He chuckled as his pinkie and forefinger started to move up and down, reaching my belly button and then sliding back up. It was almost as if he was unaware of what he was doing, or the electrifying response the tiny motions were dragging out of me. “I think so too, but his real name is Lightning.”
Said horse shook his head, tossing the shaggy mane.
“Lightning seems to be a more suitable name,” I admitted, relaxing as the seconds passed. Maybe that was his intention. Distract me with the soft, almost innocent touches. It was working. “What about Bubba Two?”
“Ah, the one who is staring at the pail like it’s the holy mecca of grain?” His cheek grazed mine as I laughed. “That’s Thunder. And we’re going to feed them. Together.”
The friction his fingers created with my shirt sent tiny shivers up and down my back. “With our hands?”
His answering laugh tipped the corners of my lips up. “Yes. With our hands.”
“After checking out the choppers on them, I’m not so sure about that.”
“You’ll be okay.” He slid his hand off my stomach and wrapped it around my wrist. Slowly, he lifted my hand out in front of me. “Hold still.”
My heart lurched. “Jase—”
Lightning trotted forward and pressed his wet nose against my hand. I cringed, waiting for him to eat my poor fingers. The horse didn’t. Nope. It nudged my hand as it whinnied softly.
He guided my hand up over Lightning’s jaw, all the way to the pointy, twitchy ears. “See?” he murmured. “That’s not too bad, is it?”
I shook my head as my fingers curled along the soft coat. Lightning seemed to anticipate the direction of the petting, pressing his long head against my hand as my fingers tangled in his mane. It wasn’t bad at all.
Jase shifted behind me, and in an instant all thoughts of the horses evaporated. His h*ps lined up against my backside, and I bit down on my lower lip as I focused on the white splotch covering Lightning’s muzzle.
I could feel him—feel Jase. And there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that he was affected by how close we were standing. That knowledge and the hard length of him left me dizzy, just like it had done that Saturday night. An all too warm flush spread down my neck. In the back of my head, I was rationalizing his physical reaction. He was a guy. Our bodies were pressed together. If a wind blew on a guy’s private area, they got hard. So I should just ignore it, but my body was so not on board with my head. My body was operating on a different playing field. An ache centered low in my stomach. A sharp and sweet yearning raced through my veins.
“Not so scary, right?” His voice was deeper, richer. “They’re like dogs. Well, like a dog that can carry around two hundred pounds, if not more.” Hand sliding off mine, he stepped back, and the sudden emptiness of his body was like a cold shock. “Trust me.”
Then he smacked my ass.
I yelped, eyes widening as I started to turn toward him, but Lightning, apparently annoyed with the lack of attention, nosed my arm. “Uh . . .”
“It’s okay. You were just petting him. And he didn’t eat your hand.”
I considered that as Lightning stared at me with dark eyes. Scratching him behind the ear, I was still scared out of my mind. The size of the horses was astonishing up close, and I honestly couldn’t ever picture myself sitting astride them, especially one named Lightning.
Jase returned to my side, sitting the bucket between us. Thunder followed, tail twitching in impatience. After kneeling and scooping up a handful of oats, Jase rose. The brown muzzle immediately went for his hand as Jase looked over at me. “It’s that easy.”
While letting a horse eat out of my hand wasn’t something I imagined doing, I didn’t complain when Jase dumped some oats in my open palm. Face scrunched, I offered my hand to Lightning.
“You should see yourself right now.” Jase laughed as he shook his head. “It’s cute.”
And probably a bit ridiculous. My cheeks warmed as Lightning nosed around the oats in my hand. “Picky eater?”
Jase grinned as he rubbed Thunder’s neck with his free hand. “I think he’s taking his time because he likes you.”
“Is that so?” I smiled as I slowly reached out with my other hand, caressing the elegant muzzle. Several moments passed as I considered how I ended up here. This was more than just a horse meet and greet for no reason. I got what Jase was trying to do. It all stemmed back to the conversation in his Jeep. Substituting the rush of adrenaline and pleasure dancing brought me with something else.
The fact that he even cared enough to do this, to take the time, moved me. More than a stolen kiss a year ago or brief touches now could. Emotion clogged my throat as Lightning nibbled at the oats, tickling my palm.
I didn’t know why Jase was doing this for me. Yes, we were friends—friends for a while now. When he visited Cam, he’d also visited me, but this seemed like more than what a friend would do.
Then again, I wasn’t an expert on friends.
As I stood there, the light breeze doing nothing to erase the fine sheen of humidity coating my skin, I realized with sudden clarity that I was really quite . . . friendless. Because if Sadi or any of my studio friends were true friends, we’d still be in contact even if we no longer shared a common goal. It wasn’t just envy or bitterness that stood between us. Without dance, there just wasn’t anything there.
I swallowed the burn in my throat. “Is it really like flying?”
Jase glanced over at me and nodded. “It is.”
Pushing the thickness down again, I returned my attention to Lightning, scooping up more oats once he’d finished with what I held. There was something peaceful about all this—the quiet of the farm, the simple act.
“This isn’t bad,” I admitted quietly.
“I know. It will be better once you understand what here is to you.”
I bit my lip, remembering what I’d said in the Jeep. “When did you get so wise sounding?”
“I’ve always been extremely wise. So much so, I consider it a curse.”
I laughed softly.
“Actually, it’s experience. Things come along you don’t expect all the time, Tess. Trust me. Things that change everything about your life—about what you thought you wanted, who you thought you were. Things that make you reevaluate everything and even if it doesn’t sound like a good thing in the beginning?” He shrugged as he settled his gaze on Thunder. “Sometimes they turn out better than you could’ve ever imagined.”
The way clarity rang in his voice, I had no doubt in my mind he had firsthand experience with the unexpected.
“You know something?” Jase asked after a couple of minutes passed. “What Jacob said in the Den yesterday wasn’t true.”
The swift change of the subject startled me. As Lightning ate out of my palm, I looked at Jase. “What?”
Thunder, done eating, turned and trotted off as Jase wiped his hands along his jeans. He sauntered up to where I stood, idly scratching Lightning’s ear since I dropped my free hand. “You know what I’m talking about, Tess. And I know why you left immediately afterward.”
My first response was to deny, because denial was almost always easier than facing the truth. Especially when the truth was sort of humiliating. But Jase had intimate knowledge of said truth. Right now, denial would just make me look stupid.
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“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?”
I shrugged a shoulder.
“How old, Tess?” Determination filled his tone.
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.”
I arched a brow. “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.