And why did the idea bother him so damn much?
Because you want her, dumbass. You want her so bad you can’t see straight and it pisses you off that she might want Zane and not you.
Now that he’d laid it out, it made sense. It was twisted. It wasn’t something he even needed to entertain, but there it was, staring him in the face like an affronted lover.
He shoved his hands in his pockets and headed downstairs. As he passed the kitchen, he muttered to Carmen that he was going to his meeting with the wildlife biologist.
* * *
Jasmine woke, expecting the warmth of Zane’s body. But her back felt strangely cold, and the space behind her was barren. The pillow she held to her chest was a poor substitute, and she thrust it away.
Her first instinct was to burrow deeper into the covers, hold Zane’s scent to her a little longer. She had no wish to get up, to face the day, but with the new day also came an unwelcome realization.
She’d made a big mistake.
Maybe she’d known it at the time. And maybe in that moment she hadn’t cared as she’d sought Zane’s comfort. But in reverting to a practice that was indicative of a much younger Jasmine, she’d lost any progress in her quest to make Zane and Seth see her as something other than a frightened sixteen-year-old.
With an unhappy sigh, she got out of bed and hurried back to her room. It was time for her to grow the f**k up and take control of her own destiny. Time to stop allowing her past to dictate her every action and reaction.
It was hard to convince the two men she loved that she was a woman full grown when she persisted in throwing them into the role of protectors.
She damned the meltdown of the previous day. Damned the fact that her fears still ruled her. She was only the product of her past if she allowed herself to be. She was so much more, and her year away from the ranch had proved it to her. Now all she had to do was present that woman to the world.
She knew Zane had felt the tangible connection between them last night. It went beyond their affectionate relationship that had formed over the years. She knew it. He knew it. But he’d pulled away, and rightly so.
She stepped into the shower, determined to wash away the girl she’d been for so long. Nothing could hurt her here. The only people here who had the power to hurt her were Seth and Zane, and she doubted they even knew it.
After her shower, she dressed in denim cut-off shorts and a tank top. She didn’t bother with shoes and headed down stairs. She could hear Carmen bustling around in the kitchen and knew she should go check in. Carmen would be worried.
Instead, she found herself outside on the back patio, stepping closer to the edge of the pool.
She stared into the sparkling blue water, marveling at the fact that something so beautiful and peaceful could evoke such terror.
Mesmerized by the shine of the sun reflecting off the iridescent swirls, she knelt down, gripping the concrete ledge with both hands.
Can you breathe underwater, bitch?
His laughter rang in her ears, suddenly muffled as he shoved her head underneath the water. It filled her ears, her mouth, her nose.
His hand gripped her hair and yanked upward, just when she thought her lungs would explode. She gasped for air, choking as she coughed up water.
Change your mind yet? I’ve got all night. One way or another, you’ll do as I’ve told you.
Jasmine shuddered and closed her eyes to ward off the memory. Each breath came in a shallow gasp. Her chest rose and sank in rapid succession as she struggled with her panic.
Still, she forced herself to stare down into the aqua depths of the pool. She could see herself underneath the placid surface, fighting for her life. She could see the hand holding her under and hear the derisive laughter ringing in her ears.
“No more,” she whispered. “No more. Never again.” Her fingers dug into the side of the pool as her anger built and swelled inside her chest.
So much rage, suppressed for so many years. For so long she’d felt that maybe she’d somehow deserved it, but now she had such fury inside her. She wanted to wrap her hands around the bastard’s neck. There was no telling how many young girls he’d preyed on. How many had been forced into a life of sexual slavery because of him? She’d been lucky. An odd twist of fate had thrown her into Seth and Zane’s path, a fact she would be eternally grateful for, but there were others who hadn’t been as lucky. Where were they now?
No tears threatened her this day. She was too damn mad. And in that fit of anger, a surge of rebellion welled up and festered like an infected sore.
She stood up and before she could think better of her decision, she jumped into the water.
