The following morning, he returned to the sorority house to pick her up, and they walked around Old Salem, taking in the sights, before returning to the ranch for their third weekend in a row at his mother's. Later, as they were saying good night beside her car, he asked if she was free the following weekend - he wanted to bring her to the place where he'd vacationed as a child, a place where they could ride trails amid breathtaking views.
Sophia kissed him then and smiled. "That sounds absolutely perfect."
By the time Sophia arrived at the ranch, Luke had already loaded the horses in the trailer and packed the truck. A few minutes later, they were heading west on the highway, Sophia fiddling with the radio. She settled on a hip-hop station, cranking up the volume until he couldn't take it any longer and switched to country-western.
"I wondered how long you'd be able to last," she said, smirking.
"I just think this fits the mood better, what with the horses and all."
"And I think you just never developed an appreciation for other kinds of music."
"I listen to other music."
"Oh, yeah? Like what?"
"Hip-hop. For the past thirty minutes. But it's a good thing I changed it. I could feel my dance moves coming on, and I'd hate to lose control of the truck."
She giggled. "I'm sure. Guess what? I bought some boots yesterday. My very own pair. See?" She lifted her feet, preening as he admired them.
"I noticed when I was putting your bag in the truck."
"You're definitely turning country. Next thing you know, you'll be roping cattle like a pro."
"I doubt it," she said. "There aren't too many cows wandering around museums as far as I can tell. But maybe you'll show me how this weekend?"
"I didn't bring my rope. I did, however, remember to bring you an extra hat. It's one of my nice ones. I wore it in the PBR World Championships."
She looked at him. "Why do I sometimes get the sense you're trying to change me?"
"I'm just offering... improvements."
"You better be careful, or I'll tell my mom what you said. Right now, I've got her believing you're a nice guy, and you'll want to stay on her good side."
He laughed. "I'll keep that in mind."
"So tell me where we're going. You said you used to go there as a boy?"
"My mom discovered it. She was out this way trying to drum up business, and she just kind of stumbled on it. It used to be a struggling summer camp, but the new owners got it in their heads that if they opened it up to riders, they could fill the rooms all year long. They made some improvements on the cabins and added some horse stalls in the back of each one, and my mom fell in love with the place. You'll see why when we get there."
"I can't wait. But how did you get your mom to agree to let you take off the whole weekend?"
"I got most everything done before I left and I offered Jose a little extra to come in to help while I'm gone. She'll be in good shape."
"I thought you said there's always something to do."
"There is. But it's nothing my mom can't handle. No emergencies pending."
"Does she ever get to leave the ranch?"
"All the time. She tries to visit our customers at least once a year and they're all over the state."
"Does she ever take a vacation?"
"She's not big on vacations."
"Everyone needs a break now and then."
"I know. And I've tried to tell her that. I even bought her cruise tickets once."
"Did she go?"
"She returned the tickets and got a refund. The week she was supposed to go, she drove to Georgia to check out a bull that was for sale, and she ended up buying him."
"No. For breeding. He's still out there, by the way. Mean cuss. But he gets the job done."
She pondered this information. "Does she have friends?"
"Some. And she still visits them from time to time. For a while, she was in a bridge club with a few ladies from town. But lately, she's been trying to figure out how to increase the size of the herd and that's been taking a lot of her time. She wants to add another couple hundred pair, but we don't have enough pasture, so she's trying to find a place for us to keep them."
"Why? She doesn't think she's busy enough already?"
He shifted hands on the steering wheel before sighing. "Right now," he said, "we don't have much choice."
He could feel Sophia's questioning gaze, but he didn't want to talk about it and he changed the subject. "Are you going to be heading home for Thanksgiving?"
"Yes," she said. "Assuming my car makes it. There's a loud squeaking-whining sound when I start it. The engine sounds like it's screaming."
"It's most likely just a loose belt."
"Yeah, well, it'll probably be expensive to fix and I'm kind of on a budget."
"If you'd like, I can probably take care of it."
She turned toward him. "Why do I have no doubt about that?"
It took a little over two hours to reach the camp, the sky slowly filling with clouds that stretched to the blue-peaked mountains that dotted the horizon. In time, the highway began to rise, the air thinning and turning crisp, and they eventually stopped at a grocery store to pick up supplies. Everything went into the coolers in the bed of the truck.
Luke exited the main highway after leaving town, following a road that curved steadily and seemed carved into the mountain itself. It dropped off steeply on Sophia's side, the tops of trees visible through the windows. Fortunately there was little traffic, but whenever a car passed in the opposite direction, Luke had to grip the wheel with both hands as the trailer's wheels skirted the very edge of the asphalt.
Not having visited in years, he slowed the truck, searching for the turnoff, and just when he started thinking that he'd gone too far, he spotted it off the curve. It was a dirt road, even steeper in places than he remembered, and he put the truck into overdrive as he navigated slowly past trees that were pressing in from both sides.
When he reached the camp, his first thought was that it hadn't changed much, with twelve cabins spreading out in a semicircle from the general store, which also doubled as the office. Behind the store was the lake, sparkling with the kind of crystal blue water found only in the mountains.
