“Wanna go?”

“Sure. I’ve been wanting to check it out.”

As Ben led me to the lake, we chatted about the ranch. It seemed neither of us wanted to talk about the past until we reached the lake. And personally, I wanted to be far enough away that we wouldn’t be overheard. While I liked the other guys, this was a conversation we needed to have in private.

When we were close, Ben said, “We’re lucky enough that the edge of the ranch butts up against Seeley Lake.”

During my interview, Hank had told me the ranch was near Seeley Lake, but he’d failed to mention that the lake touched the Break-Ridge Ranch.

“That’s incredible,” I said, my eyes taking it all in. “It’s so beautiful here.”

“This is my favorite place to be,” Ben admitted.

“I can see why!” I said.

And I could. Lake Seeley was truly something to behold. The ranch was grassy to the shore. Giant pine trees lined much of the lake to my left and right, their tall bodies reflecting in the lake.

Everything was so wonderful to look at, but it was the water that was the best of all. It was bluer than anything I’d ever seen before, a color so radiant I wish I mix paints to match just so I could carry it with me forever.

We walked down to the shore and I bent down and touched the water with my fingers. The water was cool, crisp. I gasped in delight.

“I love it here!” I said, looking at Ben with excitement.

He smiled and, for just a moment, it felt like we were seventeen again and my heart was whole.

“I thought you might. It’s a far cry from the desert, huh?”

I nodded and, after a moment of just staring out at the lake, we took a seat on the trunk of a fallen tree.

“I remember the first time we ever spoke,” Ben said, finally breaking the silence. That old clunker of yours, it was only a matter of time before it broke down.”

I laughed, pushing his arm. “Hey! That clunker I could afford working at Target.”

“I know, I know,” Ben said, his voice filled with mirth.

I was lost in the memory. “I didn’t know what I was going to do. Both my parents were still at work and it was before my sister was old enough to get a car. And then you came along,” I said, looking over at Ben, a smile on my face. “My hero.”

When he looked at me too, his face was soft. “I’d had a crush on you forever, and it was finally my chance to introduce myself when I offered to take a look under the hood.”

“Ben, I knew who you were, you know that right?” I asked.

Surprise registered on his face. “No, I didn’t know that.”

I rolled my eyes. “We had a ton of classes together. We’d just never had the chance to talk to each other before that. We ran in different crowds.”

“You can say that again,” Ben retorted. “You were popular and I was just this huge nerd.”

“You do know that the only reason I was supposedly popular was that they all wanted to copy my homework so they could have the grades that would get them into college,” I said with a laugh. “I refused, but I knew they thought they’d wear me eventually. I was so desperate for friends that didn’t exactly dissuade them of the idea.”

Ben laughed too. “I never knew that was why you’re friends with them. I couldn’t ever figure out why you were friends with Ashley and Tinna when you guys had nothing in common.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Still, you were cool in your own right, even without them. I can’t believe you ever fell for a weirdo like me.”

I wasn’t prepared for how gutted his simple statement made me feel. I thought I was over the way thinking about our previous relationship made me hurt, but I was wrong. Sometimes, like now, the wounds felt so fresh.

After Sascha and I became friends and I told her about Ben, she’d wrapped an arm around me and said, “Sometimes, Jada, we never really get over our first loves and that’s okay because we’ll go on to love again. There’s nothing wrong with more than one person holding a piece of your heart.”

At the time, Sascha’s words were so comforting, but now, now that I was actually faced with my first love, I wasn’t sure I wanted him to live in my heart forever.

Refusing to look at Ben, I said in a soft voice, “After you left, I’d wished I hadn’t fallen for you at all.”

Ben sighed and seemed to think over my words. When he finally spoke, he said, “You have to know that my intention was never to hurt you, Jada. I never wanted that. But I just couldn’t take it anymore.”

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