"College isn't the real world."
"Don't you think I know that?" she cried.
"Then why are you so mad that I said it?" he countered.
She tugged the reins, forcing Demon to a halt. "Are you kidding?" she demanded. "Because you're acting like a jerk! Because you're implying that you have responsibilities, but I don't. Can you even hear yourself?"
"I was just trying to answer your question."
"By insulting me?"
"I wasn't insulting you."
"But you still think that what you do is more important than what I do?"
"It is more important."
"To you and your mom!" she shouted. "Believe it or not, my family is important to me, too! My parents are important! Getting an education is important! And yes, I do have responsibilities. And I feel pressure to be successful, just like you do. I have dreams, too!"
"What? Now you're ready to be civil? Well, you know what? Don't bother. Because the reality is that I drove up here to spend time with you, and all you're doing is trying to pick a fight!"
"I'm not trying to pick a fight," he mumbled.
But she wasn't hearing him. "Why are you doing this?" she demanded. "Why are you acting like this? What's going on with you?"
He didn't answer. He didn't know what to say, and Sophia watched him, waiting, before shaking her head in disappointment. With that, she jerked the reins and turned Demon, prodding him into a canter. As she disappeared in the direction of the stables, Luke sat alone amid the trees, wondering why he couldn't find the courage to tell her the truth.
o you just rode off and left him?" Marcia asked.
"I didn't know what else to do," Sophia replied, propping her chin in her hands. Marcia sat beside her as she lay on her bed. "By then, I was so angry, I could barely look at him."
"Hmmm. I guess I'd be angry, too," Marcia said, sounding just a bit too sympathetic. "I mean, we both know that art history majors are absolutely critical to the modern functioning of society. If that's not a serious responsibility, I don't know what is."
Sophia scowled at her. "Shut up."
Marcia ignored the comment. "Especially if they've yet to land a job that actually pays anything."
"Didn't I just say shut up?"
"I'm just teasing you," Marcia said, nudging her with her elbow.
"Yeah, well, I'm not in the mood, okay?"
"Oh, hush. I don't mean anything by it. I'm just happy you're here. I had already resigned myself to the fact that I'd be alone all day. And most of the night, too."
"I'm trying to talk to you!"
"I know. I've missed our talks. We haven't had one in ages."
"And we're not going to have any more if you keep this up. You're making this a lot harder than you need to."
"What do you want me to do?"
"I want you to listen. I want you to help me figure this out."
"I am listening," she said. "I heard everything you said."
"Well, frankly, I'm just glad you finally had an argument. It's about time. I'm of the opinion that it's not a meaningful relationship until you have a real argument. Up until then, it's just a honeymoon. After all, you don't know how strong something is until you actually test it." She winked. "I read that in a fortune cookie once."
"It's still true. And it's good for you. Because once you two get past this, you'll be stronger as a couple. And the make-up sex is always great."
Sophia made a face. "Is it always about sex with you?"
"Not always. But with Luke?" She broke into a lascivious grin. "If I were you, I'd be trying to get past this as soon as possible. That is one good-looking man."
"Stop trying to change the subject. You need to help me figure this out!"
"What do you think I've been doing?"
"Trying your best to irritate me?"
Marcia offered an earnest expression. "You know what I think?" she asked. "Based on what you told me? I think he's nervous about what's going to happen between you two. He's going to be traveling most weekends, and before you know it, you'll have graduated and he thinks you're not going to stick around. So he's probably beginning to distance himself."
Maybe, Sophia thought. There was some truth there, but...
"It's more than that," she said. "He's never been like this before. Something else is going on."
"Is there anything you haven't told me?"
He might lose the ranch. But she hadn't told Marcia that, nor would she. Luke had confided in her, and she wouldn't violate his trust.
"I know he's feeling a lot of pressure," she said instead. "He wants to ride well. He's nervous."
"Well, there's your answer," Marcia said. "He's nervous and under pressure, and you kept telling him not to think about it. So he got a little defensive and lashed out because in his mind, you're indifferent to what he's going through."
Maybe, Sophia thought.
"Trust me," Marcia went on. "He's probably regretting it already. And I'll bet he'll be calling you to apologize any minute now."
He didn't call. Not that night, or the next or even the next. On Tuesday, Sophia spent most of the day alternately checking her phone to see if he'd texted and wondering whether she should call him. Though she attended classes and took notes, she was hard-pressed to recall anything her professors had said.
Between classes, she would walk from one building to the next, reviewing Marcia's words, acknowledging that they made sense. Yet she couldn't escape the memory of Luke's... what? Anger? Hostility? She wasn't sure if those were the right words, but she'd definitely felt as though he'd been trying to drive her away.
