He looked at me, his dark eyes pools of dangerous intensity. "Don’t forget Riley, I never back down from a challenge."
"How can I forget? But I’m warning you, get ready to eat my dust."
Jax smirked. "You’re on. I’ll count it off. One, two, three, forward!"
I tapped my heels a little harder than before and was shocked when Stud Tamer exploded into a gallop. The forward momentum jerked my head back and I grabbed the hat to keep it from falling off.
Somehow, I burst into an early lead, but when I looked to the side, I saw that Jax caught up. Hunched forward, leaning in close to All Riled Up's mane, Jax raced his horse hard and began inching ahead. I squeezed my heels and sore legs tighter against my horse and felt her pick up speed. We were locked in a dead heat.
Bouncing up and down in the saddle like a ragdoll, I struggled to maintain my composure. I clung to the leather reins so tightly they burned against my palms. My ears were roaring with the sound of the horses’ hooves clopping on the dry desert ground.
In the final stretch, with the rock formation rapidly approaching, I tried to keep my eyes firmly on the finish line but I chanced a glance at Jax. He rode with his eyes fixed on me instead of paying attention to what was ahead of him. At the final second, I pulled ahead and barely eked out the victory.
He tugged on his reins and I did the same, slowing down our horses so they were walking next to each other. I was happy about my win, but it quickly dawned on me that there was no way Jax would’ve lost to a first-timer like me. "You let me win!"
He raised his scarred brow. "Did I?"
"I might be a quick learner, but you’re an expert horse whisperer and it looked like you were taking it easy on me."
His sexy smile lit up his ebony eyes. "Guess I got distracted by the scenery."
I pumped my fist. "Well a win’s a win."
"I think we both won." He looked at me again the same way he had been during the race, and I realized his eyes were looking straight at my chest.
"No wonder." I shoved his shoulder playfully.
Jax just grinned at me.
After we walked our horses slowly on the trail for a few more minutes, Jax surveyed our surroundings and stopped his horse. "This seems like a good place to give these two a breather."
He slid off his horse first. I followed his lead, sliding off with relative ease, before handing him the reins. Although I was thoroughly enjoying my first horseback riding trip, I was relieved to get my feet back onto solid ground.
As he tied up the horses, I took a second to drink up the awesome scenery. The setting sun splashed orange and purple colors across a rock archway. A couple jackrabbits scurried past some cacti while a coyote howled from somewhere unseen. The howl sent a chill along my spine, but I was certain that Jax would keep me safe.
I took off the cowboy hat and combed my fingers through my hair. "Jax this place is absolutely stunning. When did you find the time to plan all of this?"
"I was inspired while you were sleeping," he called from behind me.
I turned around to see what he was doing. Jax walked towards me, holding a handful of lavender, white, and golden wildflowers. He must’ve picked them from the fields around us while I was admiring the scenery.
"Oh! These are beautiful," I said, unable to stop my smile. "That's sweet of you." I held out my hands for the flowers, but instead of handing them to me, he brought them up to my head and slipped the stems into my hair.
"They’re as much for you as they are for me," he said, taking a small step back to admire his handiwork.
My cheeks heated. I looked at his warm eyes, slightly embarrassed by how I was unable to stop smiling. "Thank you."
"Come on." He grabbed my hand and led me over to a boulder. "Let’s enjoy the sunset."
As we sat on the boulder facing the setting sun, he slung a heavy arm around my shoulder and pulled me close to him. I leaned into him, inhaling his rich, manly aroma—which was becoming all too familiar to me now but I knew I’d never tire of it. My hand found his and our fingers intertwined. I thought about last night and today, and how he must've went to great lengths to plan all of this out, and I realized how unbelievably sweet Jax was being to me.
Just as the sun was sinking behind the distant mountains, I planted a peck on Jax's cheek. He wrapped me up with both of his arms and hugged me tight as we watched the sun bathe the sky and desert with shimmering tangerine tints all across the darkening blue hues.
RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD
The next day the band was scheduled to shoot a music video at a soundstage in Los Angeles. Our bus driver, Bernie, drove through the night so that we could arrive on time.
It was the first time that Jax and I had slept on the bus together after what happened in Vegas, so we removed the pillow wall that separated us. We didn't break the rule of not having sex in his bed though. After the huge suite we enjoyed in Vegas, the bus seemed almost claustrophobically small and I didn't exactly want to advertise what was going on between Jax and me to the rest of the band.
Once we had arrived in L.A., the band spent most of the morning setting up for the shoot, while I tried to catch up on some work. If any of them had noticed the amount of time I had spent with Jax in Vegas, none of them mentioned anything.
Toward the early afternoon, the numbers on my laptop were starting to swim so I decided to head down to the soundstage to watch the making of the music video. Like any Hitchcock production, I was expecting a healthy amount of spectacle, but I guess I didn’t quite expect this.
The zombie’s ghoulish face peered into my eyes, and its decaying hands reached toward my face. A hiss emerged from the back of her throat: "Braaaaaaaaaiiiinnssssssss . . ."
I laughed, giving an appreciative nod to the makeup artist airbrushing final touches onto the fingers. "This video’s going to be amazing," I said.
The zombie’s face broke out into a smile—which would have been terrifying, if she hadn’t had such a friendly voice. "I’ve got to take a picture of this for my kids." She glanced toward a smartphone on the makeup table. "Would you mind?"
"Not at all." Picking up the phone, I tried to find the right angle to capture her at her most undead.
Just as I started to snap the picture, Jax leaned into the frame, giving the zombie a mock-terrified face. I laughed, and he went back toward his own makeup chair. I had to hand it to Jax, he knew how to make something as stressful as a video shoot seem fun for everyone. The food and drink had been flowing freely all afternoon, and it felt good to meet the extras and hang out around an actual Los Angeles soundstage.