Материалы к занятию
But the girl on the railing interested him. There was something different about her, though he couldn’t pinpoint what. Maybe, he thought, it was the unguarded, almost vulnerable way she stared into the distance. Whatever it was, he sensed that right now what she really needed was a friend. He considered going over to talk to her, but he pushed aside the idea as he focused on the bulls in the distance. Despite the arena lights, it was too dark to make out all the details, but he searched for Big Ugly Critter anyway. They would forever be linked, he thought, and he wondered idly whether the bull had already been loaded up. He doubted the owner of the bull had planned to drive all night, which meant the animal was here, but it still took some time before he was able to locate him.
It was while he was staring at Big Ugly Critter that the drunk ex-boyfriend had walked up. It was impossible not to overhear their conversation, but he reminded himself not to get involved. And he wouldn’t have, at least until the huge brute had grabbed her. By then, it was obvious she didn’t want anything to do with him, and when he heard the blonde’s anger give way to fear, Luke found himself pushing away from the railing. He knew his decision would probably backfire on him, but as he stepped toward the two of them, he thought again of the way she’d looked earlier, and he knew he didn’t have a choice.
Luke watched as the drunk ex-boyfriend stalked off, and he turned to thank his fellow riders for coming over. One by one they drifted away, leaving Luke and Sophia alone.
Above them, the stars had multiplied in the ebony sky. In the barn, the band finished one song and eased into another, an older classic by Garth Brooks. With a deep sigh, Sophia let her arms fall to her sides, the autumn breeze lifting her hair gently as she turned to face him.
“I’m sorry you were dragged into all this, but I want to thank you for what you did,” Sophia said, a little sheepish.
Closer now, Luke registered the unusual green color of her eyes and the soft precision of her speech, a sound that made him think of faraway places. For a moment, he found himself tonguetied.
“I was glad to help,” he managed.
When he said nothing more, she tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “He’s… not always as crazy as you probably imagine he is. We used to go out and he’s not too happy I broke up with him.”
“I figured,” Luke said.
“Did you… hear everything?” Her face was a mixture of embarrassment and fatigue.
“It was kind of hard not to.”
Her lips tightened. “That’s what I thought.”
“If it makes you feel any better, I promise to forget,” he offered.
She gave a genuine laugh, and he thought he heard relief in it.
“I’m going to try my best to forget all about it, too,” she said. “I just wish…”
When she trailed off, Luke finished her thought for her. “It’s over and done, I’d guess. At least for tonight, anyway.”
She turned, taking her time as she examined the barn. “I sure hope so.”
Luke’s feet scraped at the ground, as if trying to unearth words in the dust. “I assume your friends are inside?”
Her gaze flickered over the figures milling around the barn doors and beyond. “A bunch of us are here,” she said. “I go to Wake Forest and my roommate at the sorority decided that what I really needed was a girls’ night out.”
“They’re probably wondering where you are.”
“I doubt it,” she said. “They’re having too much fun for that.”
From a tree bordering the corral came the sound of an owl calling from a low-hanging branch, and both of them turned at the sound.
“Do you want me to walk you back inside? In case there’s any trouble, I mean?”
She surprised him by shaking her head. “No. I think it’s best if I stay out here for a little longer. It’ll give Brian a chance to cool off.”
Only if he quits drinking, Luke thought. Let it go. It’s not your business, he reminded himself. “Would you rather be alone, then?”
A look of amusement flashed across her face. “Why? Am I boring you?”
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “Not at all. I just didn’t want —”
“I’m kidding.” She stepped to the railing and propped her elbows on the fence. She leaned forward and turned toward him, smiling. Hesitantly, Luke joined her at the railing.
In the distance, she took in the view, appreciating the gently rolling hills common to this part of the state. Luke studied her features silently, noting the small stud in her earlobe, trying to figure out what to say.
“What year are you in college?” he finally asked. He knew it was an inane question, but it was all he could come up with.
“I’m a senior.”
“That makes you… twenty-two?”
“Twenty-one.” She half turned in his direction. “And you?”
“Older than that.”
“Not by much, I’d guess. Did you go to college?”
“It wasn’t really my thing.” He shrugged.
“And you ride bulls for a living?”
“Sometimes,” he answered. “When I stay on, that is. But other times, I’m just a toy the bull gets to play with until I can get away.”
She raised an eyebrow. “You were pretty impressive out there today.”
“You remember me?”
“Of course. You were the only one who rode them all. You won, right?”
“I had a pretty good night,” he admitted.
She brought her hands together. “So it’s Luke…”
“Collins,” he finished.
“That’s right,” she said. “The announcer was going on and on about you before your ride.”
“To be honest, I wasn’t paying much attention. At the time, I didn’t know you’d end up coming to my rescue.”
He listened for traces of sarcasm but detected none, which surprised him. Hooking a thumb toward the tractor tire, he pointed out, “Those other guys came over to help, too.”
“But they didn’t intervene. You did.” She let the comment sink in for a moment. “Can I ask you a question, though?” she went on. “I’ve been wondering about it all night.”
