After they took their seats, Sophia leaned toward Luke. "What did you think of Marcia?"
"Your roommate? She seemed nice enough. Kind of touchy, though."
She tilted her head. "You mean like, irritable?"
"No, I mean she kept touching my arm when she talked."
Sophia waved it off. "That's just the way she is. She's like that with every guy. The world's biggest flirt."
"Do you know what the first thing she said to me was? Even before I entered the house?"
"I'm afraid to ask."
"She said, 'I hear you kissed my best friend.'"
No surprise there, Sophia thought. "That's Marcia, all right. She pretty much says whatever she's thinking. No filter."
"But you like her."
"Yeah," Sophia conceded. "I do. She's kind of taken me under her wing when I've needed it. She thinks I'm a little... naive."
"Is she right?"
"In some ways," Sophia admitted.
She reached for the chopsticks and broke them apart. "Before I came to Wake, I'd never even had a boyfriend before. In high school, I was kind of a nerd, and with work, I didn't have a lot of time to go to parties or anything like that. I mean, I wasn't a hermit and I knew what people did on the weekends. I knew there were drugs at school and sex and all that, but it was mainly rumors or whispers that I'd overhear. It's not like I ever saw any of it happening. During my first semester on campus, I was pretty shocked at how open everything was. I'd hear girls in the dorm talking about hooking up with guys they just met, and I wasn't even totally sure what that meant. Half the time, I'm still not sure, because it seems like different people mean different things. To some, it's just making out, but to others, it means sleeping with someone, and to others something in between, if you know what I mean. I spent a big chunk of my freshman year trying to unscramble the code."
He smiled as she went on.
"And then, Greek life in general isn't quite what I expected. There are parties all the time, and to a lot of people, that means booze and drugs or whatever. And I'll admit that I drank too much a couple of times, and I ended up sick and passing out in the bathroom at the house. I'm not proud of that, but there are people on campus who do that every weekend, all weekend long. And I'm not saying it's because of Greek life at all. It's in the dorms, in off-campus apartments, everywhere. But I'm just not that into it, and to a lot of people - Marcia included - that makes me naive. Added to that, I'm not part of the whole 'hookup' culture, and a lot of people think I'm some kind of prude. Even Marcia thinks that, a little. She's never understood why anyone would want a real boyfriend in college. She always tells me that the last thing she wants is anything serious."
He reached for his chopsticks, following her lead. "I can think of a few guys who would be very interested in a girl like that."
"No, don't... because even though she says that, I'm not sure it's true. I think she wants something more real, but she doesn't know how to find a guy who feels the same way. In college, there aren't that many guys like that, and why would there be? When girls just give it away for nothing? I mean, I can understand why you'd sleep with someone if you love them, but if you barely know them? What's the point? It just cheapens it."
She fell silent, realizing that he was the first person she'd ever admitted all this to. Which was strange. Wasn't it?
Luke toyed with his chopsticks, picking at the rough edges where he had broken them apart, taking his time to consider it. Then, leaning into the lamplight, he said, "Sounds kind of mature, if you ask me."
She raised the menu, a bit embarrassed by that. "Just so you know, you don't have to get sushi if you don't want that. They have chicken and beef teriyaki, too."
Luke studied his own menu. "What are you going to have?"
"Sushi," she answered.
"Where did you learn to like sushi?"
"In high school," she said. "One of my best friends was Japanese, and she kept telling me there was this great place in Edgewater where she went when she was homesick for good Japanese food. You can only eat at the deli so many times before you start to crave something new, so I went with her one day, and I ended up loving it. So sometimes, when we were studying, we'd get in her car and drive to Edgewater - just this little nondescript place. But we became regulars. And since then, I get these cravings for it every now and then. Like tonight."
"I get it," he agreed. "In high school, when I was competing in 4-H, I'd go to the state fair and I always had to have a fried Twinkie."
She stared at him. "You're comparing sushi to fried Twinkies?"
"Have you ever had a fried Twinkie?"
"It sounds disgusting."
"Yeah, well, until you try one, you're not allowed to comment. They're good. Eat too many and you'll probably have a heart attack, but every now and then, there's nothing like it. Way better than fried Oreos."
"If you're trying to find a suggestion for your family deli, like I said, I'd go with the fried Twinkie."
At first, she couldn't formulate any response at all. Then, with a serious tone: "I don't think anyone in the Northeast would eat such a thing."
"You'd be surprised," he said. "It could be the next big thing up there - people lining up all day long."
With a tiny shake of her head, she turned to the menu again. "So 4-H, huh?"
