I cried so hard and for so long that it was worse than having a hangover, and the entire front of Jase’s shirt was drenched.
It was not a pretty sight.
Why he didn’t untangle my arms and push me away was beyond my understanding, but he held on. Cupping one hand to the back of my head, he held me to his chest as best he could with the gear shift between us, running his other hand up and down my spine. The whole time he whispered soothing, nonsensical words until he finally made me laugh.
“I always knew I’d make an excellent human tissue.” He dipped his head so that his chin rested atop my head. “Thank you for letting me achieve that dream.”
He was one durable tissue.
When I finally pulled myself together, we left Morgantown. I needed to call my mom, but I couldn’t bring myself to do that yet. She’d support me no matter what I did with my life, but she’d loved watching me dance and compete. In a way, it had been her dream, too.
When we neared Martinsburg, I glanced over at Jase. “Do we have to go back yet?”
“No. We can do whatever you want.”
Going back to that dorm meant going back and facing the future. Like all the classes I needed to take more seriously. “I mean, you probably have—”
“I’m where I want to be,” Jase said, sending me a look that shut me up. “You don’t want to go back yet. Fine. I got the perfect place we can go.”
“You do?” My voice sounded stuffy, and while I was curious to what level of a hot mess I looked, I didn’t dare peek in the mirror.
“Yep.” He winked.
The corners of my lips tipped up as I tugged the band out of my hair. Silence descended between us as we took the road that led to his parents’ farm, but he veered off halfway, turning between two thick oaks.
I clutched the oh-shit handle, my eyes widening. “Is this a road?”
He grinned. “Yes. No.”
A narrow strip of ground was beaten down to where only a few patches of grass peeked through the packed soil. “If this is a road, it’s the kind those kids took in Wrong Turn.”
Tipping his head back, Jase laughed deeply. “Trust me. Where we’re going is much better than where they were heading.”
“That’s not saying much.” With my hand clamped on the handle, I swallowed hard as the Jeep bumped along. Jase gripped the steering wheel hard, and the grin on his face as he winged around trees and rocks was contagious. The motion didn’t hurt my leg, not with the brace on, and before I knew it, I was laughing as I hopped in the seat. In those precious moments, I forgot everything.
“Hold on,” Jase warned.
The Jeep dipped into a gully, and I hooted as we bounced back up. The trees cleared away, revealing a grassy field blanketed with tiny, white flowers. Several yards ahead, the field eased into a body of water. There was a wooden dock that looked rather lonely.
He slowed down, coming to a stop a few feet away from the dock. “Welcome to the Winstead Lake,” he said, turning off the car.
“That’s what it’s called?”
He laughed. “No. It’s really just a pond. But it’s deep enough to go swimming in the summer, and there’s a lot of fish in there. It’s where Jack caught his first fish actually. He did it the first time I brought him out here.”
I smiled, picturing the two of them sitting on the edge of the dock, fishing poles in hand, and one of them much, much smaller. “How old was he?”
“Three,” he said, a proud smile forming on his lips. “He’s got fishing in his blood.”
“And horseback riding?” I unbuckled my seat belt.
“Yep. And he rocks at drawing stick figures, too.” He flashed a quick grin when I laughed, and I was happy that he’d still talk about Jack so easily knowing that I was privy to the truth. “Stay put, okay?”
My hands froze near the door handle. “All right?”
Jase hopped out and headed around the back of the Jeep. The hatch opened and then shut. A few seconds later, he reappeared a few feet away. Leaning back in the seat, I reached down and picked at the brace through my jeans as he spread a dark blue blanket over the dainty flowers.
Emotion clogged my throat, and I struggled to get it to go away. God, sometimes when I was with Jase, it was like all my girlie fantasies were coming true, but even my imagination wouldn’t have created a scene like this.
Was any of this real?
My fingers trailed along the edge of the brace. It was real. The good and the bad.
When he returned to the Jeep, he opened the door and then stopped, looking concerned. “You okay? The ride didn’t hurt your knee, did it?”
“I’m fine.” I smiled as I blinked. I needed meds or something. “Can I move now?”
A lopsided grin appeared as he reached in and gently maneuvered me so that my legs dangled out of the Jeep. Our eyes met as he slipped an arm under my knees and the other around my back. “Hold on.”
My heart did a backflip. A perfect one. “You do not need to carry me.”
“I know,” he replied. “Now hold on.”
I folded my arms around his neck. My fingers fisted the shirt along his shoulders. “I could use my crutches.”
“And I’m using my brawny, spectacular muscles.”
“They are quite spectacular,” I admitted.
He grinned. “Damn straight they are. Ready?”
I nodded, and he lifted me up smoothly. I felt kind of stupid as he carried me over to the blanket, but the ground was uneven and the crutches would’ve been a real bitch. When he sat me down, I reluctantly loosened my hold on him. “Using crutches on campus is going to suck butt.”
“It is.” He sat beside me, facing the pond. “But from what the doc said, it didn’t sound like you’d need them for long.”
I stretched my legs out on the blanket and reached down, adjusting the brace through my jeans. It had taken me forever to get used to it the first time. At the thought of having to wear this for weeks, if not months, my mood plummeted as if I swan dived off the top of the Empire State Building.
Tucking the loose hairs back behind my ears, I let out a breath I didn’t realize I was holding. With the exception of the chirps from the trees around us, there was no other sound. The place was tranquil. A place I wondered if Jase visited when he needed to think or get away. “Does this place get a lot of traffic?”
