Jase dropped my bag and then opened the door. He moved his hand, and the rough calluses on his palms trailed along the back of my thighs. I shivered in spite of the heat, and mentally cursed my body’s reaction to him.
He reached up, gripping my hips. “You can let go of my shirt now.”
“Oh.” I released my grip.
His shoulders shook with a laugh, and then the front of my body slid down his. Air halted in my throat at the unexpected frisson. Awareness shimmered over certain parts in my body. My feet were on the pavement, but his hands lingered on my hips.
“There you go,” he said, his voice deeper than before as he dropped his hands. “You can climb in, right?”
Pushing the hair out of my face, I took a deep breath. “I’m not an invalid.”
“I didn’t say you were.”
“I can walk, you know, and climb into Jeeps.”
He picked up my bag, dropping it in the backseat. “I’m sure you can.”
When he raised an eyebrow, I realized that he was literally going to stand there until I got into the car. Sighing, I turned and climbed up. He flashed me a grin, closed the door, and then loped around the front.
He started the Jeep and warm air blasted out of the vents, stirring the hair around my face. His eyes were a clear, steely gray when they landed on me. “Okay. Why didn’t you want me to give you a ride?”
Seeing that all the humor had disappeared, I squirmed. “It’s not that I didn’t want you to give me a ride.”
“Really?” He reached up, unhooking his sunglasses from the visor. Sliding them up his nose, he settled back against his seat. Locks of hair fell forward, brushing the rim of the aviators.
Goodness gracious, he looked damn good in sunglasses.
Even though his eyes were shielded, there was no escaping his stare. No one looked at you like Jase Winstead did. It was like he was seeing right through me, layer by exposing layer. “Is it because of Saturday night? I was pretty inebriated. Shit, I don’t remember anything from the moment I stepped into your dorm.”
The back of my neck prickled. “Nothing?”
He shook his head. “So God only knows what I said and did, and I must’ve said something, because you didn’t want to get in this Jeep with me.”
Part of me wanted to punch him in the balls even though I knew beyond a doubt that he’d been drunk—drunk enough to have no recollection of telling me that I was a reason for why he’d visited Cam so much or our little interlude on the floor. It took a lot for me not to blast him over that, but what point would it serve? He’d been sloshed, and I had been the one who went out to meet him and then let him in my dorm. All this was temporary, and I couldn’t let this make an already crappy situation worse.
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “You didn’t do or say anything to make me mad.”
He didn’t respond for a moment. “But I slept on your floor and you slept on the couch?”
“Yeah . . . uh, you sort of fell down and stayed there.” I shrugged a shoulder. “I fell asleep on the couch.”
“Nice.” He coughed out a short laugh. Several seconds passed, and I considered making a mad dash out of the car. “We’re friends, right?”
My heart sunk in spite of my convictions on the state of him and me. “Yes.”
“Correct me if I’m wrong, friends give friends rides, right?”
I nodded, knowing where this conversation was heading.
“So what’s the big deal?”
Looking away, I blew out a long breath. Spending any amount of time in his presence didn’t help my determination to put an end to this stupid crush, but there was another reason. “I don’t want people thinking . . .” Picking at the hem of my shorts, I shook my head. “There’re a lot of things I can’t do right now—dance, work out, run, or even jog at a sedate pace. I can walk. That’s about all I can do.”
I kind of felt stupid after saying that and I doubted he’d understand how hard it was for me to go from being so active to becoming a sloth. And not even the cute baby sloths.
“Ah, here I was thinking you were secretly hoping I’d pick you up.” He switched gears into reverse.
I laughed. “Sorry to disappoint you.”
“You’d never be a disappointment.” Looking over his shoulder as he backed up, he smiled, and I wondered if he could see the way my pulse had jumped at his words. “I get what you’re saying. It’s hard when you’re used to doing something that was as common as breathing to you.”
“It is.” I tugged on the string dangling off my hem. “I miss the rush of dancing and running. You know? The energy. It’s calming and it’s just me . . .” I wasn’t sure I was making any sense. “And I don’t have that anymore.”
Shifting into drive, he relaxed his grip on the steering wheel. He was quiet as he navigated the parking lot. “You know there are other things you could do.”
Like sex? I bet that was relaxing when it was all said and done.
“You know one of the most calming things I’ve found?” he asked, having no idea that my mind was happily playing in the gutter. “Horseback riding.”
I blinked. “Ah . . .”
He grinned. “There really isn’t anything like it. I’m telling you, Tess. You ever feel like you’re flying when you’re dancing?”
“Yeah,” I whispered, sort of stunned. I missed that most of all.
He nodded. “That’s how it feels to be on top of a horse. You should try it. I think you’d love it.”
I shifted, having no idea what to say to that. Was it an invitation to his parents’ farm? Did it matter? Getting in a saddle was tantamount to playing chicken with a pissed-off T. rex to me.
“Hungry?” he asked, changing the subject before I could answer. “I’m heading over to the Den. Cam and Avery are there. They’ve got to have better food than the dining hall.”
They did. I shrugged.
“Come on.” He reached over, nudging my arm. “Come on and eat with us.”
My lips twitched as I glanced at him. This . . . this was the Jase I remembered. Teasing. Open. Fun. Someone I could talk to and be honest with. As stupid as it was, I found myself wishing that he’d remembered what had happened after he stepped into my dorm. Then again, it was probably better that he didn’t. “I don’t want to come across as the little sister tagging along.”
I shot him a dry as sand look. “I’ve tagged along half of my life. I followed him to college.”
