They climbed into his four-wheel-drive truck and headed down one of the many dirt roads that crisscrossed the ranch property.
The land was beautiful and barren. Dry. Rocky. Few trees dotted the dusty landscape, but there was plenty of scrub brush and cactus.
Sweetwater Creek was barely a trickle when they forged the nearly dry bank. After a rain, water would often overflow the banks and run angry and swollen for a few days before rapidly dissipating.
Ahead, jackrabbits, as well as a few cottontails spooked by the truck, darted back and forth over the road. As Jasmine gazed out her window, she saw a small herd of Black Bucks meandering among the brush.
She turned to Seth. “We have more now?”
He smiled and nodded. “Yeah, I’d say one or two more got out of Lark’s fence this past fall. They’ve been breeding, and now we have a small population.”
“You don’t allow them to be hunted do you?”
Seth shook his head. “No. We leave them be. We’ve never had the desire to get into exotics, and I don’t aim to start now.”
Jasmine smiled. “I bet old man Lark was fit to be tied when he lost more of his herd to us.”
Seth grinned back at her. It was the first time he’d looked truly relaxed around her since she’d gotten back home. “He wanted to come over with a tranquilizer gun, dart them and haul them back. I told him if I caught his ass on our property, I’d fill his hide full of lead.”
Jasmine chuckled. Lark was an obstinate, pompous ass of the first order. His idea of hunting was to lead an animal blindfolded and hobbled in front of a deer stand and let the hunter blast away.
“What are you meeting Brad for?” she asked.
“I’m planting the north one hundred. Getting his advice on layout and food types. We’ve managed to keep our herd healthy and disease free, and I credit him with a lot of that.”
“Are you booked for this fall?”
“Nearly,” he said. “We have a few weeks open in the late season, but I expect they’ll fill up closer to hunting season.”
“Oh, look!” she exclaimed. “Stop, will you?”
Seth slammed on the brakes, fishtailing the truck as he ground to a halt. Jasmine pointed to a hilltop about a hundred yards away.
“Is that him?” she whispered. “Is that Old Man?”
Not waiting for an answer, she yanked her camera out and rolled down her window. She focused in on the deer and took a series of shots.
“Looks like him,” Seth murmured. “If it’s not, it might be one of his offspring. I’m hoping it’s the latter. We could use more like him running around.”
She zoomed in on the rack. Covered in velvet, the antlers probably had at least a twenty-two inch spread, and she counted at least fourteen points.
She sighed in disappointment when the deer turned and disappeared over the hill. Seth pulled forward again and continued down the road.
A few minutes later, they passed through a bump gate, and Jasmine saw a truck parked on the side of the road several yards up. Brad was leaning against the grill, and when he saw them, he straightened and waved.
Seth pulled up behind Brad and parked. When Jasmine got out of the truck, Brad looked curiously at her for a moment before recognition flashed across his face.
“Jasmine Quinn! Lord have mercy, girl. You sure have grown up.”
She walked forward self-consciously only to find herself yanked against a hard chest as Brad enfolded her into a huge hug.
Jasmine peeked over at Seth to see him scowling. Brad pushed her back and surveyed her from head to toe.
“When did you get back?”
She smiled at his infectious grin. Who wouldn’t fall victim to his good old boy charm? Warm brown eyes peered at her from underneath the brim of his Stetson. She let her gaze filter downward over his form-fitting jeans and scuffed work boots.
“Day before yesterday,” she said.
“If you’re free one night soon, I’d love to take you for a beer. You can tell me all about g*y Paree and civilized culture.”
She giggled at his exaggeration. “I’d love to. Just give me a holler. I don’t have any plans.”
Seth’s scowl deepened, which only made Jasmine’s smile grow wider.
“Can we get to the matter at hand?” Seth asked pointedly.
“Oh, sure,” Brad said, as if he’d forgotten Seth was standing there. “Show me what you had in mind for the plots, and we can discuss your planting options.”
Jasmine let them walk away, and she opted to wander in the opposite direction, camera in hand. Her boots scratched across the parched ground. In the distance, dust swirled and skittered as the wind kicked up.
She took a few random landscape shots as she simply reveled in the joy of being home. The sun warmed her to her bones, and she enjoyed the heat scraping across her cheeks.
She climbed up a slight rise and gazed down at the winding creek bank that carved through the layers of rock and soil. Two hawks circled high overhead, dipping then soaring higher.
There was a wildness to the land that called to her. Untamed, sometimes harsh, but always beautiful. It was rough and unyielding, and yet it teemed with life.
She could still remember the first time she’d seen it. Really seen it. At sixteen, she’d viewed the vast acreage as the ultimate freedom. Here she could come and for miles be the only person around. She’d spent many an hour perched on a rock, knees drawn to her chest, merely experiencing the peace she so desperately needed.
And now she was home. A year away had only made home that much sweeter. She wouldn’t leave again. Not when everything she loved was right here, nestled in the beauty of Southwest Texas.
She continued snapping pictures as she topped another hill. It wasn’t until she heard Seth’s shout that she realized she’d wandered so far. She turned in the direction of his voice and saw him waving in the distance.
Tucking her camera under her arm, she started back. Seth leaned against the side of the truck watching her approach. She saw no sign of Brad. He must have left already.
“Get some good shots?” Seth asked as she got to the truck.
She smiled and nodded.
“Ready to head back or do you want to stay awhile?”
She looked at her watch. “I suppose we should head back. Carmen will be upset if we miss lunch.”
They climbed in and Jasmine put her camera away.
“I liked the pictures you emailed from Paris,” Seth said as they drove back toward the house. “I could tell you enjoyed yourself.”
“Paris is fantastic. But it’s not home.”
He glanced sideways at her. “You missed it here.”