“We’re at least two miles from the farm, where Mom and Dad are, but this is still our property,” he explained. “No one comes out here except us, and they aren’t going to be coming anywhere near here, so we can stay as long as you want.”
I dropped my hands into my lap. “Thank you for bringing me out here.”
“No problem.” He nudged my arm with his. “You sure you don’t want to pick up those pain meds the doc gave you a prescription for?”
The script was burning a hole in my pocket. “No. I mean, it would be nice to take them and just not care, because that’s how they make me feel, but I need to deal with this. You know?”
“I get that, but you shouldn’t be in pain.”
“I’m not in a lot of pain.” And that much was true. It hurt, but it was manageable. Beside me, Jase lay back, folding his arms under his head. For a few moments, I got a little lost staring at the straight line of his nose and the way his lashes fanned to an indecent length. “Can I ask you something?”
I smiled, remembering my drunken response from Saturday night. “Why don’t you live at the farm? You love being around Jack. I’m surprised you’re not living there. I mean, can I ask you that?”
“Yeah,” he said immediately, frowning slightly. “I want to. You know, I’d be able to spend more time with him, but I don’t think it’s a good idea. It makes it . . . harder, especially when Mom and Dad do the parent thing with him. I want to step in and that would just confuse him.”
“Understandable.” I wet my lips. “I’m sorry.”
I gave a lopsided shrug. “It’s just, what you face with Jack is hard. You’re trying to do the right thing, but what’s really the right thing? No one knows. It’s got to be hard.”
“It is. That’s why I’m not sure if telling him the truth will ever be the right thing,” he admitted, and I was relieved that he was talking to me about this, because this was more important than my stupid leg. “On the flip side, shouldn’t he know? And what if he finds out by accident when he’s older? That kind of shit keeps me up at night.”
Reaching over, I squeezed his hand. “I think you’ll figure it out.”
He didn’t say anything, but there was something about the way he looked at me that forced the words beyond my lips.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” I whispered, switching my gaze to the still waters. That’s how I felt. Too still. As if my life was stuck on the pause button. “I thought . . . I always thought I’d be able to go back. That I would dance again. That’s what I always thought I’d do and now . . .” I trailed off, shaking my head.
“Everything has changed,” he added quietly.
I nodded as I blew out a breath.
“I said it before and I’ll say it again. Sometimes some really good things come from something unexpected.” His lashes lifted, and the intensity in his gaze was unnerving, as if his words meant more than what he was saying. “I know that’s not easy to swallow right now and doesn’t help you, but I’m speaking the truth.”
I nodded again. “You’re talking about Jack?”
I looked over my shoulder at him again. His gaze was trained on the cloudless, deep blue sky. One side of his lips curled up. “You know, you’ll make a great teacher, Tess.”
A strangled-sounding laugh escaped me. “You said I’d be unhappy being a teacher.”
“No. I said that you’d be happy doing it, but it’s not what you want.”
“How’s that any different?”
He slid me a sideways look. “It’s very different. Teaching could become something you want and something you love to do. You just need time.”
Time was a funny and fickle thing. Sometimes there was never enough of it, and other times it stretched out endlessly.
“I really believe that,” he said quietly.
Pressure clamped down on my chest. Maybe he was right. Maybe tomorrow or next week or next month, all of this wouldn’t seem like such a death sentence. But right now, I felt like I was free-falling, my arms flailing and there wasn’t anything to grab onto to stop my fall.
“I don’t want to talk about this,” I said, voice hoarse as I squeezed my eyes shut.
“What do you want?”
“I . . . I don’t want to think about this. Maybe that makes me weak.”
“It doesn’t,” he said, and I felt him roll onto his side.
“And I don’t want to feel this right now—this emptiness and uncertainty and confusion.” The next breath I took was shaky. “I just don’t want to feel this.”
Maybe I should’ve gotten the prescription filled.
There was a moment, perhaps no more than a heartbeat, and then his hand wrapped around the curve of my elbow. My eyes snapped open when he tugged me onto my back. Air hitched in my throat as his lean body hovered over mine as he rose up on his elbow.
“I have an idea,” he said with a small grin. The teasing look didn’t reach his eyes. Something else burned there. A powerful intensity that caused the muscles in my stomach to quiver. “And I think this idea will definitely have you feeling something else.”
“You do?” My heart rate picked up.
“Uh-huh.” He placed the tips of his fingers on my cheek and very slowly dragged them over my parted lips and then down my throat. “I have a degree in art.”
My brows rose. “What?”
“You didn’t know?” His hand moved farther south, over the hem of my shirt and then he stopped, his palm resting against the swells of my br**sts. “I have a degree in the art of distraction.”
I laughed. “That’s so lame.”
“But it’s working, right?” He grinned as he lowered his head. His lips brushed the curve of my cheek, exactly where his fingers had been. “You know what else?”
“What?” I shivered as his hand moved again, sliding between my br**sts and resting just below my belly button.
“There’s something else I have a degree in.” His lips grazed the corner of mine, and a rush of tingles shot over my skin. “You’re going to say it’s lame, but I’ll know the truth. You’re secretly amazed by my skill.”
“God only knows what it is.” I moved my lower lip, to bite down on it, but Jase beat me to it. His teeth caught my lip in a gentle nip. I gasped at the unexpected sensation, and he took that as an invitation. Covering my lips with his, he slipped his tongue in, twirling it over mine and then flicking along the roof of my mouth.