Contest entry for the Happily Ever After TwiFic Contest

Title: Slow Pony Home

Pairing: Jasper/ Alice

Rating: T

Summary: He found the boy in the middle of a blizzard. She found him in the middle of nowhere.

Disclaimer: None

Nebraska Territory - 1867

Jasper found the boy in the middle of a blizzard.

It was the worst storm he'd seen in years and he was sure that his fledgling peach trees were frozen flat to the ground underneath all that godforsaken snow. The last time it had been this bad, folks in town had started eating their seed grain instead of starving before the trains could run again. Jasper didn't have any seed, he was banking on those trees instead and he sure couldn't eat them if it came down to it. He needed to hunt, needed to bring down something large and he huffed to himself in frustration as he left the warmth of his little cabin, reaching blindly for the rope that was strung up between the front door and the barn.

It would do that damn cow and her calves no good if he wandered off into the storm, now.

It would do him no good if he couldn't find them, either.

Bella was not happy about being woken up and saddled, she nipped at his sleeves and nearly took off his ear as the storm rattled around the barn. She was feisty when he bought her and even worse now, full of enough attitude he'd been tempted a few times to beat it out of her. He hoped she wouldn't buck him off somewhere in the prairie and loose herself in the snow, but it had taken him two years to break her and he still didn't trust her worth a damn. He'd picked her for her silvery grey coat and her strong teeth, but they were sore markers for the mare's intelligence and she knew they were going out there. She balked in the doorway, tugging on her reins in protest and shivering violently as they entered the churn of snow and wind, neighing her disgust.

Jasper dug his heels into her sides and spurred her on.

This particular cow had a penchant for escaping. She had done it before, but now had two calves that inherited her propensity and they'd picked the worst night of the year to do it again. He tucked himself down low into his jacket, shielding his ears from the snow as the horse trudged along the fence line he'd put up last summer. The snow was blinding and he let Bella find her way by feel. There was a wooded area at the bottom of this field where the river ran momentarily into his settlement before veering back out. He was hoping that was where the cow headed.

Bella shook herself furiously when they reached the cover of the trees, snow falling from her rump as she tossed her head in agitation. It was eerily quiet here, shielded from the wind. He forced the horse onward, wanting to keep her warm and eager to get this over with. A keening echo through the trees threw him off course. There was something down by the water, a moving mass covered in snow that he almost missed.

When he rode up upon it, it burst from a flurry of snow with a howl.

An Indian, but only a boy.

Scrawny and half naked, nearly blue with cold, his leg caught in the metal teeth of a beaver trap pinned to the water's edge. Jasper had told that new settler, Emmett, just last week to keep those traps off his property and he bit down his anger toward the new neighbor as he slid from the horse. Bella pranced anxiously in the snow as he freed the boy from the trap, capturing him before he could run off into the storm; he'd never make it out here through the night. Jasper wrapped the boy in the blanket tied to the back of his saddle. They mounted and set off into the snow while Jasper kept the child pressed up against his front to keep him warm.

By the time they got back to the cabin, the boy was practically unconscious.

He found the cow and her calves way up in the back field the next spring.

Frozen solid.

Winter raged.

It screamed around the cabin like a wounded animal and battered itself up against the walls for days on end. The nails that held the building together were frosted over every morning and icicles the size of Jasper's thigh stretched from the eaves, reaching for the ground.

It took nearly a month for the boy's leg to heal. Every night they would sit near the fire for warmth and light as Jasper unwound the bandage and doctored the wound. He'd learned enough from treating injuries to his livestock to understand that the worst seemed to have passed, the boy likely wouldn't loose his foot even if he would always walk with a limp. The wounds had closed up without having to sew them shut, which was a good thing because there were no women around and Jasper was terrible with a needle.

The boy hadn't spoken a word since Jasper brought him home, consistently mute and curious. Too hungry for Jasper's rationed supplies and swaddled in clothing he wouldn't fit into for another ten years. They sat by the fire together while Jasper carved things out of wood for most of the winter. The snow continued to fall and come January, Jasper had created an entire Noah's Ark of animals. Most of them were conjured up from vague memories of pictures he's seen in books, some of them he was sure he might have made up entirely. He even carved a boat to put them in, hollowed out inside, and they painted it red with the leftovers from the shutters and the barn door. The boy was enamored of his new toy and spent most of the winter silently playing with the wooden animals, mouthing words to himself but never smiling.

