Sweet tea was apparently going to be the death of me.
Not because the amount of sugar could send you into a diabetic coma after one slurp. Or because my brother had nearly caused a triple-car pileup by winging his truck around in a sharp U-turn after receiving a text message that contained two words only.
Nope. The request for sweet tea was bringing me face-to-face with Jase Winstead—the physical embodiment of every girlie girl fantasy and then some that I’d ever had. And this was the first time I was seeing him outside of campus.
And in front of my brother.
Oh sweet Mary mother of all the babies in the world, this was going to be awkward.
Why, oh why, did my brother have to text Jase and mention that we were on his end of town and ask if he needed anything? Cam was supposed to be taking me around so I could get familiar with the scenery. Although the scenery I was about to witness was sure to be better than what I’d seen so far of this county.
If I saw another strip club, I was going to hurt someone.
Cam glanced over at me as he sped down the back road. We’d left Route 9 years ago. His gaze dropped from my face to the tea I clutched in my hands. He raised a brow. “You know, Teresa, there’s a thing called a cup holder.”
“Okaaay.” He drew the word out, focusing on the road.
I was acting like a spaz and I needed to play it cool. The last thing anyone in this world needed was Cam finding out why I had a reason to act like a dweeb on crack. “So, um, I thought Jase lived up by the university?”
That sounded casual, right? Oh God, I was pretty sure my voice cracked at some point during that not-so-innocent question.
“He does, but he spends most of the time at his family’s farm.” Cam slowed his truck down and hung a sharp right. Tea almost went out the window, but I tightened my death grip on it. Tea was going nowhere. “You remember Jack, right?”
Of course I did. Jase had a five-year-old brother named Jack, and the little boy meant the world to him. I obsessively remembered everything I’d ever learned about Jase in a way I imagined Justin Bieber fans did about him. Embarrassing as that sounded, it was true. Jase, unbeknownst to him and the entire world, had come to mean a lot of things to me in the last three years.
And the source of my crush.
But then a year ago, right at the start of my senior year in high school, when Jase had tagged along when Cam had visited home, he’d become something very complicated. Something that a part of me wanted nothing more than to forget about. But the other part of me refused to let go of the memory of his lips against mine or how his hands had felt skimming over my body or the way he had groaned my name like it had caused him exquisite pain.
My cheeks heated behind my sunglasses at the vivid memory and I turned my face to the window, half tempted to roll it down and stick my head out. I so needed to pull it together. If Cam ever discovered that Jase had kissed me, he would murder him and hide his body on a rural road like this one.
And that would be a damn shame.
My brain emptied of anything to say, and I so needed a distraction right now. The perspiration from the tea and my own trembling hands was making it hard to hold on to the cup. I could’ve asked Cam about Avery and that would’ve worked, because he loved talking about Avery. I could’ve asked about his classes or how he was back in training for United tryouts in the spring, but all I could do was think about the fact that I was finally going to see Jase in a situation where he couldn’t run away from me.
Which was what he’d been doing the first full week of classes.
Thick trees on either side of the road started to thin out, and through them, green pastures became visible. Cam turned onto a narrow road. The truck bounced on the potholes, making my stomach queasy.
My brows lowered as we passed between two brown poles. A chain-link fence lay on the ground, and off to the left was a small wooden sign that read WINSTEAD: PRIVATE PROPERTY. A large cornfield greeted us, but the stalks were dry and yellow, appearing as if they were days away from withering up and dying. Beyond them, several large horses grazed behind a wooden fence that was missing many of its middle panels. Cows roamed over most of the property to the left, fat and happy looking.
As we drew closer, an old barn came into view—a scary old barn, like the one in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, complete with the creepy rooster compass thing swiveling on the roof. Several yards beyond the barn was a two-story home. The white walls were gray, and even from the truck, I could tell there was more paint peeling than there was on the house. Blue tarp covered several sections of the roof, and a chimney looked like it was half crumbling. Red dusty bricks were stacked along the side of the house, as if someone had started to repair the chimney but grew bored and gave up. There was also a cemetery of broken-down cars behind the barn, a sea of rusted-out trucks and sedans.
Shock rippled through me as I sat up a bit straighter. This was Jase’s farm? For some reason, I pictured something a little more . . . up to date?
Cam parked the truck a few feet back from the barn and killed the engine. He glanced over at me, following my stare to the house. Unlocking his seat belt, he sighed. “His parents had a really hard time a few years back and they’re just now getting on their feet. Jase tries to help with the farm and stuff, but as you can see . . .”
The farm needed more help than Jase could provide.
Cam laughed. “That’s nice of you to say.”
My fingers tightened around the cup in defense. “It is.”
“Uh-huh.” He flipped his baseball cap around, shielding his eyes. Tufts of black hair poked out of the back rim.
I started to speak, but movement I saw out of the corner of my eye caught my attention.
Racing out from the side of the barn, a little boy seated in a miniature John Deere tractor hooted and hollered. His chubby arms were bone straight as his hands gripped the steering wheel. A mop of curly brown hair shone under the bright August sun. Pushing the tractor from behind was Jase, and even though I could barely hear him, I was sure that he was making engine noises. They bounced along the uneven gravel and ground. Jase laughed as his little brother shouted, “Faster! Go faster!”
Jase appeased his brother, pushing the tractor so it zigged and zagged to a stop in front of the truck as Jack squealed, clenching the steering wheel. Plumes of dust flew into the air.
My mouth dropped open. Nothing in this world could’ve made me look away from the splendor before me.
Jase was shirtless and his skin glistened with sweat. I wasn’t sure what ethnicity he had in his family background. There had to be something Spanish or Mediterranean, because he had a natural tan skin tone that remained that way all year-round.
