Материалы к занятию
“I just never thought of it, I guess.”
He seemed as surprised by the realization as she was. Dog trotted up, checked to make sure they were okay, then wandered off again. “So tell me about this old girlfriend. Angie, was it?”
He shifted slightly, no doubt surprised that she remembered. “There’s not really much to tell. Like I told you, it was just a high school thing.”
“Why did it end?”
He seemed to reflect on the question before answering. “I went on the tour the week after I graduated from high school,” he said. “Back then, I couldn’t afford to fly to the events, so I was on the road an awful lot. I’d leave on Thursday and wouldn’t get home until Monday or Tuesday. Some weeks, I never made it home at all, and I don’t blame her for wanting something different.
Especially since it wasn’t likely to change.”
She digested this. “So how does it work?” she asked, shifting in her saddle. “If you want to be a bull rider, I mean? What do you have to do to get into it?”
“There’s not much to it, really,” he answered. “You buy your card with the PBR—”
“PBR?” she asked, cutting him off.
“Professional Bull Riders,” he said. “They run the events. Basically, you sign up and pay your entry fee. When you get to the event, you draw a bull and they let you ride.”
“You mean anyone can do it? Like if I had a brother and he decided that he wanted to start riding tomorrow, he could?”
“That’s ridiculous. What if someone has no experience at all?”
“Then they’d probably get hurt.”
He grinned and scratched under the brim of his hat. “It’s always been like that. In rodeo, most of the prize money comes from the competitors themselves. Which means that people who are good at it like it when the other riders aren’t so good. It means they have a better chance to walk away from an event with cash in their pocket.”
“That seems kind of heartless.”
“How else would you do it? You can practice all you want, but there’s only one way to know whether you can ride and that’s to actually try it.”
Thinking back, she wondered how many of the riders last night were first timers. “Okay, someone enters an event and let’s say he’s like you and he happens to win. What happens next?”
He shrugged. “Bull riding is a little different than traditional rodeo. Bull riders have their own tour these days, but actually it’s two tours. You have the big one, which is the one on television all the time, and you have the little tour, which is kind of like the minor leagues. If you earn enough points in the minor leagues, you get promoted to the major leagues. In this sport, that’s where the real money is.”
“And last night?”
“Last night was an event on the little tour.”
“Have you ever ridden in the big tour?”
He reached down, patting Horse’s neck. “I rode in it for five years.”
“Were you good?”
“I did all right.”
She evaluated his answer, remembering that he’d said the
same thing last night—when he’d won. “Why do I get the sense
that you’re a lot better than you’re implying?”
“I don’t know.”
She scrutinized him. “You might as well tell me how good you were. I can always Google you, you know.”
He sat up straighter. “I made the PBR World Championships four years in a row. To do that, you have to be in the top thirtyfive in the standings.”
“So you’re one of the best, in other words.”
“I was. Not so much anymore. I’m pretty much starting over again.”
By then, they’d reached a small clearing near the river and they brought the horses to a halt on the high bank. The river wasn’t wide, but Sophia had the sense that the slow-moving water was deeper than it appeared. Dragonflies flitted over the surface, breaking the stillness, causing tiny ripples that radiated to the edge. Dog lay down, panting from his exertions, his tongue hanging out the side of his mouth. Beyond him, in the shade of a gnarled oak tree, she noticed what seemed to be the remains of an old camp, with a decaying picnic table and an abandoned fire pit.
“What is this place?” she asked, adjusting her hat.
“My dad and I used to come fishing here. There’s a submerged tree under the water just over there, and it’s a great place to catch bass. We used to stay out here all day. It was kind of our place, just for the two of us. My mom hates the smell of fish, so we’d catch them and clean and cook them out here before bringing them back to the farmhouse. Other times, my dad would bring me out here after practice and we’d just stare at the stars. He never graduated from high school, but he could name every constellation in the sky. I had some of the best times of my life out here.”
She stroked Demon’s mane. “You miss him.”
