Watching Cam pass Jase and sock him in the arm, I took several deep breaths. My eyes were all watery, and there was a good chance I’d start hugging random people. Even the townies.
“So I’m thinking the big-ass grin on your face doesn’t mean that Cam questioned you about us.” Jase slung my bright pink bag over his shoulder. “Have I told you how much I like your smiles?”
My smile grew to epic proportions and I couldn’t contain it. “Cam’s proposing to Avery!”
“What!” Holding on to my crutches, I smacked him on the chest. “He hasn’t lost his mind. He’s found it.”
“What?” I shrieked and slapped his chest again. “What do you mean you already knew?”
“Ouch.” He rubbed the spot. “Does it disturb you that I’m kind of getting turned on right now?”
“Maybe?” he murmured, dipping his head and causing the ends sticking out from under the skullcap to sway. “I’m pretty erect right now to be honest.”
“Oh my God . . .” I rubbed my hand over my hot cheek. “Okay. Back to the proposal. When did he tell you?”
“About a month ago. Want to smack me again? You could try my ass. I’ll probably like that.”
He chuckled. “I went with him to pick out the ring. I’m pretty sure the jeweler thought we were getting married.”
“Hey, he asked me to keep it a secret. He doesn’t want Avery to find out.” When I opened my mouth to argue, he folded his arms. “It’s like when I took you to the doc, Tess. You didn’t want him to know . . .”
Too happy over the recent development to be any bit irritated, I broke out in a huge grin. “I’m so thrilled for them. They really are perfect for each other. You know, like once-in-a-life kind of thing. I know you think that’s pretty stupid, but I believe it.”
“I don’t think it’s stupid at all. I know . . . exactly what you mean.” He unfolded his arms.
His words were laced with a heavy meaning, but my attention was snagged by something else. Since his hands had been mostly occupied during lunch, I hadn’t noticed them until then. The flesh around his knuckles was an angry red, the skin roughed up and swollen. I frowned as I took his hand carefully in one of mine. “What happened to your knuckles?”
He pulled his hand free, glancing down at them with a frown. “I don’t know. Must’ve scraped them on something at the farm.”
Jase shook his head. “Let’s get your pretty butt to class. Come on, hopalong.”
Though a teasing grin had appeared, a dark look had crossed his face. I glanced at his knuckles again, and for some reason, I thought of Cam’s hands after he’d confronted Jeremy. I pushed that thought away because that was . . . that was too weird. Jase said he scraped them at the farm and that’s what had to have happened because there was no other reason to how it could have happened.
Late morning on the first day of fall break, I stood in front of Lightning, gripping my crutches until my knuckles ached. “No.”
“You promised,” Jase reminded me gently, as if he was speaking to Jack.
I glared at Jase, and he grinned. “I can’t get up there with my knee.”
“I’ll make sure you get up there just fine.”
My lower lip jutted out in a way that would’ve made Jack proud, who was currently quarantined to his bedroom and had thrown a Godzilla-sized fit when Jase said he couldn’t come out with us. Jase’s mom was in the shower when we showed up and his dad was somewhere on the farm. I wasn’t sure if he was going to make good on his promise to introduce me as his girlfriend today, but I was nervous for some reason. Maybe it was because that was such a huge step.
But I still felt bad for the little dude. “Can we see Jack before we leave?” I asked.
Jase blinked once and then twice. “Yeah.”
“I feel bad for him,” I explained, shifting my weight on the crutches. “He really wanted to come outside.”
A soft look crept into his eyes. “We can most definitely see him before we leave. He’d like that.” He leaned in, brushing his nose across mine. “I’d like that.”
“But changing the subject isn’t going to distract me. You’re getting up on this horse. End of discussion.”
“I wasn’t trying to change the subject.” Even I recognized the whine in my voice as I looked at Lightning. The horse sniffed and turned his head in the other direction, obviously done with me.
“Stand still.” He pried the crutches from my hands and propped them against the split-rail fence. Giving Lightning one more pat on the nose, Jase picked up the reins as he walked around to the other side. In the bright sunlight, strands of red and gold shone in his hair.
He leaped up on the horse with the grace of someone who’d grown up doing just that. Once on top of the beast, he appeared bigger and larger than life.
“Lift your arms,” he said.
That was the last thing I wanted to do, but I gathered up my courage and lifted my arms. The muscles in his thighs tensed against the horse as he leaned over, fitting his hands to my ribs. Our eyes met, he winked, and then he lifted me right off my feet and up in the air. I didn’t have time to panic because it seemed like in a heartbeat I was sitting sideways on the horse.
“Bring your left leg over,” he said, his hands slipping to my h*ps and holding tight. “I’m not going to let you fall.”
Gripping his arms, I twisted, keeping my injured leg stationary as I brought my left leg over the wide back of the horse. I bit down on my lip and my heart tripped up as Lightning moved sideways, but Jase didn’t let me fall. I slipped back in the saddle, resting between Jase’s legs.
“Good girl,” he said, his breath warm against the back of my neck, causing me to shiver. “See? That wasn’t too bad.”
His answering chuckle rumbled through me. He secured his arms around my waist, holding the reins in one hand. “You ready?”
I shook my head and added, “No,” just in case he was confused.
Jase laughed again. “You’re going to enjoy it. I promise.” Dipping his head, he pressed a kiss to the back of my neck, sending a race of tingles up and down my back. “I’m not going to let anything happen to you.”