By February, the boy would try to look out the windows, but only see snow. On the first morning of March, Jasper had to dig a tunnel just to make it to the barn. The boy would follow along, a silent specter always in the corner of Jasper's vision, hobbling slightly with his limp and his feet wrapped up in rags.

He needed shoes, but it would have to wait until spring, when they could make it to town.

The boy would brush down Bella while Jasper mucked the stalls and fed the cows. They seemed to like each other, the horse and the boy. Bella never tried to bite the boy the way she did Jasper. She never stepped on his feet, even though he walked around underneath her and certainly didn't piss on him, which was her favorite way to show Jasper exactly how she felt.

Jasper finally gave his new companion a name the week that the first signs of spring showed. There were crocuses blooming all over the piles of pig shit behind the barn and the birds had returned. Drifts of snow were still caught up against the house and swells on the prairie, but the wind was loosing its biting cold teeth of winter and even the nights felt warmer.

Jasper had just been referring to him as 'boy,' but he was growing too fond of the child for that. He'd been alone out here for three years, save for the few times a year he went to town or someone made the trek out to the settlement. Really, it had been three years of solitude and even though the boy didn't speak, Jasper talked to him anyhow. Sometimes he thought it was only to fill up the silence, but he found himself teaching the boy to hold a knife and feed the fire. Stir the Dutch oven and repair the leather straps that served as door hinges when they wore clean through. He thought it must be something like having a son, even if the boy never responded.

"You need a name, boy."

The boy looked up at him, silent as ever but with much less of the frightened-animal air than the beginning. For weeks he did nothing but huddle in a corner of the room looking as though he was about to be skinned and eaten. Lately, though, he had been sleeping at the foot of Jasper's bed, curled up in a blanket on top of Jasper's feet like a cat. He was peering up at Jasper through a mess of long shiny black hair.

Jasper couldn't decide if he needed a haircut or not.

"What did they call you, where you came from? What did your mother call you?"

The boy responded with something completely unintelligible, obviously in another language and probably not one Jasper could ever find a book on. Even if he managed to catch the roaming library on wheels that passed through town a couple times a year, the chances were slim to none that the name could even be written down, much less translated.

It was the first sound he'd ever heard the boy make.

"Well, that won't do." Jasper shook his head and thought a little. "I think we'll call you Carlisle. What do you think of that? Carlisle?"

It had been his father's name, but the look on the boy's face alone was enough to strike it.

"Ok, then. Not Carlisle." Jasper stared into the fire for a while. He couldn't call him James, it reminded him too much of that surly nomad he'd gotten into a bar brawl with two years ago. There was that fellow who had been around for nearly a year before he folded his claim and fled back East, Marcus, but he doubted the boy would agree to that either. He tried out his grandfather's name, but it was also a failure.

"Peter? No? Well . . . . Jacob?"

The boy mouthed the name to himself, any potential noise trapped in his throat and nodded up at Jasper as though he approved.

Jacob woke Jasper when it was still dark out, shaking him urgently until he was pulled from sleep. The fire had died to a low burning ember and Jasper could see his breath in the air. He hauled himself out of bed and shivered barefoot to the window, where Jacob was peering out.

In the pale, silver moonlight he could see a herd of animals trudging slowly through the snow, pawing for food. Jacob had both hands and his nose pressed up against the expensive, fragile pane of glass. He ruffled the boy's hair, most of it falling in Jacob's eyes and he grinned down at him.

"Well, let's go get one then."

They dressed quickly, Jacob wrapped in any extra clothing Jasper could find. They had taken to strapping to thin pieces of wood to the boy's feet to keep his feet dry, and they worked much like the snowshoes Jasper used to check his lines of simple string traps for rabbits or birds. The nooses had been empty for weeks and they needed one of those animals out there if they were going to make it until spring.

"Go fetch the horse. No saddle, just bring her to me." Jasper watched Jacob scamper off through the tunnel toward the barn before loading his gun and heading for the door. A last moment pause had him loading his pistol and tucking it into his belt for good measure. He hauled himself out and up onto the snow, the roof of the house peeking from the drifts and the barn roof doing much the same not far off. He snuck out to the edge of the trees and peered at the herd in the distance.

Antelope. Or deer, but not buffalo, which he had been hoping for. A buffalo could feed him and the boy well into the summer, but he'd take what he could get.

It was too easy.

