She sighed and turned her face away. Seconds later, the bed dipped and Zane crawled up beside her. He reclined, propping his elbow on the pillow next to her.
“Now suppose you tell me what’s going on in that pretty little head of yours,” he drawled.
She gave him her best confused look. “I missed you guys,” she said huskily. “You didn’t miss me?”
He arched an eyebrow at her, and she watched the battle play across his face. He was clearly trying to decide if she was playing a game or if she was just being the same girl they always knew.
“Of course we did,” he soothed.
“You don’t act like it,” she muttered. “What’s up Seth’s ass anyway?”
He opened his mouth to speak then shut it again. Finally he shook his head. “Come here, Jaz,” he said.
She didn’t hesitate. She rolled over and scooted her back into his chest until she was snuggled into his arms. As his warmth bled through her skin, she sighed in contentment.
“Glad to be home?”
She nodded. “I loved Paris, but I was ready to come back home to Texas.”
She sighed again when his fingers tangled in her hair, gently pulling downward as he brushed the strands.
The bathroom door opened and Seth came out again, this time fully clothed. He frowned when he saw Jasmine hugged up tight against Zane. She pretended to ignore him, focusing instead on the TV.
He seemed to battle over whether or not to object to her presence. She watched from the corner of her eye as he looked at her. With a slight shake of his head, he walked over to his bed.
Feeling like she’d won this round, she smiled to herself and burrowed deeper under the covers. She was tired. Exhausted, actually. But she didn’t want to spend her first night back alone.
She could feel Zane’s heartbeat against her back, and it soothed her. Made her feel safe. It felt like home.
As she wiggled closer still into the shelter of his body, her behind brushed against the vee of his legs. For a moment, she paused. Then she felt the hardness against the curve of her ass.
Zane must have registered her awareness, because he jerked away and rolled out of the bed. She felt the loss of their closeness keenly and, for the first time, regretted the attraction between them.
Zane strode into the bathroom and closed the door behind him with a bang.
Seth watched Jasmine’s eyes close as she succumbed to sleep. His brother still remained in the bathroom after his exit over fifteen minutes ago.
She was beautiful. Achingly so. It shamed him that he couldn’t look at her without feeling a surge of lust. He ran a hand through his hair and stood up, a weary sigh escaping him. He yanked back his covers and picked the remote up to turn off the TV.
What the hell was he going to do? He reclined on the bed, leaving the blankets at his feet. The year she’d been away had been a blessing and a curse all rolled into one.
He’d missed her. Missed everything about her. But at the same time, he’d been relieved not to have to face her on a daily basis.
He looked up to see Zane walk cautiously out of the bathroom. His brother shot a look at the bed and relaxed when he saw Jasmine sleeping.
“What the f**k is wrong with you?” Seth demanded in a low tone.
“Nothing,” Zane growled.
Seth raised an eyebrow.
Zane sighed and sat on the edge of Seth’s bed.
“I can’t touch her without getting a hard-on,” he admitted.
“Then don’t f**king touch her,” Seth said, anger spilling into his voice. He swallowed then lowered his voice so as not to wake Jasmine. “I mean what did you expect? You were practically on top of her in the bed. She isn’t a little girl anymore, Zane. That shit’s got to stop.”
Zane’s eyes glittered with irritation. “I don’t need a goddamn lecture from you. Do you have any idea how hard it is not to touch her when she’s constantly close to me, hugging me, snuggling? Jesus. It wasn’t like this before she left. I never had a problem with her affection, and I damn sure don’t want to hurt her feelings now. How the hell is she supposed to understand what’s going on? It’s not her fault she’s turned into a drop-dead gorgeous woman that I can’t even look at without wanting to fuck.”
Seth surged forward, his fists clenched. “Shut the hell up, Zane.” His harsh whisper exploded over the room and both men looked over at Jasmine. Seth leaned in closer to his brother. “I’m warning you. Cool it. And stay the hell away from her. We didn’t bring her home to be our f**k toy. She is strictly off-limits.”