"I started when I was a kid. Pigs."
"What is it, exactly? I mean, I've heard about it, but I don't know what it is."
"It's supposed to be about citizenship and responsibility and all that stuff. But when it comes to competing, it's more about learning how to choose a good pig when it's little. You check out its parents if you can or pictures or whatever, then you try to pick the one that you think has a chance to be a good show pig. You want a firm pig with a lot of muscle and not too much fat and no blemishes. And then, basically, you raise it for about a year. You feed it and care for it; in a way, they almost become like pets."
"Let me guess. You named all of them Pig."
"Actually, no. My first one was named Edith, the second one Fred, the third one was Maggie. I can go down the list if you'd like."
"How many were there? Over the years?"
He drummed his fingers on the table. "Nine, I think. I started when I was in the third grade and I did it until junior year in high school."
"And then, when they're grown, where do you compete?"
"At the state fair. The judges look them over and then you find out if you won."
"And if you win?"
"You get a ribbon. But win or lose, you still end up selling the pig," he said.
"What happens to the pig?"
"The same thing that usually happens to pigs," he answered. "They're sent to the slaughterhouse."
She blinked. "You mean you raise it from when it's little, you name it, you care for it for a year, and then you sell it so it can be killed?"
He looked at her, his expression curious. "What else would you do with a pig?"
She was dumbfounded, unable to respond. Finally, she shook her head. "I just want you to know that I have never, ever met anyone like you before."
"I think," he countered, "that I could say the same thing about you."
ven after studying the menu, he wasn't sure what to order. He knew he could have gone with something safe - like the chicken or beef teriyaki she'd mentioned - but he was reluctant to do that. He'd heard people rave about sushi and knew he should try it. Life was about experience, wasn't it?
The problem was that he didn't have the slightest idea what to choose. To his mind, raw fish was raw fish, and the pictures didn't help at all. As far as he could tell, he was supposed to order either the reddish one or the pinkish one or the whitish one, none of which hinted at how it might taste.
He peeked at Sophia over the top of his menu. She'd applied a bit more mascara and lipstick than she had on the day she'd come out to the ranch, r
eminding him of the night he'd first seen her. It seemed impossible that it had been less than a week ago. While generally a fan of natural beauty, he had to admit the makeup added a sophisticated touch to her features. On their way to the table, more than one man had turned to watch her pass.
"What's the difference between nigiri-sushi and maki-sushi?" he asked.
Sophia was still perusing the menu as well. When the waitress had come by, she'd ordered two Sapporos, a Japanese beer, one for each of them. He had no idea how that would taste, either. "Nigiri means the fish is served on a pad of rice," she said. "Maki means it's rolled with seaweed."
She winked. "It's good. You'll like it."
He compressed his lips, unable to hide his doubts. Beyond the windows, there were people at tables inside, enjoying whatever it was they'd ordered, all of them adept with their chopsticks. At least he was okay at that, his skills honed from eating Chinese food from thin cardboard boxes while on the road.
"Why don't you go ahead and order for me," he said, putting the menu aside. "I trust you."
"Okay," she agreed.
"What am I going to try?"
"A bunch of things," she said. "We'll try some anago, ahi, aji, hamachi... maybe some others."
He lifted his bottle, about to take a sip. "You do realize that sounds like gibberish to me."
"Anago is eel," she clarified.
The bottle froze in midair. "Eel?"
"You'll like it," she assured him, not bothering to hide her amusement.
When the waitress came by, Sophia rambled off the order like an expert; then they settled into easy conversation, interrupted only when their meal arrived. He gave her an abbreviated overview of his childhood, which despite his chores at the ranch had been fairly typical. His high school years included varsity wrestling for three years, all four homecoming dances, both proms, and a handful of memorable parties. He told her that in the summers, he and his parents would take the horses up to the mountains near Boone for a few days, where they'd go trail riding, the only family vacations they ever took. He talked a bit about his practices on the mechanical bull in the barn and how his father had tinkered with the bull to make the motion even more violent. The practice sessions had started when he was still in elementary school, his father critiquing his every move. He mentioned some of the injuries he'd suffered over the years and described the nerves he felt when riding in the PBR World Championships - once, he'd been in the running for the championship until the final ride, only to finish third overall - and through it all, Sophia listened raptly, interrupting him only occasionally to ask questions.
He felt the laserlike focus that she trained on him, absorbing every detail, and by the time the waitress had removed their plates, everything about her, from her easy laughter to her slight but discernible northern accent, struck him as charming and desirable. More than that, he felt like he could truly be himself despite their differences. When he was with her, he found it easy to forget the stress he felt whenever he thought about the ranch. Or his mom. Or what was going to happen if his plans didn't work out...
