“I could live happily ever after if I could never hear his name again or have to think about how he was or what it felt like to be with him and think—­” My voice unexpectedly cracked, and I forced myself to take a deep, cleansing breath. “I don’t want to remember what all of that felt like.”

There was a moment of silence. “But you know that you’re never going to forget, and you need to understand what Jacob said wasn’t true.”

Sighing, I watched Lightning go for the last of the oats. “What he said was true.”

“It is true. I was one of those ‘stupid girls’ who let a guy beat on her.” I laughed, but the sound was grating on my ears. “And I almost ruined my brother’s life because I allowed the situation to get to that point. Trust me, I know.”

“You don’t know shit, apparently.” Jase took my hand in his, brushing the dust from the oats off it. “You did not almost ruin your brother’s life. He made that decision to go after that punk ass. Not you. And I can’t really blame him for doing so. If it had been me, I would’ve put that motherfucker into the ground.”

My gaze swung to him sharply, and all I saw was honesty in his gunmetal eyes. “No. You wouldn’t have, Jase.”

His brows rose. “Uh, yeah, I would’ve. And you know what, that’s wrong as shit, but that would’ve been my choice. Just like it was Cam’s. It is not and never has been your fault. No matter what happened between you and that dick”—­he spat the word—­“what happened on Thanksgiving is not your fault.”

I stared into his eyes and—­oh God—­I wanted to believe him. The weight of that nasty guilt was worse than the weight of a future gone to shit. Some of the responsibility lessened, though. That much was true, but I ducked my gaze, following Lightning’s retreat. With the lack of attention, the horse was off chasing Thunder.

Jase still held my hand, his fingers slipping around my wrist. “And you weren’t stupid.”

I bit out a laugh as I lifted my gaze. “Okay. Why are you telling me all this? Why are you trying to make me feel better?”

“Because it’s true.” His lips thinned as a troubled look settled into his striking features. “You were how old when you started dating that guy?”

Shaking my head, I tried to pull my hand free, but he held on. The whole conversation made me want to crawl under the thick and wide piles of hay behind us. “I was fourteen when we started dating—­the summer before my freshman year. Happy with that answer?”

He didn’t look happy. “You were young.”

My fingers curled helplessly inward. “I was, but he . . .”

“He didn’t hit you then?” Jase said it so bluntly that I flinched. The lines softened around his mouth. “When did he first hit you?”

It was easy to remember. The memory was all too fresh in my mind. “I’d just turned sixteen. I stepped on his new Nikes accidentally.”

Jase looked away. A muscle ticked along his jaw. Nearly ten months passed between the first time Jeremy hit me and the last time. Ten months of keeping it secret, of hiding the bruises, and of wondering what I had been doing to deserve it.

Ten months I never, ever wanted to relive.

“Even at sixteen, you were young. You’re still young,” he said finally, his voice even, but tight. “I can’t even imagine what you were going through, but you were just a kid, Tess. You weren’t stupid. You were scared.”

The knot came out of nowhere, filling my throat. My voice was hoarse when I spoke. “I thought it was my fault.”

“It wasn’t your fault.” His eyes flashed an intense silver. “Please tell me you know it was not your fault.”

“I do now.” Blinking rapidly, I cleared my throat. “What he did wasn’t my fault, but my silence really didn’t help my case.”

“I get what you’re saying, but I should’ve told someone. You can’t argue that. Silence is not a f**king virtue. It’s a disease—­a cancer that eats away at you and f**ks with your head. I know that now. Not then and . . .” I trailed off, shaking my head as I drew in a stunted breath. I thought of Debbie in that moment. “And, well, things are different now.”

“They are, but you weren’t stupid and it wasn’t your fault then. And because I say so, that’s the way it is. End of discussion.”

He nodded as his lips curled up on one corner. “Yep. What I say goes.”

The grin grew as he tugged gently on my arm. His eyes lightened to a soft gray. “Do not doubt my authority.”

I laughed and was surprised that I could do so after such a serious and sad conversation. “You have absolutely no authority.”

He smirked. “Oh, my authority is there. All the time. It’s just stealth authority. You don’t even know it’s happening.”

I rolled my eyes, but as the initial burn of the awkward conversation faded, I recognized his words for what they were worth. Even if I had trouble accepting no fault in the mess, I knew that Jase firmly believed in what he said. And that did mean something. Heck, it meant a lot.

“So what did you think about the meet and greet?” he said, and it was like a thick cloud had passed. We were officially back in safe territory. “Wasn’t bad?”

“No.” I smiled up at him. “It wasn’t bad at all.”

“Then next time, maybe you’ll ride one of them? Lightning?”

“I’ll be with you,” he added, dipping his chin. “The whole time.”

I pictured me practically sitting in his lap, his arm around my waist, holding me close, and . . . I felt hot. I needed to throw the brakes on the p**n train before my mind veered into triple X land.

He chuckled, the sound deep and sexy, as he moved closer. His sneakers brushed mine, and I had to crane my neck to meet his eyes. “I can tell you like that idea.”

“What?” I scowled, hopefully fiercely and not stupidly. “No. I was thinking about music class tomorrow. Aren’t we covering the baroque period? Stimulating stuff right there. I’m all kinds of excited.”

A smirk formed on his lips. “I don’t think that’s what you are all excited about or what gets you excited.”

“Whatever.” The teasing glint grew in his gaze. “You were thinking about me.”

I snorted. Like a pig. “Yeah, I don’t think so. I don’t think about you at all.”

