"You've been quiet tonight," Luke said between sips of hot cocoa. Sophia held her hands around her cup, staring out from their spot on the couch at the snow flurries beyond the window, the second snow of the season, though this one wasn't likely to stick. As usual, Luke had the fireplace going, but she couldn't shake the chill she felt.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I'm just tired."
She could feel his attention, which tonight for some reason left her strangely unsettled.
"Do you know what I think?" he asked. "I think Marcia said something to you and it made you upset."
Sophia didn't answer right away. "Why would you say that?" she asked, her voice weaker than what she'd expected.
He shrugged. "When I called you to tell you that I was on my way, I could barely get you off the phone. By the time I got to the house, you'd gone silent. And I noticed the way you and Marcia kept glancing at each other. It was like the two of you had just shared some kind of confession, and neither of you was happy about it."
The warmth from the cup radiated into her hands. "You're very perceptive for a guy who can go a whole day without talking," she said, peering up at him.
"That's why I'm perceptive."
His answer reminded her of the reasons they'd become so close so fast. But whether that was such a good idea wasn't quite so clear anymore.
"You're thinking again," he chided. "And it's beginning to make me nervous."
Despite the tension, she laughed.
"Where do you think all this is going?" she suddenly asked, echoing Marcia's earlier question.
"Between us, you mean?"
"I'm going to be graduating in the spring. Just a few months from now. What's going to happen then? What happens when I move back home? Or get a job somewhere?"
He leaned forward, putting his cup on the coffee table before slowly turning to face her again. "I don't know," he said.
"You don't know?"
His face was unreadable. "I can't tell the future any more than you can."
"That sounds like an excuse."
"I'm not making excuses," he said. "I'm just trying to be honest."
"But you're not saying anything!" she cried, hearing her own desperation and hating it.
Luke kept his voice steady. "Then how about this? I love you. I want to be with you. We'll find a way to make it work."
"Do you really believe that?"
"I wouldn't have said it if I didn't."
"Even if that means you have to move to New Jersey?"
The firelight cast half his face in shadow. "You want me to move to New Jersey?"
"What's wrong with New Jersey?"
"Nothing," he said. "I told you that I've been there before and that I liked it."
For the first time, his eyes dropped. "I can't leave the ranch until I know my mom's going to be okay," he said with a certain finality.
She understood his reasons, and yet...
"You want me to stay here," she said. "After graduation."
"No." He shook his head. "I would never ask you to do that."
She couldn't hide her exasperation. "Then, again, what are we going to do?"
He put his hands on his knees. "We're not the first couple to face something like this. My feeling is, if it was meant to be, we'll figure it out. No, I don't know the answers, and no, I can't tell you how it's all going to play out. And if you were leaving today, I'd be more worried about it. But we've got six months, and things might be different by then... Maybe I'll be riding well and I won't be so worried about the ranch, or maybe I'll be digging up one of the fence posts one day and discover some buried treasure. Or maybe we'll end up losing the ranch entirely and I'll have to move anyway. Or maybe you'll get a job in Charlotte, someplace close enough to commute. I don't know." He leaned closer, no doubt trying to underscore his words. "The only thing I do know for sure is that if we both want to, we'll find a way to make it work."
She knew it was the only thing he could say, but the question of their future still left her feeling unsettled. She didn't say that, though. Instead, she scooted closer and let him slip his arm around her, his body warm against hers. She drew a long breath, wishing that time could somehow stop. Or at least slow down. "Okay," she whispered.
He kissed her hair, then rested his chin on top of her head. "I love you, you know."
"I know," she whispered. "I love you, too."
"I'm going to miss you while you're gone."
"But I'm glad you'll spend some time with your family."
"Maybe I'll drive up to New Jersey and surprise you."
"I'm sorry," she said. "You can't do that."
"I'm not saying you're not welcome to visit me. I'm just saying it won't be a surprise. You kind of ruined it."
He thought about that. "I guess I did, didn't I? Well, maybe I'll surprise you by not coming."
"You better come. My parents want to meet you. They've never met a cowboy before and I know they have this crazy picture in their heads in which you walk around with a six-shooter and say things like 'Howdy, pardner.'"
He laughed. "I guess I'll disappoint them."
"No," she said. "That's one thing you won't do."
At that, Luke smiled. "How about New Year's Eve? You doing anything?"
"I don't know. Am I?"
"Now you are."
"Perfect. But you can't show up at night. You're going to have to spend some time with my parents, like I said."
"Fair enough," he said. He nodded toward the corner. "Do you want to help me decorate the tree?"
