Recognition flared in her deep brown eyes. “Ah, yes. How is that brother of yours doing?”
On safe, common ground, I started to relax a little. “He’s doing good. He’s going to try out for D.C. United early next year.”
“Really? That’s great to hear.” She glanced over at Jase, who now had his brother doing the Superman cape thing again. God, they were adorable together. Sigh. “Did you know Jase used to play soccer?”
“Mom,” Jase groaned.
I nodded. “Yeah, Cam’s mentioned it a time or two, but he never said why he stopped.”
Mrs. Winstead opened her mouth, but Jase swung Jack around, putting him safely on the ground. “We’ve got to run, Mom.” He barely looked at me. “Come on, Tess.”
I folded my arms across my chest as I stepped back, biting my tongue. I was not a dog, and I did not respond to commands.
“I wanna go!” Jack immediately started toward the Jeep, but Jase caught up with him.
“Nah, little buddy, you have to sit this one out.”
His lower lip started to tremble. “But I wanna go with you.”
“I know, but I’ve got to take Tess back, all right?”
Jack pouted, clearly seconds away from what would likely become an epic tantrum. Jase knelt in front of him, brows raised as he held the boy’s shoulders. He got down on his level, so unlike most guys his age. “I’ll come back, okay? We’ll go out for ice cream. How does that sound?”
Jack’s eyes lit up, but the boys’ mom frowned. “Jase, you’re going to ruin his dinner. Again.”
Jase stuck his tongue out. “We aren’t going to ruin anything, are we?”
He giggled. “Nope!”
“Okay. Get your butt inside.” He rose, guiding Jack over to where Mrs. Winstead waited. “I’ll be back in a little while.” He turned to me, and I tensed.
Feeling as awkward as a dancer on a stage for the first time, I waved at Mrs. Winstead and Jack. “It was nice meeting you.”
She smiled broadly as she glanced over at Jase and then back to me. “I hope to see you again.”
Ah, well, shit just got more awkward.
I nodded, because what could I do? Jack tore away from Mrs. Winstead’s hold and gave me one last hug. Squeezing him back, I knew it would be hard not to love the little boy.
Part of me wanted to stay behind and hitch a ride back to campus, but that would look weird, so after Jack ran off, I made my way over to the Jeep. Ever the gentleman when he wanted, Jase held open the door.
I didn’t say thank you.
Jase climbed in, letting out a sigh that rivaled anything I could’ve produced, which pissed me off, because why was he feeling put out? Jaw locked down, he turned the car around and headed down the gravel road. He didn’t speak until we neared the end of the long stretch of road.
“Don’t,” I said, cutting him off. “There is really nothing you have to say right now that I’m probably going to want to hear. And if you tell me what just happened is a mistake again . . .” My voice cracked in an embarrassing way. “I’m going to punch you in the throat. Seriously.”
His lips twitched as if he thought I was joking. “I shouldn’t have phrased it that way, but—”
“Nope,” I warned, sensing he was about to say something even worse. “Just take me home.” I pressed my lips together to keep them from quivering like a pansy ass, and I could feel his eyes on me. “I just want to go home.”
There was a beat of silence and then he said, “Fuck.”
Instead of pulling out, he shifted the gear into park. The Jeep idled as he twisted in his seat toward me. “You don’t understand, Tess.”
I rolled my eyes, about to make a smart-ass comment, but stopped when my throat closed up. “You’re right. I don’t. You’re attracted to me. You want me, but you keep pushing me away. Is it because of Cam? Because seriously, that’s lame, Jase. He’s my brother, not the holder of my chastity.”
Jase’s face puckered as if he’d tasted something sour. “Okay. That’s an image I never wanted to picture.”
“Oh, shut up.”
His features smoothed out as he clenched the steering wheel. “All right, it’s not Cam. Maybe in the beginning it was, because hooking up with his little sister is crossing all kinds of lines, but I can get over that.”
“Obviously you did,” I muttered, turning my gaze to the passenger window. “Or your c**k got over it real quick like.”
Jase swallowed a strangled cough. “Tess, I . . . it’s just you don’t want to be with me. You really don’t want that.”
I barked out a short laugh. “Wow. So this is a new attempt. You’re not rejecting me, but it’s more like I’m rejecting you? Smooth.”
“It’s not like that,” he insisted. “Trust me. There are things you don’t know about me and if you did, you wouldn’t be sitting here.”
Returning my gaze to him, I arched a brow. “Did you kill someone? Cut up their body and feed it to hogs?”
“What?” His brows furrowed. “No.”
“Have you beaten or raped a girl? Have a stash of kids locked in a basement somewhere? Or you’re secretly a terrorist?”
His face contorted into disgust. “Fuck. No.”
“Okaay,” I said slowly. “I’m not sure exactly what you could’ve done that is so terrible then.”
He looked away, shaking his head. “You don’t get it, Tess. I can’t have you.”
“But you do have me,” I whispered, and then clamped my mouth shut. Did I just say that? Horrified, I could only stare as his eyes widened.
Oh my God, I did just say that out loud.
But it was true. Jase had me whether he realized it or not, even if he wanted me or not. I couldn’t change how I felt about him or what I wanted.
“I don’t,” he said, shadows forming in his eyes. “I don’t want to hurt your feelings.”
But . . . there was an unspoken “but” that sunk deep within me.
Closing my eyes, I sucked in a shrill breath as pressure in my chest formed and expanded. I put it out there for him, so pathetically, and that was all he could say? Embarrassed beyond belief, all I wanted was to get away. “Please take me home.”
