Jase nipped at my ear.
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?”
We went 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.”
Warmth cascaded over my cheeks. “Thank you.”
“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?”
He tucked a loose strand of hair back. “Since high school.”
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 . . .”
I snorted. So ladylike. “That sounds a bit extreme.”
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.
Jase followed my gaze. “We still on for dinner tomorrow?”
I glanced back at him. “I thought we were having lunch at Betty’s?”
He grinned. “Doesn’t mean we can’t have dinner.”
“True,” I laughed, but the sound died off as he pulled up to the sidewalk. I was reluctant to leave him. Today . . . today had been a great day. Jeep idling, he reached for the door handle. “You don’t have to walk me up.”
I silenced him with a kiss. If he came up, I wouldn’t want him to leave, and I needed to talk to Deb. “You don’t have to do it. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
He took his hand off the door. “Text me before you go to bed.”
My lips split into a wide grin. “Okay.”
Before I could pull away, he wrapped his hand around the nape of my neck and kissed me. At once, my mouth opened to his. He tasted me in a way that made it even harder to leave. “Night, Tess.”
I closed my eyes as I pulled back. “Night.”
Jase waited until I was inside before pulling away and I hopped along on my crutches, taking the elevator. Like I suspected, Deb was in the dorm.
She was sitting on the bed, cross-legged, hair pulled back and wearing an oversized hoodie. When she looked up, she smacked her hand over her mouth. “Oh my God.”
I stilled in the door, confused. “What?”
“Crutches!” She unfurled her legs but didn’t make it far. “I knew you would be on crutches, but I just . . . I don’t know.” She pressed her hand to her chest. “I’m so sorry.”
Placing the crutches against the wall, I carefully walked to my bed and sat down. I didn’t know how to start this conversation, but I knew I was going to tell her about my past. It just wasn’t easy to say, by the way, I dated a f**king loser who beat me. “Debbie—”
“I broke up with Erik.”
I blinked, thinking I hadn’t heard her right. And then hope sprang within me. “What?”
She got up and sat beside me. “I broke up with Erik earlier today.”
“That’s . . .” What did I say? Great? Fantastic? That seemed inappropriate because I think Deb really cared about him.
“It needed to be done. It had to be because . . .” She ducked her chin, hiding her gaze. “Because you were right on Sunday. Erik . . . he can be a really good guy, but . . .”
“But he hits you,” I said quietly, and for some damn reason, my chest began to squeeze.
She nodded slowly. “He didn’t hit me often. You know, it wasn’t all the time. Sometimes he would just grab me or yell at me. He always—always—seemed to regret it afterward. Or at least his apologies seemed believable, and I always forgave him.” She paused, drawing in a deep breath. “No one has ever said anything. Not until you did. I think it was partly because he’s been—uh, losing his cool a lot more lately, but everyone just looked away.”
“It’s hard to say something,” I said, tucking my left leg against my chest. “I didn’t want to make you mad.” Or embarrass her because that was the main emotion I had felt when my family discovered what I’d been hiding.
“I wasn’t mad. I was ashamed,” she said, confirming my thoughts. “Because why would I stay with him when it’s so obvious he doesn’t treat me right?”
“Because sometimes he treats you like a queen?” I fiddled with the frayed hem of my jeans. “And you hang on to those moments because you know he’s capable of being a good guy.”
I could feel her eyes on me. “You’ve been . . . ?”
Without saying anything, I nodded.
She let out a low breath. “And you broke up with him?”
“Not really.” I barked out a short laugh. “My mom and Cam saw the bruises and I finally told them the truth. I wanted to leave him before then, but I was scared and . . .”
“And you loved him?” she asked in a quiet voice that was laced with pain.
Tugging the little white strings on my jeans, I swallowed hard. “He was my first—first of everything. I thought I was in love with him. Looking back now, I know it was more about being afraid of being—”
“Alone?” she said, and I nodded. “We’re pretty stupid, huh? Being afraid of being single outweighs the fear of being hit.”
“You’re not stupid anymore,” I pointed out. “You broke up with him.”
“I did.” Her eyes filled with tears, and she blinked tightly.
The squeezing pressure moved up my throat. I was happy for her—thrilled to be exact, but I knew this had to be hard for her. The first night things were over between Jeremy and me had been the hardest. Because like with Erik, Jeremy had this almost magical ability of making me forget the bad moments. He excelled at that, so much so that it was also one of the reasons why I hadn’t left him. Now that I was older, I realized that was a hallmark of an abuser. They could be as charming as sin when required, and that made them as dangerous as a rattlesnake.
“How did Erik take it?” I asked.
A wobbly smile appeared. “Not very good.”
My stomach tumbled a little. “He didn’t—”
“No! He didn’t. It was the opposite.” She wiped at her eyes with the back of her hands. I put a hand on her arm and squeezed. “He apologized and cried and begged . . .” She shook her head. “He got angry at the end, but I left before it could go any further.”
She looked up, meeting my eyes. “I’m sorry that I didn’t listen to you on Sunday and for what happened when I came back with Erik. I do think it was accident, but it shouldn’t have happened because when he gets angry, he doesn’t think.”
“Is that what made you break up with him?”
“Yes. And no.” She cleared her throat. “When Jase confronted him Wednesday morning and I found out that your knee was completely blown—”
“Jase confronted him?” I cut in, feeling my eyes widen as I stared at her.
She nodded. “He showed up right before we were leaving for classes. I didn’t know he’d hurt you that badly.”
I waved that off, feeling my pulse pick up. “What did Jase say to him?”
“Not much really. Jase told him that if you ever ended up hurt again, that he’d pretty much put him in a grave. Erik was in a mood.” Reaching up, she tugged her ponytail down. “He mouthed off and called you . . . called you a nosy bitch who needed to stay away from me.”
I didn’t give two shits what Erik said about me, but my stomach fell out of my butt.
“Jase didn’t take to that well,” she continued. “Neither did Erik’s face when it was all said and done.”
Squeezing my eyes shut, I fought for breath as I flashed hot and cold. Images of Jase’s knuckles rushed through my head. He’d gone after Erik. Just like Cam had gone after Jeremy. In a way, history had totally repeated itself. Anger and disappointment and something else I didn’t want to acknowledge crashed together inside me.
“You okay?” Deb asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Things are going to be so much better now for you.” My voice was hoarse as I focused on what was important right now, which was Debbie, and not what Jase had done. “I really do mean that.”
“I know.” She hugged me tightly, and when she pulled away, the tears had dried. “My life starts over now, and I only have good things to look forward to.”
Debbie and I had stayed up late talking. At first it had been hard to hear about how Jase had confronted Jeremy the morning I believed he’d been with Jack. Maybe he’d done both. Not that it mattered, because it didn’t change anything. But eventually I told Debbie everything about Jeremy. I watered down Cam’s reaction, but it still felt so, so damn good to get it off my shoulders. To share what it had been like with someone who could truly understand. And Deb told me about the good times, the bad times, and the downright horrifying moments. There were moments when I could sense that Deb was having doubts and that was natural. They’d been together for years and sometimes it was hard to let someone go, even if he was a sociopath. People who hadn’t been in a situation like we’d been in just wouldn’t understand. They’d think we were stupid and weak, but the smartest and strongest girl could fall prey to a poison-tongued charmer.