“I missed you and Zane,” she said pointedly.
He gripped the steering wheel a little tighter and looked away. He seemed uncomfortable with her statement. But that was fine. She hadn’t imagined it would be easy to overcome the image he’d formed of her. It wouldn’t happen overnight, but it would happen if she had her way.
Her gaze found his and she cocked her head in question.
“This morning. What happened?”
Seth knew full well what had taken place after talking to Zane earlier, but for some inexplicable reason, he wanted Jasmine to trust him enough to open up to him. Like she’d opened up to Zane.
And though he’d already heard the story from Zane, as Jasmine retold it, it had a much more profound effect. He felt every twinge of fear in her voice. Felt her shame. Lived through her terror with her.
At some point, he reached across the seat and curled his fingers tightly around hers. There was a quiet, unemotional quality to her voice as she finished. It was as if the telling had numbed her.
She glanced at him from underneath her lashes, a small look filled with nervousness. It was in that moment he knew she’d feared telling him, feared his reaction. Had his avoidance of her past led her to believe he was somehow ashamed of her?
That moment in the Houston bar six years ago had always been a source of awkwardness. Neither was comfortable broaching the subject, and he’d let it lie because he hadn’t wanted to bring up painful memories.
He braked and stopped in the middle of the road. He sat there a moment, Jasmine’s hand still enfolded in his. Then he turned in his seat to face her.
“Why didn’t you tell me before?”
“It’s not something I was very proud of,” she said in a low voice. “The way we met was bad enough. I didn’t have any desire for you to know what had happened before.”
“And what changed your mind?” He started to mention the fact that she’d only told Zane the night before, but he didn’t want to betray Zane’s confidence.
She shrugged. “Maybe it’s time I grew up. Stop letting the past dictate my present. Maybe it’s time I stopped being ashamed of something that I couldn’t control. Yes, I made mistakes and I paid for them. I don’t want to pay for them any longer. I’m tired of you and Zane looking at me like a child who needs protecting. So maybe it’s time I started taking care of myself.”
Her shoulders stiffened, and she sat up a little straighter as she stared challengingly at him.
“I don’t see you as a child,” he said mildly.
She arched a brow. “No? Maybe you see me as a woman, but you fight that tooth and nail. You want to see me as a child, so the fact that you don’t isn’t very consoling.”
He hated when women started talking in riddles. There wasn’t a man alive who could decipher what she’d just said.
“So you’re saying I don’t see you as a child, but I want to see you as a child, and you don’t like that.”
“Do you deny it?”
“Yes. No. Hell, I don’t know what the crap you’re saying, so I have no idea how to answer.”
She slid over the seat until she was inches from his face. “It’s a very simple thing,” she whispered. “Either you still see me as that helpless sixteen-year-old you saved six years ago, or you see me as a woman. What do you think when you look at me?”
If that wasn’t a f**king loaded question he didn’t know what was. She was too damn close, and his body was betraying him in the worst way.
He averted his gaze from her eyes, but it fell to the soft mounds of her breasts, just peeking over the top of her tank top. He jerked his head back up. A child? Fuck, he wished he could envision a child when he looked at her. Maybe then his body wouldn’t seize. Wouldn’t tighten as if someone had clamped a vise grip around him.
“Maybe you need help deciding?”
He started to shake his head, but she feathered her fingertips over his jaw and pressed her lips to his. Shock exploded through his system. No matter how often he may have fantasized about kissing her, the reality was startling. He hadn’t imagined it ever happening, because he was determined it wouldn’t. Only now she’d taken the choice from him.
Her lips slid sensuously over his. Hot. Lusty. Her tongue found his in his moment of surprise. For a brief moment, he allowed himself to get lost in her sweetness, allowed himself to imagine taking her home to his bed.
He yanked away, breathing hard as he tried to settle his raging arousal. “Christ, Jasmine! We can’t be doing this.”
“Why not?” she challenged. “You don’t want me?”
He swore. “I think we’ve both established that wanting you is not the issue here.”
“Then what is?”
He chanced a look at her. Hurt reflected in her beautiful eyes. And something else. The faint light of determination.
“You need to forget this ever happened,” he said. “We can’t go down this road, Jasmine.”
“Will you forget? Can you forget it?”
“I don’t have a choice,” he said grimly.
He ground his teeth in frustration. And he knew he was being an ass before the words ever came out of his mouth, but he spoke without thinking.
“Look, don’t read anything into my reaction to you. You’re a beautiful woman. Men tend to trip all over themselves when a beautiful woman throws herself at him. But it doesn’t mean anything. It could have been any woman.”
Her swift intake of breath was like a rifle shot. Hurt spilled into her eyes even as her lips tightened in anger. He braced himself for her response, but she said nothing. She grabbed her camera bag and turned to the door.
“Jasmine, wait,” he called as she opened her door and jerkily got out.
She put her hand up without turning around. “I can make it back by myself.”
“Don’t be stupid,” he began. “It’s three miles back to the house.”
She turned then, eyes blazing. “I said I’ll make it back by myself.”
Seth swore and hit the steering wheel with his fist. He was torn between going after her and letting her cool off on her own. If he went after her, it would soften his stance. Even as much as he cringed at the words that had come out of his mouth, he also knew this was for the best. She’d be mad. Her ego would be bruised, but she’d get over it in a day or two and then they could get back to the type of relationship they’d shared for the last several years. One that didn’t involve him losing himself between her thighs.
He watched her retreating back as she walked stiffly into the distance. With a sigh, he started the engine and rammed the truck into gear.
Jasmine heard him roar off and rolled her shoulder in a dismissive gesture. She shouldn’t be so pissed. But she wasn’t going to sit there and take his posturing either.
“Any woman”, indeed.