"Are you tired, Susannah?"
I looked up at Jesse's slightly concerned face and smiled. "Nope. I'm fine, Jesse. What makes you think that?"
He looked at me oddly. "You just closed your eyes and were rubbing your temples for the last two minutes," he informed me, smiling faintly.
I rolled my eyes at him. "Yeah, whatever, Mr. Know-It-All. I'm not tired just…" My voice trailed off.
He raised his eyebrows inquiringly. "Just…?"
I grinned sheepishly at him. "Just sorta…bored." I shrugged helplessly. "This project is just too boring," I complained, stretching myself.
"Well, it was assigned by Mrs. Kendall," Jesse replied lightly. He treated me to a quick grin. "What do you expect?"
I smiled and leaned back against the tree trunk. It had been two days since our English teacher had paired us up and assigned us the project. For the last two evenings, Jesse and I had met under the huge tree where we had first talked, to work on it. For some reason, Jesse had insisted on not going to work at my house and he'd not offered to make his house our workplace.
So, here we were, sitting on the grassy bank of the river with our papers and stationary spread out on the grass. It was our third meeting. During our few hours alone, Jesse had unconsciously confused me even more. I honestly could not see how he could be the object of the whole town's hatred.
I stretched myself onto the grass. Gazing up at the sky which was slowly starting to turn pink, my eyes followed an eagle soaring in all its majesty. Its harsh cries penetrated the relaxed silence between Jesse and I.
"This place is just one big jungle, isn't it?" I remarked, looking at Jesse.
He grinned and absently started playing with a lock of my hair. Even though, it wasn't really skin-on-skin touch since I couldn't feel his fingers on my hair, there was a burning sensation in my chest. I forced myself to retain my casual façade, like I had boys playing with my hair everyday.
"What do you mean, querida?" he asked, his eyes on the lock of brown hair between his thumb and forefinger.
I frowned confusedly. "Hey, come again. What was that you called me?"
A small smile tugged at one corner of his lips. Slowly, he lifted his gaze from my hair and brought it to my eyes. My breath hitched at the intensity of his stare.
"I called you," he said softly. "Querida." He continued holding my gaze, as if challenging me to oppose the Spanish pet name he'd just given me.
I licked my suddenly dry lips, noticing his eyes follow the little movement. "And what does that mean, Jesse?" I asked slightly breathlessly. I couldn't drop my eyes from his. It was like his gaze was a magnet and mine was iron.
Smiling faintly, he shook his head. "That isn't for you to know." After a pause, he added teasingly, "Querida."
I pursed my lips. "Why isn't it? I'm the one you're calling that, aren't I?" I inquired, raising my eyebrows in an exaggerated movement.
"Well, let's just say your job is to be flattered I'm calling you that," he said as he got up and dusted himself. He flashed a grin at me.
I raised a sceptical eyebrow. "Oh? You could easily be calling me a bi—"
"Susannah," he cut me off, frowning. Kneeling down on his haunches, he stared at me intently. "I would never call you anything like that, querida. Never think that," he pronounced slowly. Then, I was standing up, before realizing when he'd taken my hands and pulled me up gently.
"Come," he half-whispered. Slipping my cold hand in his large, invitingly warm one, he led me along the river bank.
Gathering my wits, I asked him, "Wh-where are we going?"
"To the dock," he answered simply.
I narrowed my eyes and tilted my head, half-amused and half-sceptic. "The dock?" I asked.
He nodded once. I decided to stay silent and just go along with him. I suddenly felt oddly lady-like, like a lady from long before. Something about the way he held me almost protectively and led the way before me was bewilderingly pleasing.
Soon we reached the dock. It was a small wooden dock built on the water. A few equipment and a single overturned canoe lay on it. Letting go of my hand, Jesse walked to it and turned it over, releasing it from the bounds of some ropes. Soon, he had the boat on the still waters of the river and was gesturing at me to come forward.
I had to laugh incredulously. "Jesse," I said, shaking my head. "We're going canoeing?"
He smiled and took my hand, gently propelling me toward the canoe. "Looks like it," he said, helping me onto it. He climbed in himself and took hold of the oars. And then, we were gliding smoothly on the water.