Zane looked at him, a mixture of hurt and surprise in his blue eyes. “Is that what you think of me? You think I’d disrespect her like that? Hell, Seth, we’ve been taking care of her for six years. Do you honestly think I’d do anything to hurt her?”
Seth blew out his breath in frustration. No way he’d admit to having the same difficulties around Jasmine. No way he’d tell Zane that within hours of her return, he was already struggling with the same dark thoughts that had plagued him for years.
“No, man, I don’t think anything like that. I know you love her. We both love her. Which is why we’re going to stay the f**k away from her. It’s our job to take care of her and see that she’s happy.”
“Agreed,” Zane said. But even as his brother spoke, he glanced sideways at Jasmine, and Seth could see the raw hunger in his eyes.
Fuck. He could feel it too. It ate at him, but his hunger had gone on a lot longer. Now that she was back, he was on fire. The days ahead were going to be the most difficult he’d ever face.
“Let’s get some sleep,” Seth said wearily. “We’ve got a long drive tomorrow. Maybe you should take her room.”
“Yeah,” Zane muttered as he got up.
He disappeared into the adjoining room, leaving Seth to stare over at Jasmine’s sleeping form. Her dark brown, nearly black hair spilled over the pillow, and her body moved with her soft breathing. She’d grown out of her gawky girl’s figure and developed the curves and swells of a lush woman. But she’d always been beautiful to him. Even when she was all arms and legs and wide green eyes.
He ached to trail his finger down her cheek. He wanted to taste her lips, wanted to know if she tasted as sweet as she looked.
His jaw clenched until his teeth ached. He was such a sorry bastard. He’d sworn never to touch Jasmine. Not after the way she’d come to him and Zane in the first place. He couldn’t take her down that path again. She was too young, and she needed them to take care of her. Not f**k her.
He rolled away so he no longer stared at her. He reached back for the light switch by the bed and bathed the room in darkness. Morning couldn’t come soon enough.
* * *
Zane stepped into the adjoining room, his gaze traveling first to Seth’s empty bed and then to the bed Jaz had slept in. Jesus. He almost retreated into the other room again.
She lay on the bed, still sound asleep, but the covers tangled at her feet, her bare legs stretched out over the bed. The old football shirt she wore had ridden up her thighs until he could see the lace of her underwear.
He shut his eyes and groaned. Hell’s bells. Jaz wasn’t supposed to come home all grown up and exotic. Fuck. She hadn’t looked this way when she’d left, had she? Surely he would have noticed. Lord knew she’d spent enough time wrapped around him.
They were tight, him and Jaz. He’d always been her shoulder to cry on. She’d spent more than one night snuggled up in his bed when her past had come back to haunt her in a big way. But never, never had he reacted to her sexually.
Now all of a sudden he was one big f**king hormone, and his dick had taken over for his brains. Jesus. He felt f**king betrayed. He loved that little girl, and he damned sure didn’t want to be lusting after her like all the guys he’d threatened to kill over the years.
He started guiltily when the bathroom door opened and Seth walked out. His older brother eyed him curiously before walking over to throw his toiletries in his suitcase.
“We should be getting on the road,” Seth said. “I’d like to be home as early as possible. Carmen is expecting us, and if I know her, she’s cooked enough to feed an army for Jasmine’s homecoming.”
Zane nodded and swallowed. “I’ll wake Jaz up.”
He walked over to the bed, purposely keeping his eyes as far from the bare expanse of her legs as possible.
“I’ll do it,” Seth interjected, shoving in front of Zane. “You get the luggage down to the truck.”
Zane frowned in irritation. “Don’t f**king treat me like I’m some kind of goddamned rapist, Seth. I was honest with you, which is more than I can say you were with me. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to jump her bones at the first opportunity. Now get out of the way so I can get her up.”
Seth put his hands up in surrender and turned away. Zane shook his head and sat down on the edge of the bed next to Jaz. He reached out to touch her hair. He let his fingers trail down the strand until they reached her shoulder. He shook her gently.