"It's out back. I picked it out yesterday and dragged it over. It's kind of small and sparse and it wasn't likely to sell, but I thought it might be nice in here. So you know what you'll be missing."
She leaned into him. "I already know what I'll be missing."
An hour later, Sophia and Luke stood back and admired their work.
"It's not quite right," Luke said, crossing his arms as he surveyed the tinsel-strewn tree. "It needs something more."
"There's not much more we can do with it," Sophia said, reaching out to adjust a strand of lights. "A lot of the branches are already sagging."
"It's not that," he said. "It's... Hold on. I'll be right back. I know exactly what it needs. Just give me a minute --"
Sophia watched him disappear into the bedroom and return with a medium-size gift box, tied with ribbon. He walked past her and set it beneath the tree, then joined her again.
"Much better," he said.
She looked over at him. "Is that for me?"
"As a matter of fact, it is."
"That's not fair. I didn't get you anything."
"I don't want anything."
"That may be, but now I feel bad."
"Don't. You can make it up to me later."
She studied him. "You knew I was going to say that, didn't you?"
"It was all part of my plan."
"What's in it?"
"Go ahead," he urged. "Open it."
She approached the tree and picked up the box. It was light enough for her to guess what was inside before she'd untied the ribbon and lifted the lid. She pulled it out and held it in front of her, examining it. Dyed black and made of straw, it was decorated with beads and a band that held in place a small feather.
"A cowboy hat?"
"A nice one," he said. "For girls."
"Is there a difference?"
"Well, I would never wear one with a feather or beads. And I figured that since you were coming out here so much, you really needed your own."
She leaned over and kissed him. "It's perfect. Thank you."
She put it on and peered up at him coquettishly. "How does it look?"
"Beautiful," he said. "But then again, you always look beautiful."
p; ith the beginning of the season less than a month away - and Sophia up in New Jersey - Luke stepped up his training regimen. In the days leading up to Christmas, he not only increased the duration of his rides on the mechanical bull by five minutes a day, but added strength training to the program. He'd never been fond of weight lifting, but no matter what he was doing in the way of work - which lately was primarily selling the remaining trees - he would duck away at the top of every hour and do fifty push-ups, sometimes finishing four or five hundred in a day. Finally, he added pull-ups and core work to strengthen his stomach and lower back. By the time he collapsed in bed at the end of the day, he would fall asleep within seconds.
Despite his sore muscles and exhaustion, he could gradually feel his skills coming back. His balance was improving, which made it easier to keep f irmly seated. His instincts, too, were sharpening, allowing him to anticipate the reversals and pitches. In the four days following Christmas, he drove to Henderson County, where he rode live bulls. A guy he knew had a practice facility there, and though the bulls weren't of the highest quality, practicing on the mechanical bull could do only so much. Live animals were never predictable, and though Luke wore both a helmet and a flak jacket, he found himself as nervous before these encounters as he'd been in McLeansville back in October.
He pushed himself hard, and then even harder. The season began in mid-January, and he needed a strong start. He needed to win or place as high as possible in order to garner enough points to move up to the major league tour by March. By June, it might be too late.
His mom saw what he was doing, and little by little she began to withdraw again. Her anger was evident, but her sadness was, too, and he found himself wishing that Sophia were with them, if only to ease the growing awkwardness. Then again, he wished Sophia were here, period. With Sophia back in New Jersey for the holidays, Christmas Eve had been a quiet affair. Christmas Day was also subdued. He hadn't gone over to his mother's house until the early afternoon, and her tension was palpable.
He was glad to have the Christmas tree sales behind him. Though they'd done well, the month in the grove meant everything else on the ranch had deteriorated further, and the weather wasn't helping matters. Luke's to-do list grew longer, and it worried him, particularly because he knew he'd be traveling a lot in the coming year. His absence would only make things harder for his mom.
Unless, of course, he started winning right away.
Always, it came back to that. Despite the tree sales, which his mom used to add seven pair to the herd, the farm's income wasn't going to be near enough to cover their payments.
And with that in mind, Luke would trudge to the barn to practice, counting the days until New Year's Eve, when he'd finally see Sophia again.
He left early in the morning, arriving in Jersey City a few minutes before lunch. After spending the afternoon with Sophia's parents and sisters, neither Luke nor Sophia had wanted to battle the crowds in Times Square for New Year's Eve celebrations. Instead, they had a quiet dinner at an unpretentious Thai restaurant before returning to Luke's hotel.
In the hours past midnight, Sophia lay on her stomach while Luke traced small circles on her lower back.
"Stop," she said, wiggling. "It's not going to work."
"What's not going to work?"