Why, after everything had been so easy and comfortable for so long, had everything so quickly gone wrong?
There was a lot that didn't add up. She should just pick up the phone and get to the bottom of all this, she decided. Depending on Luke's tone, she'd know almost immediately whether she was overreacting.
She reached into her purse and pulled out her phone, but just as she was about to dial, she happened to look across the quad, noticing the familiar ebb and flow of life on campus. People carrying backpacks, a student riding his bike to who knew where, a college tour that had stopped near the administration building, and in the distance, beneath a tree, a couple facing each other.
There was nothing unusual about any of it, but for whatever reason, something in the scene caught her attention and she lowered the phone. She found herself zeroing in on the couple. They were laughing, heads close together, the girl's hand caressing the boy's arm. Even from a distance, their chemistry crackled. She could almost feel it, but then again, she knew them both. What she was seeing was definitely more than a close friendship, a realization confirmed as soon as they kissed.
Sophia couldn't look away, every muscle tensing at once.
As far as she knew, he hadn't been to the house, nor had she heard their names mentioned together. Which was almost impossible on a campus devoid of secrets. Which meant that both of them had been trying to keep it secret until now - not only from her, but from everyone.
But Marcia and Brian?
Her roommate wouldn't do that to her, would she? Especially knowing what Brian had done to her?
Yet in hindsight it struck her that Marcia had mentioned him several times in recent weeks... and hadn't she admitted that she still talked to him? What had Marcia said about Brian? Even while he was still stalking her? He's funny and good-looking and rich. What's not to like? Not to mention that he'd had a "thing" for her, as Marcia liked to point out, before Sophia came along.
Sophia knew it shouldn't matter. She wanted nothing to do with Brian, and it had been over for a long time. Marcia could have him if she wanted. But when Marcia lifted her gaze in Sophia's direction, Sophia inexplicably felt tears spring to her eyes.
"I was going to tell you," Marcia said, uncharacte
They were back in their room and Sophia stood near the window with her arms crossed. It was everything she could do to keep her voice steady.
"How long have you been seeing him?"
"Not long," Marcia said. "He visited me at home over Christmas break and --"
"Why him? You remember how much he hurt me, right?" Sophia's voice started to crack. "You're supposed to be my best friend."
"I didn't plan for it to happen...," Marcia pleaded.
"But it did."
"You were gone every weekend and I'd see him at parties. We'd end up talking. Usually about you..."
"So you're saying this is my fault?"
"No," Marcia said. "It's no one's fault. I didn't mean for it to happen. But the more we talked and really got to know each other..."
Sophia tuned out the rest of Marcia's explanation, the knots in her stomach tight enough to make her wince. When the room fell silent, she tried to keep her voice steady.
"You should have told me."
"I did. I mentioned that we were talking. And I hinted that we were friends. That's all there was until a few weeks ago. I swear."
Sophia turned, facing her best friend and hating her at the same moment. "This is just... wrong on so many levels."
"I thought you were over him...," Marcia mumbled.
Sophia's expression was livid. "I am over him! I don't want anything to do with him. This is about us! You and me! You're sleeping with my ex-boyfriend!" She ran a hand through her hair. "Marcia, friends don't do this to each other. How can you even begin to justify this?"
"I'm still your friend," Marcia offered, her tone soft. "It's not like I'm going to be bringing him up to the room when you're here..."
Sophia could barely register what she was hearing. "He's going to cheat on you, you know. Just like he cheated on me."
Marcia shook her head vehemently. "He's changed. I know you won't believe that, but he has."
At this, Sophia knew she had to leave. She strode toward the door, grabbing her purse from the desk on the way out. At the door, she turned around.
"Brian hasn't changed," she said with utter certainty. "I can promise you that."
Habit and desperation led her back to the ranch. As always, Luke stepped onto the porch just as she was getting out of the car. Even from a distance, he seemed to know something was wrong, and despite the fact that she hadn't heard from him in days, he walked toward her with arms opened wide.
Sophia went into them, and for a long time, he simply held her as she cried.
"I still don't know what to do," she said, leaning back into Luke's chest. "It's not like I can stop her from going out with him."
Luke was holding her close on the couch, both of them staring into the fire. He had let her ramble on for hours, agreeing with her from time to time but mostly soothing her with his silent, comforting presence.
"No," he agreed. "You probably can't."
"But what am I supposed to do when we're together? Pretend that it's not happening?"
"That would probably be best. Since she's your roommate."
