"Good." Having set aside the spatula, she reached up into the cabinets and pulled down some plates. "Let's just serve up at the stove, okay?"
He set his coffee cup on the table, then retrieved the jelly and the butter from the refrigerator. By the time he'd served up, his mom was already at the table. He grabbed the toast, handed her one of the pieces, then moved the coffeepot to the table as well.
"We need to get the pumpkins ready this week," she reminded him, reaching for the pot. No eye contact, no morning hug... not that he'd expected it. "And we've got to get the maze set up, too. The hay will be arriving Tuesday. And you have to carve a bunch of pumpkins."
Half of the pumpkin crop had already been sold to the First Baptist Church in King, but they opened the ranch on the weekends for people to buy the remainder. One of the highlights for the kids - and thus a draw for the adults - was a maze built out of hay bales. His father had sparked to the idea when Luke was young, and over the years the maze had grown increasingly complex. Walking through had become something of a local tradition.
"I'll take care of it," he said. "Is the layout still in the desk drawer?"
"Assuming you put it back last year, it should be."
Luke buttered and jellied his toast, neither of them saying anything.
In time, his mother sighed. "You got in late last night," she said. She reached for the butter and jelly when he was finished with them.
"You were up? I didn't notice any lights on."
"I was sleeping. But I woke up just as your truck was pulling in."
He doubted that was the complete truth. The windows in her bedroom didn't face the drive, which meant she would have been in the living room. Which also meant she'd been waiting up, worried about him.
"I stayed late with a couple of friends. They talked me into it."
She kept her focus on her plate. "I figured."
"Did you get my text?"
"I got it," she said, adding nothing more. No questions about how the ride went, no questions about how he felt, no concern about the aches and pains she knew he was experiencing. Instead, her aura expanded, filling the room. Heartache and anger dripped from the ceiling, seeped from the walls. He had to admit, she was pretty good at administering the guilt trip.
"Do you want to talk about it?" he finally asked.
For the first time, she looked across the table at him. "Not really."
Okay, he thought. But despite her anger, he still missed talking to her. "Can I ask you a question, then?"
He could practically hear the gears beginning to turn as she readied herself for battle. Ready to leave him alone at the table while she ate on the porch.
"What size shoe do you wear?" he asked.
Her fork froze in midair. "My shoe size?"
"Someone might be coming by later," he said. He shoveled some eggs onto his fork. "And she might need to borrow some boots. If we go riding."
For the first time in weeks, she couldn't hide her interest. "Are you talking about a girl?"
He nodded, continuing to eat. "Her name is Sophia. I met her last night. She said she wanted to check out the barn."
His mom blinked. "Why does she care about the barn?"
"I don't know. It was her idea."
"Who is she?" Luke detected a flicker of curiosity in his mother's expression.
"She's a senior at Wake Forest. She's from New Jersey. And if we go riding, she might need boots. That's why I was asking about your shoe size."
Her confusion let him know that for the first time in forever, she was thinking about something other than the ranch. Or bull riding. Or the list of things she wanted to finish before the sun went down. But the effect was only temporary, and she concentrated on her plate again. In her own way, she was just as stubborn as he was. "Seven and a half. There's an old pair in my closet she's welcome to use. If they fit."
"Thanks," he said. "I was going to split some wood before she gets here, unless there's something else you want me to do."
"Just the irrigation," she said. "The second pasture needs some water."
"I got it going this morning. But I'll turn it off before she gets here."
She pushed a pile of eggs around on her plate. "I'm going to need your help next weekend with the customers."
It was the way she said it that made him realize she'd been planning to bring it up all along, that it was the reason she'd stayed at the table with him. "You know I'm not going to be here on Saturday," he said deliberately. "I'll be in Knoxville."
"To ride again," she said.
"It's the last event of the year."
"Then why go? It's not like the points are going to matter." Her voice was starting to acquire a bitter edge.
"It's not about the points. I don't want to head into next season feeling unprepared." Again, the conversation died away, leaving only the sounds of forks against plates. "I won last night," he remarked.
"Good for you."
"I'll put the check in your account on Monday."
"Keep it," she snapped. "I don't want it."
"And the ranch?"
When she looked at him, he saw less anger than he'd expected. Instead he saw resignation, maybe even sadness, underlined by a weariness that made her look older than she really was. "I don't care about the ranch," she said. "I care about my son."
After breakfast, Luke chopped wood for an hour and a half, replenishing the pile on the side of his mom's house. Since breakfast, she'd been avoiding him again, and though it bothered him, the simple activity of swinging the ax made him feel better, loosening his muscles and freeing him to think about Sophia.
