just completely stopped in the middle of the parking lot. “Did you just do what I think you just did?”
“What?” I asked innocently.
Cars were pulling out behind us, but his Jeep blocked their path. The look on his face said he so did not care. “You just turned off The Man for . . .” He glanced at the radio, grimacing. “For Godsmack?”
“Hey. Don’t you talk shit about Godsmack.”
“I have no problem with them.” A horn blew. He ignored it. “Until it affects Elvis.”
“I cannot listen to Elvis.”
His mouth dropped as his brows winged up. “We cannot be friends any longer.”
Jase narrowed his eyes as he finally—thank God—put the Jeep into drive. “It’s a good thing you’re cute or I’d drop-kick you out of this car.”
I laughed outright as I settled back in the seat. “I could say the same thing about you with your questionable tastes.” A wide smile pulled at my lips as he shot me a disgruntled look. “Country music has got to go.”
“Oh, you don’t know what good music is.” Jase hung a left. “I’m gonna have to educate you.”
Warmth bubbled up in my chest, and I struggled to ignore it. We went back and forth on the music while he searched for parking. It took a bit of time since he passed up several open spaces farther out. I knew why. He didn’t want me to walk, and while catering to my leg usually made my skin itchy and too tight, I didn’t say anything as he circled the main drag a few times until a spot opened up between Sara Creed and the Den. It was nice of him, courteous even, and I couldn’t let myself think that it meant anything else.
“How’s Jack?” I asked when he started preaching the gospel of Johnny Cash.
A certain light filled his eyes, a look of pride, and I went all ooey gooey on the inside. “He’s doing great. Started kindergarten this year. His teacher—Mrs. Higgins—said he’s the smartest kid in class.”
I smiled as I slid out of my seat. “Are you sure he’s your brother?”
“What do you mean?” He appeared in front of me and grabbed my bag out of the backseat before I could even move. There was an odd look to his gray eyes. “Of course, he’s my brother.”
“I was kidding.” I grabbed for my bag, but he slung it over his shoulder. “You know, with him being the smartest kid in class, I wasn’t sure how he could be related to you.”
The wariness vanished from his gaze and he smiled. “Ha. Jack gets his intelligence, good looks, and charm from me.”
Chuckling deeply, he held my bag in one hand and draped his other arm over my shoulders. The weight was sudden and distracting, causing the nape of my neck to tingle, sending tiny shivers down my arm.
To Jase, this wasn’t a big deal. Nor did he probably even notice the stares as we walked up the stairs to the Den, passing people who knew him—because everyone knew him. I easily remembered the first time he’d done something like this—the evening he’d arrived without any warning.
It had been the weekend after the . . . incident with Cam. My brother had holed himself up in the basement, having already drunk himself through the collection of scotch our father had stocked. Jase had apparently been talking to Cam through text and had grown concerned. He’d dropped everything and driven the several hours to see him.
I’d been dumbstruck when I saw Jase standing in the foyer, talking to Mom and Dad. He was the most handsome boy I’d ever seen—his hair shorter then, but no less wild, and his eyes a steely gray as they’d drifted and landed on where I’d been more or less hiding, peeking around the door to the family room.
Something had filled his gaze then, and I’d feared that all he saw in that moment was the cause of Cam’s problem. It had been freezing that night, as the evenings were in early December, but the house had suddenly become suffocating and too hot.
I had hidden again, but this time outside, curled up on one of the wicker chairs on the patio, watching the stars twinkle in and out, wondering how exactly all this had come about.
And that was how Jase had found me. Instead of giving me the fourth degree about what happened with Jeremy and everything that Cam had done when he found out, he talked to me about Christmas, my dancing, what my favorite class was, and everything else that had nothing to do with what had almost ripped our family apart. To this day, he’d never asked me about Jeremy, never brought up the stuff with Cam. It just didn’t exist between us.
By the time my fingers had turned to blocks of ice, Jase had dropped his arm around my shoulders and steered me back into the house, into the warmth, and it was probably that very second that I had fallen for him.
So this simple gesture was most likely nothing to him.
But to me, my insides were twisted into little, complicated knots. Made worse when his arm caught the edges of my ponytail, tugging my head back and sending a shiver of fire across my scalp. My breath caught as my gaze flicked up, unexpectedly meeting his as we stopped in front of the blue-and-gold double doors.