“And you have a terrible ego. Worse than my brother and that’s saying something.”

“You can say whatever you want. I know better.” He dipped his head and his lips grazed my cheek, blazing a small fire across my cheeks. “See? You’re flushing and I haven’t even done anything.”

“It’s the sun,” I replied, straining back before I did something stupid. Like grabbing his face in a death grip and molesting him. “I’m getting a heatstroke.”

He choked out a laugh. “The sun isn’t even out.”

Cocking my head to the side, I waited.

That infuriating grin seemed permanently etched into his face. “It’s cute.”

“What is?” I hoped he wasn’t thinking that about me because I’d like to be seen as more than “cute” when it came to him.

“You.” He caught a piece of my hair in his other hand and tickled the edges along my neck while I fought the urge to stick my tongue out. “This whole act—­you pretending that you don’t sit and think about me all the time. You probably sit in your dorm and write my name all over your dry-­erase board.”

“And then you dream about me, right? You stay awake and—­”

My laugh cut him off as I swung at him with my free hand, aiming for his chest. What he was saying was beyond ridiculous. Okay—­maybe not the dreaming part. He did star in quite a few of them. My hand never landed though. He snatched it out of the air with his other hand with startling reflexes and hauled me against his chest in one quick, smooth move.

“Hitting is not nice,” he said, grinning. “And neither is deluding yourself.”

My chest flush with his made this conversation all the more difficult. The tips of my br**sts tingled sharply. “You should listen to what you’re saying. You said you regretted kissing me, so why would I sit around and think about you? I moved on, bud.”

The moment those words left my mouth and my gaze locked with his, I realized that I’d made a mistake. I don’t know what he was thinking, but the intensity in his silvery eyes consumed me. Somehow we’d gone from harmless teasing and talking smack—­because the stuff I’d been spouting off at him were some pretty bad lies—­to this . . . and I didn’t even know what this was.

The humor vanished from his striking face. “I never said I regretted kissing you.”

His eyes burned like quicksilver. “I’m pretty sure I didn’t.”

Slowly, I shook my head. Confusion poured in and I didn’t know what to say.

In my chest, my heart tripled its beats at those words. “You don’t?”

“No.” He looked away for a brief moment, jaw working, before his gaze latched onto mine again. “I should. I wish I did.”

“I don’t,” I whispered before I could stop myself. “I don’t regret it at all.”

He stared at me a moment as his hands on my wrists spasmed. His arms extended out, putting a few inches in between our bodies, and I should’ve kept my damn mouth shut.

“Fuck,” he said, voice hoarse, and dragged me back against him.

Jase lowered his head and his mouth was on mine before I even realized what was happening. My brain was way behind what was going on, but he kissed me—­he was kissing me. His lips were on mine, and there was nothing soft and sweet about this kiss.

His mouth moved along as his hands moved to cup my cheeks, tilting my head back. I rose up onto the toes of my sneakers, placing my hands against his chest. Under my palm, his heart pounded as fast as mine. He shuddered as his fingers spread, and I think I stopped breathing.

Over three years of crushing on him, a year since the last time our lips met, and Jase . . . oh God, he was finally kissing me.

Mind reeling and senses spinning, I trembled as he nipped at my lower lip the same way he had at my neck before and then flicked the edge of his tongue over the seam of my lips, coaxing them open. He deepened the kiss, tasting me—­owning me, and in the same instance, setting me free. This kiss was nothing like the one stolen a year ago. It blew it out of the water as a deep, nearly primitive rumble rose up from his chest.

He drank me in.

There was a brief second where I worried about his father finding us like this, and, well, that would just be awkward. The threat vanished as his hands slid down my throat, over my shoulders, to my hips. Being caught? Total nonissue.

My heart swelled until I thought it couldn’t take any more as his hold on my h*ps tightened. He lifted me up without breaking the kiss. Instinct took over. I wrapped my legs around his waist as I looped my arms around his neck, thrusting my fingers through the soft edges of his hair.

He started walking, and I had no idea where he was heading, but I was in awe of his multitasking skills, the way his tongue tangled with mine, how his hands curved to the cheeks of my ass and never once stumbling.

A maddening rush of sensations shot through me as he went down on his knees and my back hit the hay. His powerful body hovered over mine, caging me in. The thin, itchy straws poked at my arms, but his lips seared mine and he stole my breath as he lowered his body onto mine. The hay drew in our combined weight, cradling us as one of Jase’s hands drifted to my thigh, hooking my leg over his. This was nothing like the night he was drunk. We both knew he was fully aware of what he was doing. We both were here.

The pressure—­the positioning of where he was the hardest and I was the softest—­left little room for thought. I could feel him, and when his lower body rolled against mine, I whimpered at the sharp pleasure pounding through me. I tilted my h*ps up, following his lead, and his answering groan was like thunder in my blood.

“Damn,” he growled against my swollen lips. “Oh, f**king damn, Tess, I . . .”

His mouth melded to mine once more, but there was something deeper and slower about the kiss. Almost tender. I thought I felt his hand tremble against the curve of my waist as it slipped under my shirt. I knew for a fact that my hands shook as my fingers intertwined in his hair. The rough skin of his palm skimmed over my belly and I jerked against him, needing and wanting so very much more.

In that moment, where nothing seemed to exist outside of his kisses, of the way he tasted and how he felt, I would go all the way.

His lips left mine, and I whimpered, immediately missing them. His smug chuckle sent darts of desire zinging through my veins and then his lips scorched a path to my neck. I threw my head back, giving him all the access he wanted.