His shot burst through the pack and one of the creatures hit the snow, the rest scattering like marbles as the noise echoed into the night. Jasper took his time trudging out there, sinking up to his knees in the freshly fallen snow. The animal had fallen clean, no struggle, which meant that he wouldn't have to finish the job with his knife, something he was thankful for.

An antelope after all, male, just a few years old and looking rather well, considering the conditions out here.

It was bleeding a black stain into the snow.

The boy arrived with the horse just as Jasper neared the kill. Jacob leapt from Bella's back and danced all around the antelope, deliberate steps and silent war cries into the night air, a ring of footprints appearing in the snow like a halo. It all looked a little suspicious and Jasper wondered if it was something Jacob learned in his past life, a ceremony thanking the animal for giving up its life.

A noise echoed across the snow drifts, one that reminded Jasper of the sound the boy had made the night he found him caught in that trap.

The mournful cry of a wolf.

"Hurry, boy."

Jasper's hand were frozen, he'd given Jacob his only pair of gloves and his fingers fumbled as he struggled to tie a rope around the back legs of the antelope. Bella whinnied, sounding distressed and he peered over the belly of the creature, a shadow of something slinking through the trees not a hundred yards off.

Jasper's heart launched into his throat.

"Get on the horse, Jacob. Now!" He barked and the shadow sprinted toward them, bounding across the snow as though it was really only floating above it. Jasper knew that he'd never be able to outrun the wolf, but Bella might be able to.

The wolf veered unexpectedly, circling from the far side and headed right for the boy, who was struggling through the snow toward the horse. Jasper fumbled for his pistol, his rifle useless after the single shot that took down the antelope, but his fingers were icicles and he couldn't get a firm grip to pull it from his belt.

The wolf tucked low and leapt through the air just as the pistol dislodged.

Bella lunged into view and plucked Jacob from the snow, lofting him out of reach of the wolf's snapping teeth and Jasper shot it before it could go for her neck.

"Sound it out."

Jasper was sitting in the fresh straw he'd just thrown into the stall, chewing on a piece of it while Jacob brushed down the horse. They were going to town tomorrow, a day that would be full of errands. Mrs. Lawrence was going to give him an earful when he brought his usual torn up clothes to her for mending, plus a child to clothe. Tom Hardy down at the general store was going to be pleased to add a pile of books to Jasper's yearly purchases of beans and rice and flour. The cobbler, a squinty little man with the funny German name was going to line his pockets with the money it would take to put decent shoes on the boy.

Jasper was worried that he'd lose Jacob in the crowd. The boy was too curious for his own good and would most likely wander off when it got too boring for him, which it would. Jasper had to ensure that the boy at least knew how to say his own name before he let him loose on civilization.

"Jay - COB." The boy forced the sounds out as though it was painful, but Jasper prodded him along.


"Jay - cub." It sounded less forced this time, a bit more comfortable.

"Now my name."


Four tries, and the boy had it down.

"Jay-cub. Jaz-pur." The boy pointed back and forth between them and when Jasper nodded back at him, his little brown face broke into a hesitant smile. Jacob put his hand to the horses' shoulder and looked pointedly at Jasper, back to asking silent questions.

"Bel-la." Jasper said slowly, patiently.

"Be," Jacob tried, caught up on the 'la.'

"Bel-la." Jasper repeated.

"Bel-LAH." Jacob practically shouted at the end and the horse turned her head right around to look at him, as if she had understood. She'd never before given Jasper any indication that she wasn't completely stone deaf.

He lost the boy some time mid afternoon, just as he knew he would.

When he finally located Jacob, the boy was being held prisoner by a pretty girl.

Jasper spotted them from across the street and stopped in his tracks, gulping down his horror as he hid in a shadow of the general store. She was dressed in brilliant sapphire blue. Against all the mud and the buildings and the dried out prairie still shedding its winter coat, she was like a kerosene lamp in the middle of a cave. Amid all the dust and grime and general hardship of the new West, she had pale, pale skin and tiny gloved hands wrapped around Jacob's arms.

Jasper hoped the boy hadn't tried to steal her purse, but he wouldn't put it past the little imp.

The main street was bustling, busy with the first signs of spring, muddy wagon ruts and teams of horses pawing the ground. Jasper ambled across the road, avoiding piles of horse shit.

"There you are," He grumbled at Jacob as he neared and Jacob tore himself from the girl's grasp, darting toward him and latching onto his leg.