Already, she had a hold on him - he couldn't remember the last time that happened. Not since Angie, at least, but even that wasn't the same. He'd cared about Angie, but he couldn't remember dwelling on her the way he was on Sophia. Until last night, in fact, he couldn't even imagine it happening. After his dad died, it took everything he had to concentrate enough to ride at all. When the grief eventually faded to the point where he could go a day or two without thinking about his dad, he poured himself into becoming the best rider he could. During his years on the tour, it had been all he could think about, and with every success, he'd raised the bar, becoming even more intense in his pursuit to win it all.
That kind of commitment didn't leave a lot of room for relationships, except the short-term, meaningless kind. The past year and a half had changed that. No more travel, no practice, and although there was always something to do on the ranch, he was used to that. Those who succeeded in the business of ranching were good at prioritizing, and he and his mom had a pretty good handle on it. That had given him more time to think, more time to wonder about the future, and for the first time in his life, he sometimes finished his day yearning for someone to talk to over dinner, other than his mom.
While it didn't dominate his thoughts, he couldn't deny the urge to try to find someone. The only problem was that he hadn't the slightest idea how to go about doing such a thing... and now that he was riding again, he'd gotten busy and distracted.
Then, out of the blue and when he'd least expected it, he'd met Sophia. Although he'd spent most of the morning thinking about her and wondering what it would feel like to run his hands through her hair, he suspected it wouldn't last. They had nothing in common. She was in college - studying art history, of all things - and after graduation, she'd move away to work in a museum in some faraway city. On its face, they had no chance at all, but the image of her sitting in the bed of his truck under the stars kept replaying in his mind, and he found himself wondering if maybe, just maybe, there was a chance that they could somehow make it work.
He reminded himself that they barely knew each other and that he was probably reading too much into it. Nonetheless, he had to admit he was nervous at the prospect of her visit.
After chopping the firewood, he straightened up around the house and rode the Gator out to turn off the irrigation, then made a quick trip to the store to restock the f
ridge. He wasn't sure if she'd come inside, but if she did, he wanted to be prepared.
Even as he got into the shower, though, he found he couldn't stop thinking about her. Lifting his face into the spray, he wondered what on earth had gotten into him.
At a quarter past one, Luke was sitting in a rocker on the front porch of his home when he heard the sound of a car slowly pulling up the long dirt drive, dust rising into the treetops. Dog was at his feet, next to the cowboy boots Luke had found in his mom's closet. Dog sat up, his ears cocked before glancing at Luke.
"Go get 'em," he urged, and Dog immediately trotted off. Luke grabbed the boots and stepped off the porch onto the grass. He waved his hat as he approached the main drive, hoping she'd spot him through the shrubbery that lined the drive. Heading straight would lead her to the main farmhouse; to get to his place, she'd need to turn off through an opening in the trees and follow a worn grassy track. It was hard to spot unless you knew where it was, and it would have benefited from some gravel surfacing, but that was yet another item on the to-do list he'd never quite gotten around to. At the time, he hadn't thought it all that important, but now, with Sophia approaching and his heart beating faster than usual, he wished he had.
Thankfully, Dog knew what to do. He'd run ahead and was standing in the main drive like a sentry until Sophia brought the car to a stop, then he barked authoritatively before trotting back toward Luke. Luke waved his hat again, eventually catching Sophia's attention, and she turned the car. A moment later, she pulled to a stop beneath a towering magnolia tree.
She stepped out, wearing tight faded jeans that were torn at the knees, looking as fresh as summer itself. With almost catlike eyes and faintly Slavic bone structure, she was even more striking in sunlight than she'd been the night before, and all he could do was stare at her. He had the strange feeling that in the future, whenever he thought about her, this would be the image he recalled. She was too beautiful, too refined and exotic, for this country setting, but when she broke into that wide, friendly smile, he felt something clear inside, like the sun breaking through the mist.
"Sorry I'm late," she called out as she closed the door, sounding nowhere near as nervous as he felt.
"It's all right," he said, replacing his hat and shoving his hands in his pockets.
"I made a wrong turn and had to backtrack a bit. But I had a chance to drive around King."
He shuffled his feet. "And?"
"You were right. It's not all that fancy, but the people are nice. An old guy on a bench got me headed in the right direction," she said. "How are you?"
"I'm good," he said, finally looking up.
If she could tell how unnerved he was, she gave no sign. "Did you finish all you needed to get done?"
"I checked the cattle, split some firewood, picked up a few things at the store."
"Sounds exciting," she said. Shading her eyes, she turned slowly in a circle, surveying her surroundings. By then, Dog had trotted up and introduced himself, twining around her legs. "I take it this is Dog."
"The one and only."