As the little dock grew smaller and smaller, I chewed on my lip and said anxiously, "Jesse, it's soon going to be dark. Do you think we should go now?"
"We'll be back soon, querida. Don't worry," he reassured me, his eyes warm and twinkling.
"And what about our books and stuff? They're still lying there, you know."
"I'll go and collect them afterwards. Nobody goes there. They'll be safe," he replied.
After one last anxious sigh, I settled in to enjoy the tranquillity of the moment. Soon I was lost in the beauty of our surroundings. I watched a couple of pelicans feeding near the bank and the fish jumping in and out of the water playfully. We were serenaded by the crickets and frogs as they started their usual evening songs. As we floated along, I faintly heard someone playing the piano in the distance.
"Like it?" Jesse's deep voice drifted to me.
I turned to look at him dreamily. "Well, you sure don't get sights like this in New York," I answered.
His soft baritone laughter blended in with the natural sounds perfectly. I leaned down and rested my elbow on my knee and then placed my chin on my palm. I watched as he heaved the oars steadily, the tinkling sound of moving water coming with every heave. But with him, it didn't look like he was putting much effort into it. The muscles underneath his sleeves bulged as he manned the canoe.
Feeling my gaze on him, he looked at me. "Susannah?" he called.
Breaking out of my trance, I blinked at him. "Yeah?"
He smiled lopsidedly. "You were just staring at me," he told me.
Blushing, I muttered, "You're not supposed to point that out to me, Jesse."
Grinning widely, he asked, "Why were you staring at me, querida?"
Looking ahead over his broad shoulder, I answered primly, "That's not for you to know. Your job is just to be flattered that I was staring at you."
He burst into laughter. "My God, Susannah. You must've been bursting to throw that back at me," he said between chuckles, shaking his head.
Rolling my eyes at him, I turned my eyes to the picturesque scenery. We came to a stone bridge which was arched over the river. Its watery reflection glittered in the golden rays of the setting sun. We floated below it and continued on our way.
Looking back at Jesse, I saw he was concentrating on the oars. I watched the way he oared with a kind of manly grace. I was sure that any other boy I brought would look out of place in this quietly beautiful backdrop. But his image was perfectly harmonious with the peaceful sounds and sights around us. He was a boy of nature.
"Jesse," I began hesitantly. I wasn't sure whether to broach this topic or not. I had been wondering about it since the day I had met him but I'd never been brave enough to ask him about it.
He looked at me questioningly. I looked at his hands on the oars as I spoke. "I was wondering…do you have a girlfriend?" As soon as the words came out of my mouth I wanted to just jump off the canoe and drown myself from embarrassment.
Forcing myself to look up at him, I saw that the casual smile had left his face. He was staring at me intently. I felt my face grow hotter under his inspection. Finally, after a few moments of silence, he answered lightly, "No, querida. I don't have a girlfriend."
Without thinking, I let out the breath I didn't realize I'd been holding. Hearing it, Jesse raised his eyebrows slightly but said nothing about it, much to my relief.
"Oh," I said, trying to sound offhand. "So…have you ever had one?"
I thought I saw amusement flicker deep inside his otherwise serious eyes. He nodded his head once. I suddenly felt a rush of jealousy towards the girl whom he'd dated. Jealousy and something else…something like possessiveness.
"Oh, who? Do I know her?" I asked in a voice which sounded overly casual even to my ears.
His lips pursed slightly, like he was suppressing a smile. "No, Susannah. You don't know any of them."
The last word hit me like a punch to my gut. Before I could help myself, I said accusingly, "Them?" As soon as I realized what I'd said, I widened my eyes and burned as hot as the sun. God, Simon, control yourself. You're acting like a jealous girlfriend, for God's sake!
Raising his eyebrows, Jesse answered casually, "Yes. But they were all back in Spain."
I narrowed my eyes, despite my flaming face. "Exactly how many girlfriends have you had, Jesse?"
Inside, I was kicking myself. Never talk about exes, had been a major rule in catching a guy according to Cosmo. But at the rate I was going, I was sure I would know everything down to all of Jesse's ex-girlfriends' favourite colors in a few minutes. How desperate could anybody sound? Then, suddenly, I realized what I was thinking. When had I planned on making Jesse my boyfriend? Hmm, my mind must've been doing secret homework behind my back.