His eyes were silvery, a deep and brilliant gray that stood out in stark contrast against the darkness of his pupils. The look in his gaze was unreadable to me, but there was something hot to it, something so intense that it drew me in. My lips parted.
Jase’s lashes swept down. His mouth worked around words, but the doors opened, and the cool air rushing out halted whatever he was about to say. That strange, secretive half smile appeared on his full lips as he looked away.
His arm slid off me as we entered the Den through the entrance where the food was ordered. Only then did he hand my bag over to me. Our fingers brushed as I took the strap, and heat flooded my cheeks.
He lowered his head, so dangerously close to grazing my cheek with his lips as he spoke. “There’s something about you that I’ve noticed.”
Standing as close as we were had my pulse pounding for two different reasons. My gaze immediately sought out the table where my brother usually sat. Fortunately, it was on the other side of the room, and I could see the top of Avery’s coppery head. Their backs were to us.
“What?” I asked, a bit breathless.
Jase didn’t respond immediately, and the fact that everything about this moment felt intimate and so public was nerve-racking. “You blush a lot more now.”
And that made my cheeks burn brighter.
The lopsided grin grew. “It really makes me curious about what you’re thinking.”
I’d die a thousand deaths before I shared the interworking of those thoughts. “I’m not thinking anything.”
“Uh-huh.” One finger trailed across my hot cheek as he drew back and straightened. Turning toward the line forming, he said, “I don’t know about you, but I’m starving.”
Nodding slowly, I followed him to the back of line. I was starving, but not for food—for him. For him to touch me again, to kiss me, to look at me with that half smile that had such a strange effect on me, and I shouldn’t be thinking that way.
Especially when we were minutes from sitting down with my brother, who would not appreciate me drooling all over his best friend.
Using the time in line to get control of myself, I got a fried chicken salad, figuring the green stuff had to outweigh the crispy goodness. Jase ordered a basket of fries and the kind of hamburger that would go straight to my ass.
Plates in hand, we approached the table. Female heads turned and bowed together, whispering and giggling as we navigated the maze of white, square tables. I doubted he was unaware of it. Not when his lips curled up in a smug smirk.
My eyes narrowed on him.
“Hey!” Avery patted the empty seat to her left. Her face split into a wide, welcoming smile. The girl was gorgeous with her fiery hair and big eyes. “We were wondering where you guys were.”
I ignored the heady rush hearing “you guys” brought forth, like we came in a pair, as couples did. “Hey.”
Cam made a face at me as he leaned back, tangling his fingers in Avery’s hair. I was beginning to believe it was impossible for him to not be touching some part of her at any given time. “What up?”
“Most likely not your IQ.” Jase sat across from the seat I was heading to, flashing my brother a quick grin.
He rolled his eyes. “That was clever.”
“I like to think it was,” Jase replied.
Grinning, I sat beside Avery and gave a little wave at Brit and Jacob. I didn’t know those two well. They were usually at the table when I was here, and Brit’s penchant for mayo and fries turned my stomach. Today, thank God, the blonde was eating pizza. Beside her, Jacob was pouring over a thick textbook, his face scrunched up in confusion.
“Has it started raining yet?” Avery asked.
I shook my head as I unwrapped my plastic fork. “Looks like it’s going to happen soon.”
She sighed as she glanced over at Brit. “It’s going to pour the moment we have to walk over to west campus.”
“That’s our luck.” Brit elbowed Jacob. “Are you going to let me borrow your hat if it starts raining?”
He lifted his chin as he touched the top of his bowler hat. To me, he sort of looked like Bruno Mars. “Yeah, I cannot let my hair get wet. Sorry for your luck.”
Brit shoved a finger into his narrow side. “That is not gentlemanly at all.”
“Good thing I don’t profess to be one, huh?” His dark eyes glinted with humor as he turned his attention to me. “Honey, I really hope you pick better friends than this one beside me.”
“Hey!” Brit’s mouth dropped open. “What the hell? I am prime pickings for friendship. Just ask Avery.”
She nodded as her right hand disappeared under the table. “It’s true.”
I smiled as I stabbed a crispy slice of chicken. “I think Brit is good people.”
“Thank you,” she said, smiling quite evilly at Jacob.
As I finished off the chicken in my salad, the conversation floated around the table, changing from Cam’s training for the spring soccer tryouts with United to the upcoming party this weekend.