It was cold. A shock to her system. Though she’d jumped into the shallow end, her feet slid on the bottom, and she sank below the surface.
Panic hit her square in the face, and she nearly inhaled as she scrambled to get her feet back underneath her. When she finally righted herself and got her head above the water, she was gasping. Her pulse pounded, and adrenaline ripped through her system.
Every instinct screamed at her to get the hell out of the water, and for a moment, she froze, unable to process exactly how she was going to get to the steps. She couldn’t seem to make her legs work. Her arms flailed ineffectively, splashing the surface like an injured seagull.
She closed her eyes and willed the terror to go away. Get a grip. If she could slap herself, she would, but she couldn’t seem to make her arms cooperate either.
There she stood, in the middle of four feet of water, completely powerless to do anything but shiver in the breeze. She laughed at the absurdity, and then she winced at the harsh sound.
“Walk, you dumbass. Wade over to the steps,” she grated out.
Her throat seemed to close in on her, reminiscent of how she felt underneath the water, lungs burning, seconds away from taking in a huge breath only to have the water rush in.
She heard a shriek. Carmen. Then she heard the pounding of footsteps. Had she left the patio door open?
“Jasmine! What the hell are you doing?” Seth demanded.
She looked up to see him charging to the side of the pool, looking as though he was going to jump in after her. She giggled. She couldn’t help it. It sounded strained, thin and tinged with hysteria. But the idea of Seth jumping in to save her when she stood in four feet of water seemed ludicrous.
“Jasmine, honey, come out of the pool,” he said in a more soothing tone. “Come over to the steps.”
She looked down as if expecting her legs to cooperate. Her feet swam in and out of her vision as the water swirled and shimmered.
She was in the water. And she wasn’t freaking out. Okay, maybe a little, but she’d done it without completely losing her sanity.
“Jasmine,” he said in a firmer tone. “Honey, you need to get out of the water now.”
Was he afraid she was going to throw herself into the deep end? Fat chance of that. She nearly giggled again. She didn’t have a death wish.
When she looked back up at him again, he was reaching for his shirt. Was he coming in after her? She frowned, remembering her self-lecture from earlier. She didn’t need saving, damn it. No, she’d saved herself this time.
She turned and forced one foot in front of the other. She heard a hiss as Seth sucked in his breath. She glanced back at him, connecting with his gaze. His worried gaze.
“I can do this,” she said quietly.
The concern lessened, and his features visibly relaxed. She glanced at the steps, seemingly a mile away. Then she made herself take another step forward. The water slid easily over her skin, dragging a bit, which added another layer of panic.
But she was determined that this time she would win. She trailed her fingers through the glossy surface. Brought both hands in front of her to cup a handful of the water. She pushed upward, water streaming over her fingers as she raised her hands. She opened her hands and let the water fall with a light splash.
The water wasn’t her enemy. She was.
She bit her lip and forced herself the last few feet. As she reached out to grip the rail, Seth grabbed her wrist. He hauled her out of the water and set her down on the hot concrete.
In an instant, she found herself folded in his arms. He held her so tight against his chest, that for a moment, she couldn’t breathe.
“Don’t ever scare me like that again,” he said gruffly.
She smiled and relaxed into his arms. She’d done it. She’d survived it. It had been scary as hell, but she felt lighter. Like she’d shed an unbearable weight. Her act of defiance gave her a freedom she hadn’t felt in many years.
Seth pulled her away. His jeans and T-shirt were soaked, which reminded her that she’d jumped in fully clothed. She glanced down her dripping body at the thin tank top clinging to her body, outlining every curve and swell. The dark shadow of her ni**les was visible, and she could feel his gaze raking up and down her chest.
“What were you thinking?” He gripped her shoulders and gave her a little shake. His fear had evidently worn off, and now anger had replaced it.
She stared unblinkingly at him. His blue eyes blazed with ill-disguised fury. And fear.
“I’m sorry if I scared you,” she murmured. “But I had to do it. I’m tired of letting him win.”