After checking in, Luke unloaded the coolers and filled the water trough for the horses while Sophia wandered off toward the ravine. She took in the view of the valley more than a thousand feet below, and when Luke finished up, he joined her near the ravine, their vision wandering from one mountaintop to the next. Below them was a collection of farmhouses and gravel roads lined by oaks and maples, everything looking miniaturized, like models in a diorama.
As they stood together, he noticed the same wonder on her face he'd felt whenever he came here as a child. "I've never seen anything like this," she murmured, awestruck. "It makes me feel breathless."
He stared at her, wondering how she'd come to mean so much to him so quickly. Studying the graceful outline of her profile, he was certain he'd never seen anyone more beautiful.
"I was thinking exactly the same thing."
hey stayed inside only long enough for Sophia to put a few items in the refrigerator and notice the claw-foot tub in the bathroom, yet her initial impression was one of fraying but pleasant hominess, a perfectly cozy overnight getaway. Meanwhile, Luke busied himself making sandwiches to go with the fruit and chips and bottles of water he'd picked up from the store.
Luke packed their lunches in the saddlebags before they started off on one of the dozen trails that crisscrossed the property. As usual, he rode Horse and she was once more on Demon, whom she couldn't help thinking was slowly but surely getting used to her. He'd nuzzled her hand and nickered contentedly while Luke saddled him, and though it might have been because he was in an unfamiliar place, only the slightest touch of the reins was necessary to direct him.
e trail climbed ahead of them, weaving among trees that were so thick in some places, she doubted anyone had ever passed through before. At other times the trail opened up into the kind of expansive vista that she had seen only on postcards. They rode through lush green meadows of tall grass, and Sophia tried to picture them filled with wildflowers and butterflies every summer. She was grateful for her jacket and cowboy hat, as the trees kept most of the trail in shadow and the air was brisk as they rose to higher elevations.
Where the trail was too narrow to ride side by side, Luke motioned for her to take the lead, sometimes lagging a little behind. In those moments, she imagined that she was a settler gradually making her way out west, alone in a vast, unspoiled landscape.
They rode for a couple of hours before stopping for lunch at a clearing near the top. At the clearing's lookout, they sat on boulders and ate, watching a pair of hawks circling the valley below. After lunch, they followed the trail for another three hours on horseback, sometimes on tracks that ran to the edge of steep precipices, the danger heightening Sophia's senses.
They made it back to the cabin an hour before sundown and brushed down the horses before feeding each of them some apples along with their regular feed. By the time they finished, the moon had begun to rise, full-bodied and milky white, and the first stars were emerging.
"I think I'm in the mood for a bath before we eat," she said.
"Would you mind if I hopped in the shower first?"
"As long as you promise not to use all the hot water."
"I'll be fast. I promise."
Leaving the bathroom to Luke, she entered the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. Inside was a bottle of Chardonnay along with a six-pack of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale they'd picked up earlier, and she debated which one she wanted before searching through the drawers for the corkscrew.
There were no wineglasses in the cabinet, but she did find a jelly jar. It would have to do. She opened the wine bottle with a practiced motion and poured some into the jar.
Swirling the Chardonnay around in her jelly jar, she felt almost like a kid playing at being a grown-up. Come to think of it, she often felt that way, even though she was about to graduate from college. She'd never had to rent an apartment, for example. She'd never really worked for anyone other than her family. She'd never had to pay an electric bill, and even though she'd moved away, Wake wasn't real life. College wasn't real life. It was a fantasy world, she knew, entirely different from the world she would face in just a few months. Her classes, unlike work, started at ten in the morning and usually finished up around two. Nights and weekends, meanwhile, were devoted almost entirely to fun and socializing and defying boundaries. It had absolutely nothing in common with the lives her parents led, at least as far as she could tell.
As fun as college had been, she sometimes couldn't help feeling that her life had been on hold for the last few years. It wasn't until she'd met Luke that she realized how little she had really learned at school.
Unlike her, Luke seemed like an adult. He hadn't gone to college, but he understood real life: people and relationships and work. He'd been one of the best in the world at something - bull riding - and she had no doubt he would be again. He could fix anything, and he'd built his own house. By any measure, he had mastered many things in life already, and right now, it struck her as inconceivable that she would be able to claim as much - even in entirely different areas - over the next three years. Who knew if she'd even be able to get a job in her chosen field, one that actually paid her...
All she really knew was that she was here with Luke, and that spending time with him made her feel like she was finally, truly, moving forward somehow. Because whatever they had between them was based in the real world, not the fantasy bubble of college life. Luke was as real as anyone she'd ever met.
She heard the water shut off with a thump in the pipes, breaking the thread of her thoughts. Carrying her jelly jar of wine with her, she took a tour of the cabin. The kitchen was small and functional, with inexpensive cabinets. Though the countertop was peeling and rusty rings stained the sink, it smelled of Lysol and bleach. The floors had been recently swept, and the surfaces were dust-free.