"You are his father?" The girl's mouth nearly hung open in astonishment. She was too pretty to look directly at and Jasper dropped his eyes to the dirt between them. He wasn't around women often enough to know how to act and they usually just made him uncomfortably warm. This girl was the worst of them all.

His neck was on fire.


"But he belongs with you?" She glanced down at the scruffy Indian boy who needed a hair cut and was covered in a thin layer of dirt before arching one eyebrow delicately.

Jasper nodded. "Yes." He put his hand on the boy's shoulder, as much to solidify his point to the pretty girl as to make sure the boy understood it too. Jacob clutched him tighter in response.

"Where is his mother?"

Jasper shrugged, because he really had no idea. Jacob still couldn't talk very well, and only in words that Jasper had taught him. Basics like 'cold,' 'hungry' and 'sad.' Even then, the boy still used his silent communication hand signals more often than not and they certainly weren't exchanging life stories with one another.

"Every boy needs a mother." The girl pulled her eyes from Jacob still pressed against his chaps and Jasper pursed his lips. His own mother had died before he could remember her and he'd turned out just fine. Considering the way he and the boy lived, it wasn't likely that a mother would come along any time soon.

Much less someone for himself.

"Not many women 'round here want to live too far from town." He shrugged again, because it was true, even if he didn't understand it at all. He personally hated coming here, the silence of the settlement disturbed by yelling men and the whistle of the new train. The freshly laid tracks cut across the prairie like a blight and he'd come to think of the spot where they crossed his simple dirt road as the line between here and there.

The train whistle had scared Jacob so badly that the boy ran off the moment they got to town and Jasper hadn't seen hide nor tail of him. Until now.

"You settled that piece of land out near the lake, didn't you? The one with all the trees." She peered at him and he nodded, still worried about his investment. He had to live on the acreage for five years and at least one hundred of those weak little saplings needed to survive in order to gain his property rights from the government. As it were, only eighty of the seedlings looked like they might have made it through the winter.

"Peaches," he clarified.

"I wouldn't mind living in an orchard, especially peaches." The girl glanced off over the single dusty street of town and sounded almost wistful, as though she'd daydreamed about doing just that. Jasper knew that the reality of it wasn't as nice as it sounded. The work was back breaking, and that was just what it took to survive out there. Thriving was a whole different pot of beans.

"Did he try to take your purse, Ma'am?" His voice rasped around something caught in his throat.

"No. He told me his name." She stared at Jasper for a long time, her hands folded in front of her and he really shouldn't be calling her a girl in his head. She was a woman, even if her face looked young and he flamed even hotter.

"I didn't know cowboys could blush," she said, and he blushed harder. "I've only just arrived here. I'm not sure exactly what it is that I'm doing, but I'm glad you didn't keep me waiting long."

She put a hand softly on Jacob's cheek and before Jasper knew what was happening, she was walking away. He watched her, the blue satin of her dress winking at him through the dust and dirt until he felt Jacob tug on his shirtsleeve. When he looked down, the boy was pointing frantically after the disappearing girl, lips pressed tightly together as though he had a million words trapped behind his teeth, his eyes wide with urgency.

"You like her, huh?" Jasper chuckled and Jacob nodded enthusiastically.

When he woke, the first thing he saw were the curtains.

Crisp white fabric, starched and hemmed along the bottom with simple blue stitches. They hadn't been there before and he struggled to remember where they had come from. His head felt heavy and his bones ached. His mouth was dry and on fire and Jacob's little face was suddenly looming over him, blurry around the edges.

Jasper accepted the cup of water the boy offered and drained it in a single gulp, collapsing back against the pillows. The room was too hot and too cold and his skin felt like it had turned to liquid. The last thing he remembered was heading to the barn to feed the malicious mare before something grabbed him by the feet and pulled him into blackness.

He didn't know what he'd caught, but he felt like death.

"How long?" He asked and Jacob scrambled over him, lifting the edge of the blanket away from the wall and showing Jasper the row of hatch marks he had carved into the wood. Twelve.

"You got me through it, huh? How'd you manage that?"

Jacob shook his head and Jasper watched as the boy dropped his eyes to his feet and spent a full minute wrapping his lips around the words, over and over and over, until he had them right. He looked up at Jasper and spoke carefully.

"Mizzz A-lizz," Jacob said and Jasper knew instantly who this Miss. Alice was, even though he didn't officially know her name.

"She was here?"