“Niña!” Carmen cried out as she hurried across the patio, a long towel billowing in her wake. “Have you gone loco?”
In a few quick movements, Jasmine was completely wrapped in the big towel, and Carmen just as quickly herded her back toward the sliding glass doors, clucking the entire way.
Jasmine chanced a look over her shoulder as she stepped inside. Seth was still standing there, his damp shirt clinging to his hard chest. His gaze locked with hers, and his expression became brooding.
“A new beginning,” Jasmine whispered. “I can’t be that little girl anymore.”
“What did you say, niña?”
Jasmine shook her head. “Nothing, mamacita. Nothing at all.”
“Go upstairs and get some dry clothing on. Then come back down so I can feed you.”
Jasmine smiled, but obeyed. She walked to the stairs and trudged slowly up, a sense of victory flashing brightly in her mind.
Seth didn’t bother going up to change his clothes. They’d dry quickly. Though he was supposed to be meeting the wildlife biologist out on the north hundred, he went in search of Zane instead.
God almighty, when he’d walked into the house after his breakfast meeting and heard Carmen’s shriek and then seen where Jasmine was, he’d damn near had a heart attack. He knew yesterday’s incident had a profound effect on Jasmine, but now he wondered just how deeply she was wounded.
He found Zane in the utility shed gassing up the four wheelers. He didn’t waste time with a greeting. He went straight to the point.
“What the f**k went on with Jasmine last night?” he demanded.
Zane stiffened and turned around, his expression glacial.
Seth held up his hand. “I don’t mean physically. I want to know what happened to send her to your room. Was she upset? Did she talk to you?”
Zane folded his arms over his chest and leaned back against the four wheeler. “Why do you want to know?”
Seth related what had just happened. “She said she was tired of him winning, and I don’t know what the f**k that means. But I thought you might.”
Zane’s hand clenched and unclenched. His entire body was tense, and anger rolled off him in waves. “Son of a bitch,” he muttered.
“What?” Seth demanded.
As Seth listened to Zane recount the events of the night before, his jaw got tighter and tighter until his entire neck ached.
Zane ran a hand through his long hair and shook his head. “She really jumped in the pool?”
Seth nodded grimly. “Yeah, she did. Scared the shit out of me. She just didn’t look all there. I mean she was there, in the pool, but she didn’t look or act like she had a clue where she really was.”
“It took a lot of guts to do what she did,” Zane said quietly. “You know how terrified she is of the water.”
“Yeah, I do.”
They stared at each for another long moment. There was a lot unsaid, but Seth didn’t want to pursue it any further. The last thing he wanted was for Jasmine to become a bone of contention between them.
“I’ve got to go meet Brad,” Seth finally said. “I think I’ll ask Jasmine if she wants to go. It might do her good to get out for a while.”
Zane nodded in agreement, but he stared at Seth a little too intuitively for his comfort.
Seth strode out of the shed and headed toward the house. When he walked into the kitchen, he found Carmen hovering over Jasmine while she ate.
“I’m heading out to the north hundred to meet Brad. You want to go?” he asked.
Jasmine looked up at him, her eyes lacking the haunted shadows of earlier. They were bright and clear. Shone a luminous green.
“Do I have time to run up and get my camera?”
He nodded. “Of course. And finish eating. I’ll wait.”
Jasmine gulped down the remainder of her food and shoved her plate forward. She gave Carmen a quick hug then raced upstairs to retrieve her camera. Seth wasn’t avoiding her entirely. Granted he used to extend regular invitations like this, and she used to tag along behind him like a lovesick puppy, but she knew he was seeing her differently. He never seemed to be so uncomfortable around her.
She got her camera bag then tugged on a pair of jeans and hiking boots that were more suited for the terrain than her shorts and flip-flops. She hurried back downstairs to find Seth waiting for her at the garage door.
She smiled and nodded, a surge of excitement rushing through her veins at the idea of spending the day with him.