“All the time,” he said. “Coming out here helps me remember him the right way. The way he should be remembered.”
She could hear the loss in his tone, sense the tightness in his posture. “How did he die?” she asked, her voice soft.
“We were coming home from an event in Greenville, South Carolina. It was late and he was tired and a deer suddenly tried to dart across the highway. He didn’t have time to even jerk the wheel, and the deer went through the windshield. The truck ended up rolling three times, but even before then, it was too late. The impact broke his neck.”
“You were with him?”
“I dragged him out of the wreckage,” he said. “I can remember holding him and frantically trying to get him to wake up until the paramedics got there.”
She paled. “I can’t even imagine something like that.”
“Neither could I,” he said. “One minute, we’re talking about my rides, and the next minute, he was gone. It didn’t seem real. It still doesn’t. Because he wasn’t just my dad. He was my coach and partner and friend, too. And…” He trailed off, lost in thought, then slowly shook his head. “And I don’t know why I’m telling you all this.”
“It’s okay,” she said, her voice soft. “I’m glad you did.”
He acknowledged her words with a grateful nod. “What are your parents like?” he asked.
“They’re… passionate,” she finally said. “About everything.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’d have to live with us to understand. They can be crazy
about each other one minute and screaming at each other in the next, they have deep opinions on everything from politics to the environment to how many cookies we should have after dinner, even what language to speak that day—” “Language?” he asked, breaking in.
“My parents wanted all of us to be multilingual, so on Mondays we spoke French, Tuesdays was Slovak, Wednesdays was Czech. It used to drive me and my sisters crazy, especially when we had friends come over, because they couldn’t understand anything that anyone was saying. And they were perfectionists when it came to grades. We had to study in the kitchen, and my mom would quiz us before every test. And let me tell you, if I ever brought home a score that wasn’t absolutely perfect, my mom and dad acted like it was the end of the world. My mom would wring her hands and my dad would tell me how disappointed he was and I’d end up feeling so guilty that I’d study again for a test that I’d already taken. I know it’s because they never wanted me to struggle like they did, but it could be a little oppressive at times. On top of that, all of us had to work in the deli, which meant that we were pretty much always together… let’s just say that by the time college rolled around, I was looking forward to making my own decisions.”
Luke lifted an eyebrow. “And you chose Brian.”
“Now you sound like my parents,” she said. “They didn’t like Brian from the beginning. As nuts as they are about some things, they’re actually pretty smart. I should have listened to them.”
“We all make mistakes,” he said. “How many languages do you speak?”
“Four,” she answered, pushing up the brim of her hat in the
same way he did. “But that includes English.”
“I speak one, including English.”
She smiled, liking his comment, liking him. “I don’t know how much good it will do me. Unless I end up working at a museum in Europe.”
“Do you want to do that?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. Right now, I’d be willing to work anywhere.”
He was quiet when she finished, absorbing what she’d said to him. “Listening to you makes me wish I had been more serious about school. I wasn’t a bad student, but I wasn’t brilliant, either. I didn’t work very hard at it. But now, I can’t help thinking that I should have gone to college.”
“I’d think it’s a lot safer than riding bulls.”
Though she meant it as a joke, he didn’t smile. “You’re absolutely right.”
After leaving the clearing by the river, Luke took her on a leisurely tour of the rest of the ranch, their conversation wandering from one subject to the next, Dog always roaming in their vicinity. They rode between the Christmas trees and skirted past the beehives, and he led her through the rolling pastureland used by the cattle. They talked about everything from the kind of music they liked to their favorite movies to Sophia’s impressions of North Carolina. She told him about her sisters and what it was like to grow up in a city, and also about life on the cloistered campus at Wake. Though their worlds were entirely different, she was surprised to discover that he seemed to find her world just as fascinating as she found his.