Jacob nodded. There were other signs of her, now that Jasper looked. The floors were scrubbed clean and the cobwebs had been brushed out of the corners. The stove was polished and Jacob was wearing a shirt cut from good quality wool that Jasper had never seen before.

There were those curtains in the window, softening the harsh glow of spring sunshine.

"Did you go get her?"

The boy nodded again and Jasper eyed the marks on the wall. He thought he could remember her here, but in every memory she had a halo on which made him wonder if she was only just an angel ushering him toward the end.

He wondered if she'd stitched those curtains while she sat by his bed and waited for him to wake up.

She came two days later, Sunday, just as the sun was setting.

On a horse wild enough to kill her.

Her letter had come the day before, delivered by that Emmett fellow who was on his way back to his own settlement from a trek into town. Jasper hadn't found another trap on his riverfront since the one Jacob got caught in and he chose not to mention it to Emmett. It was best to keep your neighbors on your good side out here; the law didn't stretch far out and it was often those closest to you who answered the call for help.

Her handwriting was just as poised and pretty as the rest of her.

Jasper stepped out of the house just as her horse skidded to a violently abrupt halt, throwing the girl from the saddle before streaking toward the barn.

Jasper caught her, but he wasn't sure how.

"Jesuschrist," he muttered, eyeing the demon horse that was frantically circling the barn, looking for a way in. He knew Bella was in heat, whinnying from inside and that the stud could probably smell her from a mile away.

"We'll have to work on that language of yours," the girl admonished from his arms and he was suddenly very aware that he was clutching her close to his chest. He was also aware that he was covered in dust and grime from his day spent out there with the trees. She smelled like flowers and he smelled like the barn and Bella, who had pissed on him this morning out of spite. He set the girl on her feet, worrying about her dainty shoes on the uneven ground and tried to brush her down a little, blushing as she laughed.

"Sorry, I'm a mess," he grumbled, talking about a lot more than just the dirt.

"You're not so bad." She smiled as he straightened and reached to return the favor, smoothing down his hair and wiping dirt off his cheek.

"That horse of yours needs to be broken," he muttered. He could feel his face flame under her fingers and he couldn't even remember the last time he'd been touched by a woman.

"His name is Edward, but I've been calling him Asshat."

"We'll have to work on that language of yours." Jasper grinned at her, feeling relieved that such a sinful word could come out of a mouth that pretty. He wanted to ask her exactly what she was doing here, in a dress like that, in shoes like that, but he was too afraid to actually do it.

"I hope you don't mind, but I'm here for good." She was looking around, taking in the house and the barn and the chickens that were crawling all over the yard searching for bugs. Jasper looked around with her, chest swelling a little from pride. He'd built all of this with his own two hands, carved out a niche in the wilderness and was trying to bring about some order.

He wasn't certain she knew what she was getting herself into, but he was damn grateful she was here. Fresh and clean as those crocuses blooming all over the pig shit and he thought that's exactly what she was.

"We sure could use a some mothering 'round these parts, both of us." He reached for her hand, unsure why but wanting it anyway. She wound her fingers through his and beamed up at him. Bright as a sunbeam.

"You look better."

"I feel better. Thank you for coming, though I'm surprised you understood the boy."

"He can say your name. The rest he didn't need to say out loud."

He must have heard them talking about him. Jacob came bounding out of the house like a jackrabbit, springing through the grass and barreling into both of them. His hands squirmed through theirs until he had a firm hold on Jasper and then Alice, creating a little circle out of the three of them. His face broke into the first smile Jasper had ever seen as he shouted a single word, jubilant and excited.

Jasper could do nothing but wonder just where the boy had learned it.

It certainly wasn't one that he had taught him.


He tried to give her the bed that night. Made the boy sleep in the barn with him and cows, the feisty mare and the temperamental stud. The first truly warm nights of summer were now upon them and he watched the cabin from the hayloft until the oil lamp went out.

Rolled over in the hay and marveled at the sheer audacity of her.

He wondered why she was here.

What she might have seen in him and what she could have possibly meant by that comment she made, back when they met each other in the middle of that awful, crowded street? He still didn't know what Jacob had taken from her, if she'd gotten it back, or if he'd taken anything at all . . . And then she said she was glad he didn't keep her waiting . . .

He felt like he had been kept waiting for a long time.