“You didn’t follow him, Tess.” He paused as he slowed for the stop sign, glancing over at me. That half grin was back. “And guess what?”
My lips responded, curving up at the corners. “What?”
“He doesn’t care if you did follow him here. He’s happy that you’re here,” he said. “I don’t care if you did follow him. And I’m happy that you did.”
I stopped fighting Jase on the whole riding-versus-walking thing pretty quickly, especially as the leaves from the huge maple trees planted throughout the campus turned from bright green to a beautiful array of red, gold, and brown. September eased into October with a spell of rain that seemed to be never ending. Fall was well under way, and every morning and night, a chill rolled off the Potomac, warning that this could possibly be a very cold and a very wet winter.
And at least once a week, he’d stashed a cupcake in the Jeep, keeping it cool in a little cooler in the backseat. On the way to east campus, we’d share the tasty goodness. He was going to make me gain ten pounds this way, but so far I’d had a variety of cupcakes—Twix, Oreos, strawberry, white chocolate, Skittles—that was kind of gross—banana and chocolate, and a dark chocolate cupcake that was so decadent I felt like I had to go to church after eating it.
Today we shared a red velvet cupcake with some kind of cream cheese icing.
It was divine.
Wherever he got these cupcakes from deserved a gold medal in f**king awesome.
Thick, fat clouds crowded the sky by the time music class let out on Wednesday. It was going to rain. Again. With my knee, I had to be super-duper careful on the slick sidewalks. Busting my ass would be as embarrassing as it would be devastating.
I waved good-bye to Calla as I climbed into the Jeep. The second after Jase turned the ignition, the Elvis Presley channel on XM kicked on. Ugh. As he backed out, I leaned forward and turned it to the Octane channel.
Jase stopped—just completely stopped in the middle of the parking lot. “Did you just do what I think you just did?”
“What?” I asked innocently.
Cars were pulling out behind us, but his Jeep blocked their path. The look on his face said he so did not care. “You just turned off The Man for . . .” He glanced at the radio, grimacing. “For Godsmack?”
“Hey. Don’t you talk shit about Godsmack.”
“I have no problem with them.” A horn blew. He ignored it. “Until it affects Elvis.”
“I cannot listen to Elvis.”
His mouth dropped as his brows winged up. “We cannot be friends any longer.”
Jase narrowed his eyes as he finally—thank God—put the Jeep into drive. “It’s a good thing you’re cute or I’d drop-kick you out of this car.”
I laughed outright as I settled back in the seat. “I could say the same thing about you with your questionable tastes.” A wide smile pulled at my lips as he shot me a disgruntled look. “Country music has got to go.”
“Oh, you don’t know what good music is.” Jase hung a left. “I’m gonna have to educate you.”
Warmth bubbled up in my chest, and I struggled to ignore it. We went back and forth on the music while he searched for parking. It took a bit of time since he passed up several open spaces farther out. I knew why. He didn’t want me to walk, and while catering to my leg usually made my skin itchy and too tight, I didn’t say anything as he circled the main drag a few times until a spot opened up between Sara Creed and the Den. It was nice of him, courteous even, and I couldn’t let myself think that it meant anything else.
“How’s Jack?” I asked when he started preaching the gospel of Johnny Cash.
A certain light filled his eyes, a look of pride, and I went all ooey gooey on the inside. “He’s doing great. Started kindergarten this year. His teacher—Mrs. Higgins—said he’s the smartest kid in class.”
I smiled as I slid out of my seat. “Are you sure he’s your brother?”
“What do you mean?” He appeared in front of me and grabbed my bag out of the backseat before I could even move. There was an odd look to his gray eyes. “Of course, he’s my brother.”
“I was kidding.” I grabbed for my bag, but he slung it over his shoulder. “You know, with him being the smartest kid in class, I wasn’t sure how he could be related to you.”
The wariness vanished from his gaze and he smiled. “Ha. Jack gets his intelligence, good looks, and charm from me.”
Chuckling deeply, he held my bag in one hand and draped his other arm over my shoulders. The weight was sudden and distracting, causing the nape of my neck to tingle, sending tiny shivers down my arm.
To Jase, this wasn’t a big deal. Nor did he probably even notice the stares as we walked up the stairs to the Den, passing people who knew him—because everyone knew him. I easily remembered the first time he’d done something like this—the evening he’d arrived without any warning.
It had been the weekend after the . . . incident with Cam. My brother had holed himself up in the basement, having already drunk himself through the collection of scotch our father had stocked. Jase had apparently been talking to Cam through text and had grown concerned. He’d dropped everything and driven the several hours to see him.
I’d been dumbstruck when I saw Jase standing in the foyer, talking to Mom and Dad. He was the most handsome boy I’d ever seen—his hair shorter then, but no less wild, and his eyes a steely gray as they’d drifted and landed on where I’d been more or less hiding, peeking around the door to the family room.
Something had filled his gaze then, and I’d feared that all he saw in that moment was the cause of Cam’s problem. It had been freezing that night, as the evenings were in early December, but the house had suddenly become suffocating and too hot.
I had hidden again, but this time outside, curled up on one of the wicker chairs on the patio, watching the stars twinkle in and out, wondering how exactly all this had come about.
And that was how Jase had found me. Instead of giving me the fourth degree about what happened with Jeremy and everything that Cam had done when he found out, he talked to me about Christmas, my dancing, what my favorite class was, and everything else that had nothing to do with what had almost ripped our family apart. To this day, he’d never asked me about Jeremy, never brought up the stuff with Cam. It just didn’t exist between us.