Jesse was looking at me shrewdly. "Four, Susannah," he answered my question. Then suddenly, grinned.
"What?" I snapped at him, as my embarrassment grew even more.
"You're blushing from head to toe," he said, his grinning even more widely. "I've never seen anyone blush so hard."
That caused me to become even redder. Discretely glancing down at my flip-flop clad feet, I noticed that they were indeed redder than usual. "I'm not blushing from head to toe. I-it's just this problem I've had from childhood. I grow red very easily," I informed him.
He raised his eyebrows in disbelieve and said, "Oh, I've never heard of that…disease," he said lightly. Then he looked at me more seriously. "But, I find it very adorable," he said softly, staring straight into my eyes.
I gulped, looking deep into those obsidian orbs. Something brushed against my cheek and I tore my eyes from Jesse to see what it was. Gasping softly, I realized that we had floated near to the bank and were drifting underneath the branches of a giant willow as they hung low over the water. We were secluded from the rest of the world, divided by a curtain of green.
Looking back at Jesse, I saw he was still gazing at me. A few strands of the last rays of sunlight filtered through the willow leaves and pooled onto his skin and hair, making them glow almost ethereally.
Forcing my parched lips open, I whispered, "It's so beautiful, Jesse. Thanks for showing it to me."
He smiled gently and left the oars. Slowly he came towards my end of the canoe, like a panther stalking its prey as its muscles rippled gracefully. I half-crawled, half-walked forward towards him too, in a kind of trance.
When we were close enough, Jesse reached out and cupped the side of my face in one of his calloused palms. Leaning forward, he stopped when his mouth was a hair's width away from mine, almost like he was asking my permission to kiss me. Instead of answering him, I closed in the rest of the distance and sealed my lips on his.
It was my first kiss ever. I didn't know what to do, but I was determined to make the kiss a good one. Not that I had any previous experience to compare it with. Soon, I decided to not try to make it a mechanically good kiss and just gave myself in to the feelings.
Our lips and tongues mingled and frolicked playfully. Somewhere in the corner of my mind I registered the sound of a couple of beavers playing on the bank beside us. It was like the two of them were the animal version of Jesse and I. I gave a muffled laugh at the delightfulness of everything around me now. Jesse must've heard the beavers too, for I felt him smile against my lips.
Pulling out of the kiss, we leaned our foreheads against each other's. I smiled at him dazedly. Smiling back, he traced the outline of my lips with the pad of his thumb. I closed my eyes and concentrated on the feeling of his skin on my lips.
"Thank you, querida," Jesse whispered raggedly.
Opening my eyes, I looked at him questioningly. Answering my look, he said, "For trusting me."
Blinking, I realized that this had been a way to see how much I trusted him. He had brought me somewhere I didn't even know, alone and with no way of escape. And I had followed him without a second thought. I had passed the test. Thinking about it, I realized that not many people in school would have put so much faith in him. In fact, not anybody would have trusted him this much.
I smiled at him and answered, "Jesse, you can trust me to trust you with anything." Then I added slightly flirtatiously, "So you can continue surprising me."
He grinned and relaxed as the topic took a lighter turn. Resting my cheek on his shoulder, I thought about what I had said. They were completely sincere, I realized. I did trust him. So much, I thought. And I didn't even know why.
"Jesse," I said, suddenly feeling wicked.
"Yes, querida?" he mumbled into my hair.
"So, tell me, about those girlfriends of yours…"
I could just imagine him rolling his eyes above my head. "Susannah, none of them were serious relationships and—"
"Are you going to add one more to the list?" I cut him off. I could barely suppress my giggle.
He was quiet for a moment and then he tipped my head up by my chin. Looking into his face I saw that he had the beginnings of a grin playing on his lips.
"Do you want me to?" he asked deliberately.
I couldn't keep the giggle back anymore. "Sure. It won't hurt, will it?" I said.
"No," he answered, grinning. "Far from it." Then he leaned down to kiss me once again.
A/N: Please review!