"She's going to get hurt," Sophia said for the hundredth time.
"Everyone in the house is going to be talking about it. Every time they see me, they're going to either whisper or snicker or act way too concerned, and I'm going to spend the rest of the semester dealing with it."
She was quiet for a moment. "Are you going to agree with everything I say?"
"Probably," he answered, eliciting a laugh.
"I'm just glad you aren't still mad at me."
"I'm sorry about that," he said. "And you were right to call me on it. You caught me on a bad day and I took it out on you. I was wrong to do that."
"Everyone's entitled to a bad day."
He squeezed her tighter without saying anything. Only later did it occur to her that he never did tell her what had really been bothering him that day.
After spending the night at the ranch, Sophia returned to the sorority house and took a deep breath before stepping into her room. She still wasn't ready to talk to Marcia, but a quick survey told her that she need not have worried about it.
Marcia wasn't in the room, nor had her bed been slept in.
She'd spent the night with Brian.
hen Luke left for Pensacola a few days later, he did so with the uncomfortable knowledge that he hadn't practiced enough. The relentless, throbbing headache made thinking difficult and practice impossible. He told himself that if he could just survive these preliminaries in decent standing, he'd have a chance to fully recuperate in time for the next event.
He knew nothing at all about Stir Crazy, the first bull he drew in Pensacola. He hadn't slept well after the long drive, and his hands had begun to shake again. Though his headache was slightly diminished, he could still feel the thrumming between his ears, a vibration that felt like a living thing. He recognized only a handful of the riders, and half of the rest struck him as barely old enough to drive. All of them fiddled, trying to keep their nerves in check, all clinging to the same dream. Win or place, earn money and points - and whatever you do, don't get hurt so bad that you can't ride the following week.
As he'd done in McLeansville, Luke stayed near his truck, preferring to be alone. He could still hear the crowd from the parking lot, and when he heard the roar go up, followed a few seconds later by the announcer barking, "That's the way it goes sometimes," he knew the rider had been thrown. He was scheduled to ride fourteenth, and even though the rides were measured in seconds, there was usually a break of a few minutes between competitors. He figured he'd go over in fifteen minutes, if only to keep his nerves in check.
He didn't want to be here.
The thought came to him with unexpected clarity, even though deep down he'd known it all along. The undeniable conviction made him feel like the ground had just shifted under his feet. He wasn't ready for this. And maybe, just maybe, he'd never be ready.
Fifteen minutes later, however, he began a slow trek to the arena.
More than anything, it was the smell that enabled him to continue. It was familiar, triggering responses that had grown automatic over the years. The world compressed. He tuned out the sound of the crowd and the announcer, focusing his attention on the young handlers who were helping him get ready. Ropes were tightened. He worked the wrap until it felt exactly right in his hand. He centered himself on the bull. He waited for a split second, making sure everything was right, then nodded to the gateman.
Stir Crazy came out with a weak buck and then a second, before twisting hard to the right, all four legs off the ground. But Luke had been ready and stayed low in his seat, keeping his balance as Stir Crazy bucked two more times and then began to spin.
Luke adjusted instinctively throughout all of it, and as soon as the buzzer sounded, he reached down with his free hand and undid the wrap. He jumped off, landing on both feet, and ran to the arena fence. He was out of harm's way before the bull had stopped bucking.
The crowd continued to cheer and the announcer reminded them that he'd once placed third in the world standings. He removed his hat and waved it at the crowd before turning around and hiking back to his truck.
On the walk, his headache returned with punishing force.
Ride number two was a bull named Candyland. Luke was in fourth place in the standings.
Again, he went through the motions on autopilot, the world compressed to the narrowest of frames. Meaner bull this time. More showy. During the ride, he heard the crowd roar its approval. He rode successfully and again escaped the arena while the bull threw a temper tantrum.
His score on that ride moved him into second place.
He spent the next hour sitting behind the wheel of his truck, his head throbbing with every heartbeat. He supplemented a handful of ibuprofen with Tylenol, but it did littl
e to blunt the pain. He wondered if his brain was swelling and tried not to think about what would happen if he got thrown.
With his last ride, he found himself in a position to win. Earlier, though, one of the other finalists had finished with the highest score of the day.
In the chute, he was no longer nervous. Not because he'd experienced a burst of hidden confidence, but because the agony and exhaustion had left him too tired to care one way or the other.
He just wanted to get it over with. Whatever happened, happened.
When he was ready, the chute gate swung open. It was a good bull, though not as tricky as the second one had been. More challenging than the first, though, and his score reflected that.