“Jaz, wake up, honey. It’s time to go home.”
She didn’t so much as flinch. He smiled and shook her again.
“Come on, sleepyhead. Up and at ‘em.”
She stirred and her eyes fluttered open, a sleepy, dreamy look to them. She stared up at him then smiled, and his chest lurched.
“Good morning,” she whispered.
He leaned down to kiss her forehead, just like he’d done a million times in the past. Only now he felt cheated. He wanted to explore her lips.
“Get up, Jaz. We’re heading home. Carmen’s waiting for you.”
She struggled to sit up, and he eased off the bed. He stood for a second, not really knowing what to do to alleviate the tension he felt. Then he walked over and snagged the two suitcases Seth had just zipped up.
“I’ll take them down,” he said shortly. “I’ll meet the two of you in the lobby.”
Jasmine watched him go, a mixture of hurt and confusion wracking her brain. Was he avoiding her now? This wasn’t something she’d counted on. She knew it would be difficult for them to see her in a new light, but had it been all too easy? Were they no longer comfortable around her as a result?
She wasn’t ready to let go of the relationship she shared with the two men who had taken care of her for the last six years. She loved them, wanted more than their protection. She wanted their love. Oh, she knew they loved her, but she wanted the all-consuming love. The kind between a man and a woman, not the kind they’d given a sixteen-year-old runaway from the streets.
She looked up at Seth who regarded her cautiously. The wariness in his eyes wasn’t something she was used to. He’d never been easy, but he’d always been hers. Her friend and confidant. Her protector. She didn’t like the distance that had opened between them in the space of a few hours.
“Is something wrong?” she asked softly.
He shook his head and looked away.
She looked down, trying to control the wash of emotion his rejection caused. The Seth she knew would never have turned away from her like he just had. It hurt.
Across the room, she heard Seth groan. Then suddenly he was in front of her, pulling her into his arms.
“I’m sorry, little bit.”
The endearment did little to comfort her. She looked up at him. “Should I have stayed in Paris?” She held her breath, praying that he really hadn’t wanted that. If he didn’t want her…she hadn’t given consideration to that possibility. What if he was tired of being responsible for her?
He bit out a curse and clasped her face between his two hands. “Look at me, Jasmine. You will always have a home here. Do you understand me?”
She studied him for a long moment, searching his eyes for something, though for what, she wasn’t certain. “But do you want me here?”
“Of course I want you. I can’t believe you’d have to ask. Honey, I don’t know what’s going on with you, but never doubt that you are welcome at the ranch. It’s your home. That won’t change. You understand that?”
She leaned forward, his hands still framing her face, until her forehead rested against his. She put her arms around his neck in a hug. “I’ve missed you, Seth. I only feel at home when I’m with you and Zane.”
He sat there a minute longer then slowly stood up, letting his hands fall from her cheeks. “Zane’s waiting on us. Go on and get dressed. I’m going to head down to the lobby to check out. Come down when you’re ready.”
The miles stretched out over the West Texas landscape. Flat, barren, but beautiful to her. Jasmine stared out the window as the truck ate up the highway. The sun was high overhead, and although it was just the end of May, the heat had already settled in.
She leaned her forehead against the glass, idly listening to the two men talk in the front of the truck. Her mind was occupied with memories of the first time she’d taken this trip. A scared sixteen-year-old. No clue what the future held. Desperate to be away from the circumstances of her past.
She closed her eyes, remembering that night in a Houston bar when she’d approached Seth, her throat nearly swollen shut in fear. She’d propositioned him, knowing her only other choice was to be tossed back onto the streets. When he flatly refused her, she’d panicked, knowing he was her last chance.
He’d demanded to know how old she was as Zane watched in horror. They both looked disgusted at how she was dressed and the fact she’d offered herself for sex. She told Seth she was nineteen. He called her a liar and demanded the truth.
It was only when she saw the man standing across the room watching her, the man who’d insisted she earn her keep starting that night, that she’d broken down, sobbing in earnest as Seth and Zane stared at her in stunned silence.