He was so absorbed in his thoughts, it took a moment before he realized she was staring at him.
"What are you thinking about?" she asked.
"You looked almost... lost there for a minute."
"You sure? I hope it wasn't the anago."
"No. Just thinking about what I have to do before I leave this weekend."
She furrowed her brow, watching him. "Okay," she finally said. "When do you leave?"
"Tomorrow afternoon," he said, thankful she'd let it pass. "I'll drive to Knoxville after I finish up and spend the night. On Saturday night, I'll start driving back. I'll get in late, but it's the first weekend we're selling pumpkins. I got most of the Halloween stuff set up today - Jose and I built a great big maze out of hay bales, among other things - but a lot of people always show up. Even with Jose pitching in, my mom still needs extra help."
"Is that why she was mad at you? Because you'll be out of town?"
"Partly," he said, pushing a bright pink sliver of ginger around his plate. "She's mad because I'm riding, period."
"Isn't she used to it by now? Or is it because you got hurt on Big Ugly Critter?"
"My mom," he said, choosing his words with care, "is worried that something's going to happen to me."
"But you've been injured before. Lots of times."
"Is there something you're not telling me?"
He didn't answer right away. "How about this?" he said, laying his chopsticks down. "When the time is right, I'll tell you all about it."
"I could always ask your mom, you know."
"You could. But you'd have to meet her first."
"Well, maybe I'll just go out there on Saturday and try."
"Go ahead. But if you do, just be prepared to be put to work. You'll be carrying pumpkins all day."
"I've got muscles."
"Have you ever carried pumpkins all day?"
She leaned across the table. "Have you ever unloaded a truck filled with meat and sausage?" Her expression was victorious when he didn't answer. "See, we do have something in common. We're both hard workers."
"And we can both ride horses now, too."
She smiled. "That too. How did you like the sushi?"
"It was good," he said.
"I get the feeling you would have preferred pork chops."
"I can have pork chops anytime. It's one of my specialties."
"On the grill," he said. "My dad taught me."
"I think I'd like for you to grill for me sometime."
"I'll make anything you want. As long as it's burgers, steaks, or pork chops."
She leaned closer. "So what's next? Would you like to risk our luck and go to a frat party? I'm sure they're getting going about now."
"What about Brian?"
"We'll go to a party at a different house. One he never goes to. And we wouldn't have to stay long. You might have to ditch the hat, though."
"If you'd like to, I'm game."
"I can go anytime. I was asking for you."
"What are they like?" he asked. "Music, a bunch of drinking college kids, that kind of stuff?"
He thought about it for a second before shaking his head. "It's not really my thing," he admitted.
"I didn't think so. We could always do a tour of the campus if you'd like."
"I think I'd rather save that for another time. So you have to go out with me again."
She traced her finger around the rim of her water glass. "Then what do you want to do?"
He didn't answer right away, and for the first time, he wondered how different things might be had he not made the decision to ride again. His mom wasn't happy, and frankly, even he wasn't sure it was a good idea, but somehow it had led to a date with a girl he already knew he'd never forget.
"Are you up for a little drive? I know a place where I can promise you won't see anyone you know. It's quiet, but it's really pretty at night."
Back at the ranch, the moon lent a silver wash to the world as they stepped out of the truck. Dog, a blur in the darkness, came racing out from beneath the porch, stopping at Sophia's side almost as though he'd been expecting them.
"I hope this is okay," he said. "I wasn't sure where else to go."
"I knew you were bringing me here," Sophia said, reaching down to pet Dog. "If it bothered me, I would have said something."
He motioned toward his house. "We could sit on the porch, or there's a great spot down by the lake."
"Not the river?"
"You've already been to the river."
She took in the surroundings, then turned to him again. "Are we going to sit in chairs in the back of the truck again?"
"Of course," he said. "Trust me, you wouldn't want to sit on the ground. It's a pasture."
atched as Dog began to circle her legs. "Can we bring Dog?" she asked.
"Dog will follow whether I want him to come or not."
"Then the lake it is," she said.
"Let me just get some things from the house, okay?"
He left her, returning with a small cooler and some blankets beneath his arm, which he loaded into the back of the truck. They got in, the engine coming to life with a roar.
"Your truck sounds like a tank," she shouted over the noise. "I don't know if you're aware of that."
"Do you like it? I had to modify the exhaust system to make it sound the way it does. I added a second muffler and everything."
"You did not. No one does that."