She squatted down, scratching behind his ears. His tail thumped in appreciation. "You have a terrible name, Dog," she whispered, lavishing attention on him. His tail only thumped harder. "It's beautiful here. Is it all yours?"
"My mom's. But yes, it's all part of the ranch."
"How big is it?"
"A little more than eight hundred acres," he said.
She frowned. "That means nothing to me, you know. I'm from New Jersey. City girl? Remember?"
He liked the way she said it. "How about this?" he offered. "It starts at the road where you turned in and goes a mile and a half in that direction, ending at the river. The land is shaped kind of like a fan, narrower at the road and getting wider toward the river, where it's more than two miles wide."
"That helps," she said.
"Not really. How many city blocks is that?"
Her question caught him off guard and she laughed at his expression. "I have no idea."
"I'm kidding," she said, rising. "But this is impressive. I've never been on a ranch before." She motioned toward the house behind her. "And this is your house?"
He turned, following her gaze. "I built it a couple of years ago."
"And when you say you built it..."
"I did most of it, except for the plumbing and the electrical. I don't have a license for those things. But the layout and the framing, that was all me."
"Of course it was you," she said. "And I'll bet that if my car breaks down, you'll know how to fix that, too."
He squinted toward her car. "Probably."
"You're like... old-fashioned. A real man's man. A lot of guys don't know how to do that stuff anymore."
He couldn't tell whether she was impressed or teasing him, but he realized that he liked the way she kept him slightly off balance. Somehow it made her seem older than most of the girls he knew.
"I'm glad you're here," he said.
For a moment, it seemed as if she weren't quite sure what to make of his comment. "I'm glad I'm here, too. Thanks for inviting me."
He cleared his throat, thinking about that. "I had an idea that maybe I'd show you around the place."
"There's a nice spot down by the river," he said, not answering her question directly.
"Is it romantic?"
Luke wasn't quite sure how to answer that, either. "I like it, I guess," he said in a faltering voice.
"Good enough for me," she said, laughing. She pointed toward the boots he was holding. "Am I supposed to wear those?"
"They're my mom's. I don't know if they'll fit, but they'll help with the stirrups. I put some socks in there. They're mine and they're probably too big, but they're clean."
"I trust you," she said. "If you can fix cars and build houses, I'm sure you know how to run a washer and dryer. Can I try them on?"
He handed them to her and tried not to marvel at the fit of her jeans as she walked to the porch. Dog trailed behind her, his tail wagging and tongue hanging out, as if he'd discovered his new best friend. As soon as she sat, Dog began to nuzzle at her hand again, and he took that as a good sign - Dog wasn't normally so friendly. From the shade, he watched as Sophia slipped off her flats. She moved with a fluid grace, pulling on the socks and sliding her feet comfortably into the boots. She stood and took a few tentative steps.
"I've never worn cowboy boots before," she said, staring at her feet. "How do they look?"
"You look like you're wearing boots."
She gave an easy, rolling laugh, then began pacing the porch, staring again at the boots on her feet. "I guess I do," she said, and turned to face him. "Do I look like a cowgirl?"
"You'd need a hat for that."
"Let me try yours on," she said, holding out her hand.
Luke walked toward her and removed his hat, feeling less in control than he'd felt on the bulls last night. He handed it to her and she slipped it on, tilting it back on her head. "How's this?"
Perfect, he thought, as perfect as any girl he'd ever seen. He smiled through the sudden dryness in his throat, thinking, I'm in serious trouble.
"Now you look like a cowgirl."
She grinned, obviously pleased by that. "I think I'll keep this today. If it's okay with you."
"I've got plenty," he said, barely hearing himself. He shuffled his boots again, trying to stay centered. "How was it last night?" he asked. "I've been wondering if you had any more trouble."
She stepped down from the porch. "It was fine. Marcia was right where I'd left her."
"Did Brian bother you?"
"No," she answered. "I think he was worried you might still be around. Besides, we didn't stay long. Only another half hour or so. I was tired." By then, she'd drawn close to him. "I like the boots and hat. They're comfortable. I should probably thank your mom. Is she here?"
"No, she's at the main house. I can tell her later, though."
"What? You don't want me to meet her?"
"It's not that. She's kind of angry with me this morning."
"It's a long story."
Sophia tilted her head up at him. "You said the same thing last night when I asked you why you rode bulls," she remarked. "I think you say 'It's a long story' when what you really mean is 'I don't want to talk about it.' Am I right?"
"I don't want to talk about it."
She laughed, her face flushing with pleasure. "So what's next?"
"I guess we can head to the barn," he said. "You said you wanted to see it."
She lifted an eyebrow. "You know I really didn't come here to see the barn, right?"