As he walked around the tractor, his muscles did fascinating things—rippling and tightening. His pecs were perfectly formed and his shoulders were broad. He had the kind of muscles one got from lifting bales of hay. Boy was ripped. His stomach muscles tensed with each step. He had a very distinctive six-pack. Totally touchable. His jeans hung indecently low—low enough that I wondered if he had on anything underneath the faded denim.
It was the first time I ever saw the full extent of his tattoo. Ever since I’d known him, I’d caught glimpses of it peeking out from the collar on his left shoulder and from under a shirtsleeve. I never even knew what it was until now.
The tat was massive—an endless knot shaded in deep black, starting at the base of his neck, looping and twisting over his left shoulder and halfway down his arm. At the bottom, two loops opposite each other reminded me of snakes curling up and facing each other.
It was a perfect fit for him.
A flush spread across my cheeks and traveled down my throat as I dragged my gaze back up, mouth dry as the desert.
Sinewy muscles in his arms flexed as he lifted Jack out of the driver’s seat, holding him into the air above his head. He spun around in a circle, laughing deeply as Jack shrieked and flailed.
As Cam opened the driver’s door, Jase sat Jack down on the ground and yelled at my brother, but I had no idea what he said. He straightened again, dropping his hands onto his hips. His eyes squinted as he stared into the truck.
Jase was absolutely gorgeous. You couldn’t say that about a lot of people in real life. Maybe celebrities or rock stars, but it was rare to see someone as stunning as he was.
His hair, the color of rich russet, was a mess of waves falling into his face. His cheekbones were broad and well defined. Lips were full and could be quite expressive. A hint of stubble shaded the strong curve of his jaw. He didn’t have dimples like Cam or me, but when he did smile, he had one of the biggest, most beautiful smiles I’d ever seen on a guy.
He wasn’t smiling right now.
Oh no, he was staring into the truck, head cocked to the side.
Parched as I was, I took a sip of the sweet tea as I stared through the windshield, absolutely enthralled by all the baby-making potential on display before me. Not that I was in the way of making babies, but I could totally get behind some practice runs.
“Sorry.” I flushed, lowering the cup. Not that it mattered. Wasn’t like Jase and I hadn’t swapped spit before.
On the other side of the windshield, Jase mouthed the word shit and spun around. Was he going to run away? Oh hell to the no. I had his sweet tea!
In a hurry, I unhooked my seat belt and pushed open the door. My foot slipped out of my flip-flop, and because Cam just had to have a redneck truck, one that was several feet off the ground, there was a huge difference between where I was and where the ground was.
I used to be graceful. Hell, I was a dancer—a trained, damn good dancer and I had the kind of balance that would make gymnasts go green with envy, but that was before the torn ACL, before the fateful jump had put my hopes of becoming a professional dancer on hold. Everything—my dreams, my goals, and my future—had been paused, as if God hit a red button on the remote control of life.
And I was about to eat dirt in less than a second.
I reached out to catch the door but came up short. The foot that was going to touch the ground first was connected to my bum leg, and it wouldn’t hold my weight. I was going to crash and burn in front of Jase and end up with tea all over my head.
As I started to fall, I hoped I landed on my face, because at least then I wouldn’t have to see the look on his face.
Out of nowhere, two arms shot out and hands landed on my shoulders. One second I was horizontal, halfway out of the truck, and the next I was vertical. My feet dangled in the air for a second and then I was standing, clutching the cup of tea to my chest.
“Good God, you’re going to break your neck.” A deep voice rumbled through me, causing the tiny hairs on my body to rise. “Are you okay?”
I was more than okay. My head tilted to the side. I was up close and personal with the most perfect chest I’d ever seen. I watched a bead of sweat trickle down the center of his chest and then over the cut abs, disappearing among the fine hairs trailing up from the center of his stomach. Those hairs formed a line that continued under the band of his jeans.
Cam hurried around the front of the truck. “Did you hurt your leg, Teresa?”
I hadn’t been this close to Jase for a year and he smelled wonderful—like man and a faint trace of cologne. I lifted my gaze, realizing that my sunglasses had fallen off.
Thick lashes framed eyes that were a startling shade of gray. The first time I’d seen them, I had asked if they were real. Jase had laughed and offered to let me poke around in his eyes to find out.
He wasn’t laughing right now.
Our gazes locked, and the intensity in his stare robbed me of breath. My skin felt scorched, like I’d been standing out in the sun all day.
I swallowed, willing my brain to start working. “I have your sweet tea.”
“Did you hit your head?” Cam asked, coming to stand beside us.
Heat flooded my cheeks. “No. Maybe. I don’t know.” Holding out the tea, I forced a smile, hoping it didn’t come across creepy. “Here.”
Jase let go of my arms and took the tea, and I wished I hadn’t been so eager to shove the tea in his face, because maybe then he’d still be holding me. “Thanks. You sure you’re okay?”
“Yes,” I muttered, glancing down. My sunglasses were by the tire. Sighing, I picked them up and cleaned them off before slipping them back on. “Thanks for . . . um, catching me.”
He stared at me a moment and then turned as Jack ran up to him, holding out a shirt. “I got it!” the little boy said, waving the shirt like a flag.
“Thanks.” Jase took the shirt and handed over the tea. He ruffled the boy’s head and then, much to my disappointment, pulled the shirt on over his head, covering up that body of his. He looked at Cam. “I didn’t know Teresa was with you.”
A chill skated over my skin in spite of the heat.
“I was out showing her the town so she knows her way around,” Cam explained, grinning at the little tyke, who was slowly creeping toward me. “She’s never been down here before.”
Jase nodded and then took back the tea. There was a good chance that Jack had drunk half of it in that short amount of time. Jase started to walk toward the barn. I was dismissed. Just like that. The back of my throat burned, but I ignored it, wishing I had kept the tea.