Brazen eBook: Page2

Maya Banks (2007)

“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 fuck 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 fucking hormone, and his dick had taken over for his brains. Jesus. He felt fucking 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 fucking 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.

The brothers had flanked her, all but dragging her out of the bar. They drove to a nearby café, sat her down, made her eat and demanded the whole truth.

She confessed that she’d run away from home and ended up on the Houston streets. No money, no way to eat or support herself. She’d been picked up by a ruthless pimp and expected to earn her keep by prostituting herself. Only she’d failed miserably. That night had been her final chance, and Seth had turned her down flat.

After that, there hadn’t been any question. The brothers drove her straight home to their ranch, hired Carmen as a housekeeper/chaperone/mother figure and they’d never looked back.

And so began her life at the Sweetwater Ranch.

To avoid any awkward questions as to why they were harboring a minor, they’d hired a tutor for her, and she’d finished high school at the ranch. After taking her GED, she’d enrolled in online college courses. Life at the ranch had been good, even if somewhat isolated. Bouts of loneliness and restlessness had led her to get into trouble on occasion. She grinned as she remembered all the times she’d snuck out to Tucker’s bar only for J.T. Summers, the local sheriff and longtime friend of Seth and Zane, to haul her back to the ranch.

“You’re quiet back there, little bit.”

She looked up to see Seth staring at her in the rearview mirror. She smiled. “Just drinking in the scenery,” she said. “After a year in Paris, it’s like seeing it all again for the first time.”

“We’ll be there soon,” Zane said. “You’ve been off in your own world back there. Did you even realize we’re just a few miles from the ranch?”

She sat up straighter to examine the landmarks, a spark of excitement shooting up her spine. Sure enough, they were a short distance to the ten-thousand-acre spread that housed the Sweetwater Ranch.

“Is Old Man still prowling around?” she asked as she leaned forward between the two brothers.

Zane chuckled. “Yeah, the old bastard is still alive and kicking. He must be six years old now. Last season he sported fourteen points. I’d love to have him scored by Boones and Crockett.”

“You’re not going to kill him!” she exclaimed.

He chuckled. “No, sweet thang, we’re not going to kill your pet. We want him to mate as many does as possible. He’s got great genes. Precisely the kind of deer we want a reputation for at Sweetwater.”

“Did you guys have a good season last year?”

“Yeah,” Seth broke in. “Managed a few record-book harvests. Happy customers. A few returning hunters. About all we can ask for.”

She leaned forward eagerly as they turned into the long, winding road that led to the ranch. They passed under a wrought-iron arch that bore the name of the ranch as well as the intricate design that mirrored the tattoos on Seth’s and Zane’s arms. As they pulled up, an older Mexican woman ran from the house, her arms waving madly. Jasmine smiled and piled out of her door.

“Mi niña, mi niña!” Carmen exclaimed as she swept Jasmine into her arms. “You are home at last. I’ve missed you terribly, mi niña.”

Jasmine gave herself over to the firm hug of the woman who’d been mother and nurturer since Jasmine’s arrival at the ranch all those years ago.

“I’ve missed you too, mamacita.”

“Can you still speak Spanish, eh niña? Or have you been among the French for too long now?”

“Sí, mamacita,” she said with a smile.

“Bueno, niña! Now come, come. Let the boys bring your stuff inside. We have much talking to do. You must tell me all about Paris. Oh, and did the boys tell you, tomorrow we are having a fiesta, a celebration to welcome you home. I have been cooking all week, niña. All your favorites.”

Jasmine let herself be pulled inside, a happy smile on her face. She’d missed home so much in the last year. Missed the way Carmen mothered her like an overprotective hen. She always seemed to know exactly what Jasmine needed, and right now, she could really use a mother.

Chapter Three

Jasmine ran a finger underneath the thin bikini strap at her hip to smooth the line as she traipsed down the stairs. Carmen’s fiestas always involved lots of food and a pool party. While Jasmine wouldn’t get into the water if her life depended on it, she’d sunbathe and watch the guys horse around.

J.T. was already here, along with Kyle Richards and Toby March. Her bedroom overlooked the patio, and she’d peeked out her window to see them all playing in the pool. Only Seth hadn’t made an appearance yet.

She made a pass through the kitchen to see Carmen on her way to the patio. When Carmen looked up and saw her, she immediately began babbling a stream of Spanish.

Jasmine laughed. “What’s wrong with my bikini, mamacita?”

Carmen glared at her. “That is no bikini, chica. That, that,” she sputtered. “That’s just a string draped around your private parts. Ai yi yi, are you trying to drive the boys crazy, niña?”

“Just two of them, mamacita.”

Carmen threw up her hands and continued to mutter. She attacked the bread dough she was kneading with ferocity. “You’re playing with fire, niña. Mark my words. What’s come over you? You didn’t used to parade around in skimpy outfits trying to drive my boys crazy.”

Jasmine wrapped her arms around Carmen and hugged her tight. “I love them, mamacita. I’ve always loved them. But they’ll always look at me like a little girl unless I do something to make them notice me.”

Carmen dropped the dough and wiped her flour-covered hands on her apron before returning Jasmine’s hug. “You be careful, mi niña. I love you like you were my own daughter. I don’t want to see you hurt. If you tease those boys, you have to be prepared for the result. That’s all I’m saying, eh? You be careful.”

Jasmine smiled. “I will, mamacita. I promise.” She hugged Carmen again. “I’m so glad to be home.”

Carmen clucked and shooed her away. “I’m glad you’re home too. Now go on and have fun. This is your fiesta. I’ll bring out some more food in a while. If I know those boys, there’s nothing left.”