Luke picked at a sliver on the railing. “Go ahead.”
“Why on earth would you ride bulls? It seems like you could get killed out there.”
That’s about right, he thought. It’s what everyone wanted to know. As usual, he answered it the way he always did. “It’s just something I’ve always wanted to do. I started when I was a little kid. I think I rode my first calf when I was four years old, and I was riding steers by the third grade.”
“But how did you start in the first place? Who got you into it?”
“My dad,” he said. “He was in rodeo for years. Saddle bronc.”
“Is that different than bulls?”
“It’s pretty much the same rules, except that it’s on a horse. Eight seconds, holding on with one hand while the animal tries to throw you.”
“Except that horses don’t have horns the size of baseball bats. And they’re smaller and not as mean.”
He considered it. “That’s about right, I’d guess.”
“Then why don’t you compete in saddle bronc instead of riding bulls?”
He watched her brush her hair back with both hands, trying to capture the flyaways. “That’s kind of a long story. Do you really want to know?”
“I wouldn’t have asked if I didn’t.”
He fiddled with his hat. “It’s just a hard life, I guess. My dad would drive a hundred thousand miles a year going from rodeo to rodeo just to qualify for the National Finals Rodeo. That kind of travel is hard on the family, and not only was he gone almost all the time, but back then, it didn’t pay much. After travel expenses and entry fees, he probably would have been better off working minimum wage. He didn’t want that for me, and when he heard that bull riders were about to start their own tour, he thought it had a pretty good chance to be successful. That’s when he got me into it. There’s still a lot of travel, but the events are on weekends and usually I can get in and out pretty quick. The purses are bigger too.”
“So he was right.”
“He had great instincts. About everything.” The words came out without thinking, and when he saw her expression, he knew she’d picked up on it. He sighed. “He passed away six years ago.”
Her gaze didn’t waver, and impulsively she reached out, touching his arm. “I’m sorry,” she said.
Though her hand barely grazed his arm, the sensation lingered. “It’s okay,” he said, straightening up. Already he could feel the post-ride soreness settling in, and he tried to concentrate on that instead. “Anyway, that’s the reason I ride bulls.”
“And you like it?”
That was a tough one. For a long time, it was how he’d defined himself, no question about it. But now? He didn’t know how to answer, because he wasn’t sure himself. “Why are you so interested?” he countered.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe because it’s a world I know nothing about? Or maybe I’m just naturally curious. Then again, I might just be making conversation.”
“Which one is it?”
“I could tell you,” she said, her green eyes seductive in the moonlight. “But how much fun would that be? The world needs a little mystery.”
Something stirred in him at the veiled challenge in her voice. “Where are you from?” he asked, feeling himself being reeled in and liking it. “I take it you’re not from around here.”
“Why would you think that? Do I have an accent?”
“I suppose that depends on where you’re from. Up north, I’d be the one with the accent. But I can’t really tell where you’re from.”
“I’m from New Jersey.” She paused. “No jokes, please.”
“Why would I joke? I like New Jersey.”
“Have you ever been there?”
“I’ve been to Trenton. I rode in a few events at the Sovereign Bank Arena. Do you know where that is?”
“I know where Trenton is,” she answered. “It’s south of where I live, closer to Philadelphia. I’m up north, by the city.”
“Have you been to Trenton?”
“A handful of times. But I’ve never been to the arena. Or to a rodeo, for that matter. This is my first time.”
“What did you think?”
“Other than being impressed? I thought you were all crazy.”
He laughed, charmed by her frankness. “You know my last name, but I didn’t catch yours.”
“Danko,” she said. Then, anticipating his next question: “My dad is from Slovakia.”
“That’s near Kansas, right?”
She blinked. Her mouth opened and closed, and just as she was about to explain the concept of Europe to him, he raised his hands.
“Joking,” he said. “I know where it is. Central Europe, part of what was once Czechoslovakia. I just wanted to see your reaction.”
“I should’ve taken a picture to show my friends.”
She scowled before nudging against him. “That’s not nice.”
“But it was funny.”
“Yeah,” she admitted. “It was funny.”
“So if your dad is from Slovakia…”
“My mom is French. They moved here a year before I was born.”
He turned toward her. “No kidding…”
“You sound surprised.”
“I don’t know if I’ve ever met a French Slovakian before.” He paused. “Hell, I don’t know if I’ve ever met someone from New Jersey before.”
When she laughed, he felt something relax in him, and he knew he wanted to hear the sound again. “And you live close by?”
“Not too far. A little north of Winston-Salem. I’m right outside of King.”
“That’s one thing it isn’t. It’s a small town with friendly people, but that’s about it. We have a ranch up there.”
“My mom and I. Well, actually it’s her ranch. I just live and work there.”
“Like… a real ranch? With cows and horses and pigs?”
“It’s even got a barn that makes this one here look new.”
She surveyed the barn behind them. “I doubt that.”
“Maybe I’ll show you one day. Take you horseback riding and everything.”
Their eyes met, holding for a beat, and again she reached out to touch his arm. “I think I’d like that, Luke.”