"I already told you that I can't stay. I have a curfew."
"You're twenty-one years old," he protested.
"But I'm at my parents' house, and they have rules. And actually, they were being extra permissive by letting me stay out until two. Normally, I have to be in by one."
"What would happen if you stayed?"
"They'd probably think we slept together."
"We did sleep together."
She turned her head to face him. "They don't have to know that. And I have no intention of making it obvious."
"But I'm only here for one night. I have to leave tomorrow afternoon."
"I know, but rules are rules. And besides, you don't want to get on my parents' bad side. They liked you. Although my sisters told me they were disappointed you weren't wearing your hat."
"I wanted to fit in."
"Oh, you did all right. Especially when you started talking about 4-H again. You noticed they had the same reaction I did when they found out you sell those poor little pigs for slaughter after raising them like pets."
"I've been meaning to thank you for bringing that up."
"You're welcome," Sophia said, her expression mischievous. "Did you see Dalena's face when I explained it? I thought her eyes were going to pop out of her head. How's your mom doing, by the way?"
"She's all right."
"I take it she's still mad at you?"
"You could say that."
"She'll come around."
"I hope so." He leaned down, kissing her. Although she returned his kiss, he felt her hands move toward his chest and gently push him away.
"You can kiss me all you want, but you still have to bring me back home."
"Can you sneak me into your room?"
"Not with my sister there. That would be too weird."
"If I'd known you wouldn't stay over, I might not have driven all the way up here."
"I don't believe you."
He laughed before becoming serious again. "I missed you."
"No, you didn't. You were too busy to miss me. Every time I called, you were always on the go. Between work and practice, you probably didn't even think about me."
"I missed you," he said again.
"I know. And I missed you, too." She reached up, touching his face. "But sadly, we're going to have to get dressed anyway. You're supposed to come over for brunch tomorrow, remember?"
Back in North Carolina, Luke made the decision to redouble his practice efforts. The first event of the season was less than two weeks away. The two days in New Jersey had given his body a chance to rest, and he felt good for the first time in weeks. The only problem was that it was as cold here as it had been in New Jersey, and he dreaded the chill of the barn even as he set out in its direction.
He had just turned on the barn lights and was stretching before his first ride of the night when he heard the door swing open. He turned around just as his mom emerged from the shadows.
"Hey, Mom," he said, surprised.
"Hi," she said. Like him, she wore a heavy jacket. "I went over to your house and when I realized you weren't there, I figured this is where you might be."
He said nothing. In the silence, his mom stepped into the foam-padded ring, sinking with every step until she stood on the opposite side of the bull from him. Unexpectedly, she reached out and ran her hand over it.
"I remember when your dad first brought this home," she said. "It was all the rage for a while, you know. People wanted to ride these things because of that old movie with John Travolta, and practically every country bar put one in, only to watch the interest die out within a year or two. When one of those bars was being torn down, your dad asked if he could buy the bull. It didn't cost much, but it was still more than we could afford at the time and I remember being furious with him. He'd been off in Iowa or Kansas or somewhere, and he drove all the way back here to drop it off before turning right around and heading to Texas for another set of rodeos. It wasn't until he got back that he realized it didn't work. He had to rebuild the thing pretty much from scratch, and it took him almost a year to get it working the way he wanted. But by then, you came along and he'd pretty much retired. It sat in the barn here collecting dust until he eventually put you on it... I think you were two years old at the time. I got pretty mad about that, too, even though it was barely moving. I somehow knew that you'd end up following in his footsteps. The thing is, I never wanted you to ride in the first place. I always thought it was a crazy way to try to make a living." In her voice, he heard an uncharacteristic trace of bitterness.
"Why didn't you say anything?"
"What was there to say? You were as obsessed as your dad. You broke your arm when you were fiv
e riding on a calf. But you didn't care. You were just mad because you couldn't ride for a few months. What could I do?" She didn't expect an answer, and she sighed. "For a long time, I hoped you'd grow out of it. I was probably the only mother in the world who prayed that her teenager would get interested in cars or girls or music, but you never did."
"I liked those things, too."
"Maybe. But riding was your life. It was all you ever really wanted to do. It was all you really dreamed about, and..." She closed her eyes, an extended blink. "You had the makings of a star. As much as I hated it, I knew you had the ability and the desire and the motivation to be the best in the world. And I was proud of you. But even then, it broke my heart. Not because I didn't think you'd make it, but because I knew you'd risk everything to reach your dream. And I watched you get hurt over and over and try again and again." She shifted her stance. "What you have to remember is that to me, you'll always be my child, the one I held in my arms right after you were born."