Jasmine grinned and hurried for the patio. She paused inside the glass doors, gathering her courage to go out. Carmen was right about one thing. You could hardly call the strings of her bathing suit an actual bikini. Other than a thin triangle covering the curls between her legs, the rest of the suit was a series of strings. One around her waist and one resting in the crack of her ass. And her top. Well, it covered her nipples, and that was about all she’d say for it.

With a fortifying breath, she opened the sliding doors and walked out into the sun. The concrete patio felt warm underneath her bare feet as she padded toward the lounge chairs lining the pool.

A series of whistles rent the air, and her cheeks grew tight and warm. She glanced sideways to see the men staring at her from the pool. She couldn’t look away, despite the fact she was mildly embarrassed. Four hot men slicked down with water, droplets beading and running down hard chests. Damn.

She swallowed as her gaze found Zane. Her mouth went dry. His wild, black hair hung limply to his shoulders. The sun glinted off his wet skin, drawing attention to the bulging muscles. His earring winked at her in the light.

“Jesus, Jasmine, when did you go and grow up on me?” J.T. yelled out as he made his way to the side of the pool.

She smiled and waved then continued on to the chair a few feet away.

“Come on in,” Toby called out, gesturing for her to jump in.

She shook her head, a cold sweat beading on her forehead at the thought of plunging into the ten-foot deep pool. “I’m just sunbathing.”

She settled into her chair and began rubbing suntan lotion over the front of her body. She moved with slow, sensuous motions and watched from the corner of her eye.

Zane watched her, but then so did the others. She wasn’t normally such an exhibitionist, but the attention gave her a tiny thrill.

Finally she reclined, closing her eyes to soak up the warmth of the sun’s rays. In the distance she could hear splashing, the men’s voices.

Sometime later, she felt cold droplets on her stomach. She opened her eyes to see Zane standing over her, water dripping from his hair. He stared down at her, his gaze lowering to her stomach.

“You know Seth is going to shit a brick when he sees that, Jaz.”

She arched an eyebrow then looked down at her belly ring. She fiddled with the thin gold loop with her fingers. “You don’t think he’ll like it?” she asked innocently.

Zane chuckled. “You know damn well it’ll make him crazy. He’ll blame it all on me and call me a bad influence.”

“Do you like it?” she asked, staring back at him.

Zane swallowed and looked away. “It looks great on you. Uh, when did you get it done?”

He was uncomfortable, that much was obvious. She smiled a little. “In Paris. I missed you. Getting the piercing reminded me of you,” she said softly.

His eyes flew back to hers, fire building in their depths. Before he could respond, she rolled slowly onto her stomach.

“Could you untie my top and rub some suntan oil on my back? I don’t want a tan line,” she said.

She heard his swift intake of breath. Felt his eyes on her naked skin. His hands shook as he gingerly untied the strings and let them fall beside her.

It was all she could do not to moan in pleasure when his big hands rubbed gently over her. He smoothed oil over her shoulders, down to the small of her back. She held her breath. Would he touch her ass? God please let him touch her.

She closed her eyes when his hand closed over one cheek and then the other. He spent less time there, hurriedly applying the oil before standing back up.

“Thank you,” she mumbled, her face still hidden in her arms.

She heard him walk away then heard the splash as he jumped into the pool. His touch still lingered on her skin. Still burned hotter than the sun shining down on her.

As the sun rose higher, she drifted languidly between sleep and waking. She tuned out distant sounds as she floated. Then suddenly, the sun was blocked from her body. A shadow fell over her.

She pried one eye open and looked in the direction of the obstruction to see Seth standing over her, a dangerous glitter in his eyes.

“What the fuck are you doing, Jasmine?” He spread a towel over her ass before she could respond. “Since when do you lie around in the buff to sunbathe?”

“I’m not naked,” she mumbled.

He reached down to retie her straps. When he was finished, she rolled back over. She put a hand to her eyes to shield the sunlight as she stared up at him.

“See?” she challenged. “I’m dressed.”

“If you call that dressed,” he said darkly. “And what the hell’s up with the belly ring? Did Zane talk you into that?”

A hoot of laughter rose from the pool.

“See, I told you he’d blame me,” Zane called.

“You don’t like it?” she asked Seth.

“For God’s sake, Jasmine, you didn’t used to cavort around half naked or put unnecessary holes in your body.”

She worked to keep the amusement from her face. “I’m not a little girl anymore, Seth. I’m all grown up. You can’t expect me to look like a sixteen-year-old forever.”

It was the wrong thing to say, and they both knew it. He sobered, and she looked away, embarrassed by the memories conjured for both of them.

“Just get some clothes on,” he said gruffly. “Here.” He stripped off his T-shirt and tossed it to her. “Put that on. You’re going to get burned if you’re not careful.”

She watched as he walked to the far end of the pool where Carmen had set up a table with snacks and drinks. The horseplay resumed in the pool, and she wondered just how much of their conversation the others had heard.

She was about to toss aside Seth’s shirt and ignore his dictate when Toby pulled himself over the side of the pool and headed in her direction.

Instead of stopping to talk to her as she expected, he simply reached down and plucked her out of her chair. He grinned wickedly.

“Time to come in,” he said.

She immediately began to struggle. “No!”

He obviously thought she was playing because he ignored the panic in her voice and started to sprint back to the pool. She writhed in his arms, desperate to make him stop. Her chest began to close in on her, swelling with the god-awful fear she’d lived with for so long.

She heard a shout in the distance. Saw Seth start for her, but he’d never