With the slight movement of his heels, Lightning moved into a slow canter, following the worn-down track that circled the split rail. It took a bit to get used to the bouncing. Jase kept me tucked close as he told me about the first time he’d ridden a horse. He’d been six and had slipped right off the animal, breaking his arm.
“Did you get right back on?” I asked as we made another pass. “Or were you scared.”
“I was scared.” His thumb moved in a slow circle across my belly. “But Dad knew I needed to get back up on there. And I did. I didn’t fall again.”
An image of a young Jase filled my head. I bet he looked a lot like Jack and was just as adorable, but probably more of a handful. It took a good twenty minutes before I relaxed enough that I released my death grip on Jase’s arm. When I eased off, my fingernails had left little indentations in his skin.
“Sorry,” I said hoarsely, staring at the trees.
“It’s okay. It’s only skin.” He kissed the back of my neck again, a quick movement that was most likely undetectable, but then he pressed his lips to the space below my ear.
Our conversation from last night moved to the forefront. A lump formed in my throat. His words still got me all choked up. He wanted to take things slowly. He wanted me to be different from all the other girls—which sounded like an extremely long list, but I would not think of them. He wanted our relationship to start off not being about sex.
A bolt of liquid pleasure zinged through my blood, immediately sparking an ache deep inside my body that throbbed whenever he was around.
The muscles in my back tensed and then relaxed. I felt him then, pressing against my lower back. A smug sort of smile formed at the knowledge he was just as affected as I was. Tipping my head back against his chest, I closed my eyes and smiled as the wind glided over my cheeks. My grip loosened once more, and under my legs, Lightning’s powerful muscles bunched as he picked up speed.
A trickle of fear inked down my spine as we went faster, but another emotion rose, overshadowing the tendrils of panic. Muscles in my core tensed. Not of anxiety but in anticipation, like those precious moments I’d lost, the ones that came seconds after I stepped onstage.
“I can feel it,” I whispered. I was awed because I could feel it.
His rough chin grazed my cheek as his arm tightened. “Would it make me a bastard to say I told you so?”
Opening my eyes, I laughed as I straightened in the saddle, gaining confidence that I wouldn’t fall and break my neck. Glancing over my shoulder, I met his smile with my own. The crushing disappointment of my recent reinjury eased a little. “Can we go faster?”
Back on the ground, with crutches under my arms, I admitted that horseback riding was pretty damn cool. I didn’t see myself riding one alone in the near future, but Jase had been right. Riding was like dancing in a way. It wouldn’t completely replace the gap in my life, but it was a start.
And it wasn’t the only thing I had.
I smiled as Jase strolled past me, leading Lightning back to the stable. My heart did a cabriole—a complicated, big jump I’d never be able to do again in reality, but my heart was doing it.
When Jase returned, his father was prowling behind him. Seeing them together again was disconcerting. Same height. Same dark hair. Their long-legged pace was even identical. Mr. Winstead grinned as they stopped in front of me. “Never seen a prettier gal on crutches before.”
“Good to see ya back, but not in those things.” He pulled out a red rag, wiping his hands. “Ain’t too serious?”
I shook my head, thinking getting into the story was probably not something anyone wanted to hear.
“She was just riding Lightning,” Jase said, grinning. “Did damn good for her first time.”
His father’s brows rose. “Ya got up on the horse in yer condition?”
“That she did,” Jase replied, and pleasure hummed through me at the sight of his proud smile. Mom and Dad used to smile like that after my recitals and competitions.
Mr. Winstead cocked his head to the side. “Well, darn, if I was about twenty years younger and there wasn’t your mom . . .”
Jase’s head whipped toward his father. “Come on, Dad, that’s my girlfriend you’re trying to hit on.”
Yep. There was my heart again, doing an escaping step, and damn if I didn’t feel as weightless as a dancer looked when she executed the jump perfectly.
“Girlfriend?” Surprise filled his father’s voice as he looked between us.
Jase grinned shamelessly, and both my knees felt weak. “Girlfriend.”
“Well . . .” He drew in a breath and shook his head, as if he didn’t know what to say. If I doubted what Jase had said about the other girls last night, I didn’t anymore. It was obvious he didn’t bring girls home, and the fact he’d brought me home was a big deal.
“That’s good to hear,” he finally finished, and then smiled, causing those stunningly familiar eyes to light to a beautiful silver. He looked at his son and nodded in a way I felt meant more than I could understand. “That’s really great.”
Jase said nothing, but shifted his gaze back to me.
“Why don’t you two kids come inside for a few minutes?” his father said, stuffing the hanky back into his pocket. “Yer momma just made fresh tea.”
His eyes lit up, and I giggled.
“We’ll be up in a second.” Jase turned to me as his dad ambled off. “You okay with how I broke the news? Guess I could’ve done it better, but really, how do you announce you have a girlfriend without sounding lame.”
“No. It was fine.” I paused as he sauntered up to me. “So I’m the first girl you’ve brought home?”
That was forever ago it seemed, and I bet it was Jack’s mom. One of these days I was going to get him to talk about her. “That’s . . . wow. I’m . . .”
Jase laughed as he sidled up to my side. “Well, a guy only takes a girl home to his parents that he’s really serious or cares about.”
It was late when we returned to my dorm, and when Jase pulled around, I could see that the light was on in my dorm room. Deb must be back.