Later, when she had gained a bit more confidence in the saddle, she brought Demon to a trot and eventually to a canter. Luke rode beside her the whole time, ready to grab her if she was about to fall, telling her when she was leaning too far forward or back and reminding her to keep the reins loose. She hated trotting, but when the horse cantered, she found it easier to adjust to the steady, rolling rhythm. They rode from one fence to the next and back again, four or five times, moving a little faster with every lap. Feeling a little more sure of herself, Sophia tapped Demon and urged him to go even faster. Luke was caught unawares and it took a few seconds for him to catch up, and as they raced beside each other, she reveled in the feel of the wind in her face, the experience terrifying and exhilarating. On the way back, she urged Demon to go even faster, and when they finally brought the horses to a halt a few minutes later, she started to laugh, the surge of adrenaline and fear spilling out of her.
When the giddy waves of laughter eventually passed, they slowly made their way back to the stables. The horses were still breathing hard and sweating, and after Luke removed the saddles, she helped him brush them down. She fed Demon an apple, already feeling the first twinges of soreness in her legs but not caring in the slightest. She’d ridden a horse—actually ridden!—and in a burst of pride and satisfaction, she looped her arm through Luke’s as they strolled back to the house.
They walked leisurely, neither of them needing to talk. Sophia replayed the events of the day in her head, glad that she’d come. From what she could tell, Luke shared her sense of peace and contentment as well.
As they neared the house, Dog darted ahead toward the water
bowl on the porch; he lapped at it between pants, then collapsed onto his belly.
“He’s tired,” she said, startled at the sound of her own voice.
“He’ll be fine. He follows me when I ride out every morning.” He took off his hat and wiped the perspiration from his brow. “Would you like something to drink?” he asked. “I don’t know
about you, but I could really use a beer.”
“I’ll be back in a minute,” he promised, and headed into the house.
As he walked away, she studied him, trying to make sense of her undeniable attraction to him. Who could make sense of any of this? She was still trying to figure it out when he emerged with a pair of ice cold bottles.
He twisted off a cap and handed her a bottle, their fingers brushing slightly. He motioned to the rockers.
She took a seat and leaned back with a sigh, her hat tilting forward. She’d almost forgotten that she’d been wearing it. She took it off, setting it in her lap before taking a sip. The beer was icy and refreshing.
“You rode really well,” he said.
“You mean I rode well for a beginner. I’m not ready for the rodeo yet, but it was fun.”
“You have naturally good balance,” he observed.
But Sophia wasn’t listening. Instead she was staring past him at the little cow that had appeared from around the corner of his house. It seemed to be taking an inordinate interest in them. “I think one of your cows got loose.” She pointed. “A little one.”
He followed her gaze, his expression turning to fond recognition. “That’s Mudbath. I don’t know how she does it, but she ends up here a couple of times a week. There’s got to be a gap in the fencing somewhere, but I haven’t found it yet.”
“She likes you.”
“She adores me,” he said. “Last March, we had a wet, cold streak and she got trapped in the mud. I spent hours trying to pull her out and I had to bottle-feed her for a few days. Ever since then, she’s been coming around here regularly.”
“That’s sweet,” she said, trying not to stare at him but finding it hard to avoid. “You have an interesting life here.”
He took off his hat and combed his fingers through his hair before taking another sip. When he spoke, his voice lost some of the customary reserve she’d grown used to. “Can I tell you something?” A long moment passed before he continued. “And I don’t want you to take this the wrong way.”
“What is it?”
“You make it seem a lot more interesting than it really is.”
“What are you talking about?”
He began to pick at the label on his bottle, peeling the paper back with his thumb, and she had the impression that he wasn’t so much searching for the answer as waiting for it to come to him before he turned to face her. “I think you’re just about the most interesting girl I’ve ever met.”
She wanted to say something, anything, but she felt as if she were drowning in those blue eyes, her words seeming to dry up. Instead, she watched as he leaned toward her, hesitating for an instant. His head tilted slightly, and the next thing she knew, she was tilting her head, too, their faces growing closer.
It wasn’t long, it wasn’t heated, but as soon as their lips came together, she knew with sudden certainty that nothing had ever felt so easy and so right, the perfect ending to an unimaginably perfect afternoon.