The small living area sported scuffed pine flooring and cedar wall planking with just enough room for a frayed plaid couch and a pair of rocking chairs. Blue curtains framed the window, and a single lamp stood in the corner. Sophia crossed the room to turn it on, only to discover that it was no brighter than the single bulb in the kitchen had been. Which no doubt explained the candles and matches on the coffee table. On a shelf opposite the windows lay a random assortment of books that she guessed had been left behind by other visitors, some hunting decoys - ducks - and a stuffed squirrel. A small television with rabbit-ear antennas sat in the center of the shelf, and though she didn't bother to turn it on, she doubted it received more than one or two channels, if that.
She heard the water come on again and when the bathroom door squeaked open, Luke stepped out, looking clean and fresh in jeans and a white button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up. He was barefoot, and he looked as though he'd raked his fingers through his wet hair rather than using a comb. From across the room, she could see a small white scar on his cheek, one she'd never noticed before.
"It's all yours," he said. "I've already got the water going for you."
"Thank you," she said. She kissed him briefly as she passed him. "I'll probably be thirty or forty minutes."
"Take your time. I've got to get dinner going anyway."
"Another specialty?" she called from the bedroom, where she scooped up her overnight bag.
"I like it."
"Does anyone else?"
"That's a good question. I guess we'll find out soon, huh?"
As promised, the water was already filling in the tub. It was hotter than she'd expected, and she turned the other faucet, trying to cool it a bit, wishing for some bubble bath or scented baby oil.
She undressed, conscious of the soreness in her legs and lower back. She hoped she wouldn't be too stiff to walk tomorrow. Reaching for her wine, she slipped into the water, feeling luxurious despite her modest surroundings.
The bathroom had a small separate shower stall, and Luke had slung his used towel over the rod. The fact that he'd been naked in here only a few minutes earlier made something flutter in her lower belly.
She'd known what might happen this weekend. For the first time, they wouldn't say good-bye near her car; tonight, she wouldn't return to the sorority house. But being with Luke felt natural. It felt right, even if she admitted to herself she wasn't all that experienced in these kinds of things. Brian had been the first and only guy she'd ever slept with. It had happened at the Christmas formal, when they'd already been dating for two months. She hadn't known it would happen that night, but like everyone else, she was having fun and probably drinking too much, and when he brought her up to the room, they ended up making out on the bed. Brian was insistent, the room was spinning, and one thing led to the next. In the morning, she wasn't sure quite what to think about it. Nor was Brian there to help her - she vaguely remembered him talking to some friends the night before about having Bloody Marys in one of their rooms the next morning. She stumbled to the shower with a headache the size of Wisconsin, and as the spray ricocheted off her, a million thoughts raced through her head. She was relieved to have finally done it - like everyone else, she'd wondered what it would be like - and was glad it had been with Brian, in a bed, as opposed to a backseat or something equally awkward. But for some reason, it also felt a little sad. She could imagine what her mom would think - or, God forbid, her dad - and frankly, she'd thought herself that it would be more... something. Meaningful. Romantic. Memorable. But really, what she wanted most of all just then was to head back to campus.
After that, Brian was like most guys, she supposed. Whenever they were alone, he wanted something physical, and for a while, she supposed she did, too. But then it began to feel as if it were all he ever wa
nted, and that began to bother her, even before he'd cheated on her.
And now here she was, alone with a guy overnight for the first time since Brian. She wondered why she wasn't nervous, but she wasn't. Instead, she soaped up the washcloth and ran it over her skin, imagining what Luke was doing in the kitchen. She wondered if he was thinking about her as she soaked in the tub, maybe even picturing what she looked like without clothing, and again, she felt a flutter in her lower belly.
She wanted this, she realized. She wanted to fall in love with someone she could trust. And she trusted Luke. Never once had he pressed her to do something she hadn't wanted; never once had he been anything less than a perfect gentleman. The more time she'd spent with him, the more convinced she became that he was by far the sexiest guy she'd ever met. Who else did she know who could work with his hands the way he did? Who could make her laugh? Who was smart and charming, self-reliant and tender? And who else would take her horseback riding in one of the most beautiful places in the world?
Soaking in the tub and sipping wine, she felt for the first time older than her years. She finished her wine, feeling warm and relaxed, and when the water began to cool, she climbed out of the tub and toweled off. She sorted through her bag, intending to throw on a pair of jeans, but then realized that it was all she ever wore when they were together. Changing her mind, she pulled out a skirt and a tight, form-fitting blouse and slipped them on. She styled her hair, feeling pleased that she'd remembered to bring both the curling iron and the dryer. Makeup came next; she added a touch more mascara and eye shadow than she usually did, wiping the old mirror more than once to clear away the steam. She completed the outfit with a pair of gold hoop earrings that her mother had bought her for Christmas last year. When she was done, she looked herself over one more time, then with a deep breath she picked up the empty jelly jar and stepped into the hallway. Luke stood in the kitchen, his back to her as he stirred a pot on the stove. On the counter next to him was a box of crackers and a beer, and she watched as he reached for the bottle, taking a long pull.