He remained still in the driver’s seat. “Tess—”
“Take me home!”
There was a heartbeat of silence as he dropped his hands into his lap. “He’s my son!” Jase shouted, startling him and me, and then he said lower, as if he couldn’t believe he was actually saying it, “Jack’s my son.”
I didn’t think I heard him right at first. I had to have heard something other than what he said, because there was no way Jack was his son. Jack was his brother.
But as I stared at him and took in the paleness of his face and the clarity of his gray eyes, I knew that what he’d spoken was something so rare, so unknown to probably almost anyone, that it was the truth.
I shook my head, dumbfounded. “Jack’s your son?”
Jase held my gaze a moment longer and then focused ahead. Several seconds passed before he spoke. “Shit. I . . . no one knows that, Tess. My parents do. Cam does, but he would never say anything. No one else knows.”
Unsurprised that Cam knew this about Jase, I was still a little shocked that he hadn’t told me. Then again, it had never been my business.
I really didn’t know how to process this as I stared at him. My thoughts raced. Jack and Jase did look an awful lot alike, but so did brothers. Jase was superclose with Jack, seeming to have a two-way bond with the boy, but so did a lot of brothers. Jase seemed to put Jack before a lot of things, but brothers did that.
But they weren’t brothers.
They were father and son.
Lots of things suddenly made sense. Besides how he acted around Jack, there was our conversation earlier. How he seemed to know firsthand that some of the best things in life weren’t planned. And it probably explained why he no longer played soccer or had any plans of taking a job after college that would force him to move away. He wanted to be here with his son, no matter the status between them. It also explained why he didn’t keep girls around, because he did have a kid, and even if he wasn’t actively raising that child, he could be one day. And that was a lot to dump on a girl. I could get that. I was pretty shell-shocked.
Jase was a dad.
He was most definitely a FILF—a father I’d like to f**k.
I squeezed my eyes shut. Oh my God, I couldn’t believe I just thought that. But he was a dad.
The air leaked out of me, and then I swallowed hard as he reached over, plucking something—a piece of hay—out of my hair. He twirled it between his fingers as I gawked at him. “Does . . . does he know?”
Jase shook his head. “No. He thinks his grandparents are his parents.”
“Why?” I asked the question before I could rethink how intrusive it was. God, that was rude of me. But I wanted to know. I needed to know how Jase, someone who clearly loved that little boy more than life, was letting someone else raise him.
“It’s a mess,” he answered, leaning back in the seat. He rubbed his hand down his face and sighed. “They’ve raised him since birth as their own. Even adopted him. That makes me sound like shit, doesn’t it?” He tilted his head toward me, and pain filled his eyes, causing my chest to clench. “I’m not even raising my own son. My f**king parents are and he doesn’t even know. That makes me so attractive, doesn’t it?”
I blinked rapidly, my mouth hung open, and I had no idea what to say to that.
He laughed harshly as he tipped his head back against the seat. Tension seeped out of his shoulders. “I’m not raising my own kid,” he repeated, and I knew right off that was something he said to himself quite often. “For five years, my parents have raised him. I want to change that, but I can’t take back those years, and how do I change that now? Telling him could f**king destroy his world and I don’t want to do that. It would also break my parents’ hearts, because they think of him as their own.” His eyes closed. “I’m a damn deadbeat dad.”
Jase laughed humorlessly again, and I sat up straighter. “You are not a deadbeat.”
“Oh, come on.” A self-degrading smile appeared. “I just told you I have a kid. I’m almost twenty-two years old and I have a five-year-old that my parents are raising. Do the math, Tess. I was sixteen when he was conceived. Sixteen. Still in high school. Obviously that’s not something to be proud of.”
“Is it something you’re ashamed of?”
His gaze sharpened on me and he seemed to toss around that question. “No,” he said quietly. “I’m not ashamed of Jack. I’ll never be. But I am ashamed of the fact that I’m not owning up to my responsibility and being his father.”
I bit down on my lip, wanting to ask so many questions as a truck blew past the entrance road. “So you were sixteen when he was conceived? You were just a kid, right? Just like I was a kid when I was with Jeremy.”
“That’s different.” He closed his eyes. “That doesn’t excuse anything on my end.”
“How many sixteen-year-olds do you know that could be a parent?” I demanded.
“There are many who are.”
“So? That doesn’t mean that every sixteen-year-old is equipped and ready for that. I sure as hell wouldn’t have been. And my parents would’ve helped me out.” I paused, realizing like an idiot that it takes two people to make a baby the last time I checked. “You also weren’t the only person responsible. There had to have been a mom. Where is—?”
“I’m not talking about her,” he said sharply, and I flinched at his tone. “None of this has to do with her at all.”
Whoa. There was definitely some baby mama drama right there.
“And helping isn’t the same thing as adopting.” His eyes opened into thin slits. “When I told my parents what was going on, they were upset, but they wanted me to finish school, go to college and keep playing soccer. They didn’t want me to give all that up.”
“I don’t blame them,” I said softly. But what about the mother?
“So it was either that or give Jack up for adoption, because I wasn’t ready. As f**ked up as this sounds, I didn’t want him at first. I didn’t want anything to do with him; before he was even born or I even laid eyes on him, I gave him up in a way . . .” His voice grew thick and he cleared his throat. It was obvious that whoever the mom was, she was out of the picture the moment Jack was born, and I was dying to know why. “So they filed for adoption and it was granted. Looking back, I realize how f**king selfish I was. I should’ve owned up then, but I didn’t ,and there is nothing I can do to change that right now.”