He woke sometime around midnight, the moon perched right in the middle of the starry sky and Alice was curled up in the hay beside him. She was wrapped in the fine silk blanket, one of the few things she'd brought with her, and the moonlight cast her as silver as a freshly molded bullet, still hot from the fire. He pulled the coarse wool blanket he was using up over her shoulder and fell asleep to the cadence of her soft breath blowing by his ear.

She insisted that they sleep in the cabin the next night.

All of them.

"Like a family." She bit her lip and squared her jaw, as though she wanted to be demanding but didn't quite know how. Jasper felt his mouth cock to the side before he could help it.

"Is that what we're doing here, Darling?"

"Yes." She glanced at the boy, industriously scrubbing his face with a bit of hard soap over a warm pan of water, something he'd never liked doing for Jasper but seemed practically eager to do for her. Alice looked back up at him, standing in the doorway, ready to sleep in the barn again. "I'd like to sleep in your bed tonight. The hay was nice, but it's scratchy."

He watched her put the boy to bed, gentle hands and her hair in ringlets around her face. She didn't sing, like he'd expected her to. Instead, he unlaced his boots and watched from the bench by the door as Jacob crawled into his new trundle bed set near the fire and Alice perched alongside to have a whispered conversation with him. She brushed the wild hair from Jacob's face and spoke of everything she had been shown that day. The chicken coop and the cows, the entire west field which was really just an endless carpet of pale purple violets. The tadpoles squirming between the rocks at the river's edge and the hole in the floor near the front door Jasper had dug to keep their milk and eggs fresh. The boy's eyelids fluttered under her fingers as Alice made plans for the buffalo berries down by the river and the tangle of blackberry bushes that were threatening to overrun the path between the cabin and the well.

She spoke of peaches, which Jasper thought was kind of wishful considering it would be at least three years before those trees produced anything resembling a peach.

By the time Jasper had removed his boots, Jacob was fast asleep.

Alice glanced back at him from over her shoulder before planting a kiss on the boy's forehead and standing. He tried not to watch as she pulled her nightdress from the hook beside the bed, turning away and fumbling to unbutton his own shirt with his neck flaring like an overworked horse. His fingers were clumsy, the buttons impossibly small, and he was a sight to behold underneath it. Ranch life had worked a number on him, leaving him sunburned and scarred. His muscles bulged beneath his skin, arms were laced with countless careless gashes from barbed wire or stray nails. His hands were calloused and rough, graced with a scab on his left palm that still wouldn't get on with healing and a blackened thumbnail on the right from the barn door.

He didn't even own a mirror, but judging from the boy's wild hair, his own probably wasn't in better shape.

What was she going to think of him?

He crawled beneath the covers, still keeping his eyes lowered in case she hadn't finished dressing. He should hang a curtain across the corner for privacy, but he and the boy had become accustomed to one another and it just hadn't seemed necessary until now.

Aside from the low crackle of the fire and Jacob's soft snore, Jasper's heart thumping around inside his chest was the only sound in the room.

Alice drew the curtain around the bed and hitched her nightdress up around her waist as she crawled onto the bed, the firelight dampening the air. Her skin was smooth and pale and looked so soft that Jasper was reaching for her before he knew what he was doing. His calloused fingers scraped against her skin and she settled on top of him, folds of soft cotton around her waist and the shoulder of her nightdress falling limply against her arm.

He hadn't seen a woman this naked in a long, long time and she had to be the most beautiful one ever created. He traced the graceful collarbone that curved across her chest before she leaned over him, holding his palm firmly to her own thumping heart. She kissed him right between the eyes before she went for his mouth, lips pressed soft and damp to him as his eyelids fluttered closed.

When she took him, it was sweet and soft and slow and Jasper moaned, full of bliss and want.

"Quiet, you'll wake him," she whispered into his skin. He clutched her close, using all her bare skin to keep his mouth covered. She settled down over him like a fog, heavy and damp and smelling of something that he couldn't quite place. He let her pull something from him that he wasn't sure he had, a warm throbbing from deep in his belly that set his skin on fire and froze him solid in the next instant.

Alice collapsed beside him, the cornhusks he'd stuffed the mattress with crackling mutely beneath her. Jasper gulped at the air, his hand still wrapped firm around her thigh as he fought to ground himself.

"I don't know what I've done to deserve this," he panted, "but I intend to keep doing it."

Alice blinked dreamily at him, eyes peering over the rumpled sheets between them. "I knew I'd find you, I just didn't think it would be in the middle of nowhere."

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