The Longest Ride - Page 5

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Well, not anymore, she decided. She'd head back inside and hang with Marcia and Ashley and those Duke boys, and so what if Brian found her and wanted to talk? She'd simply ignore him. And if he tried to interfere with her good time? Well, she might even kiss one of the guys to make sure he knew she had moved on, period.

Smiling at the image, she turned from the railing, bumping into someone and almost losing her balance.

"Oh... excuse me," she said automatically as she reached out to brace herself. As her hand met his chest and she looked up, she felt a burst of recognition and she recoiled.

"Whoa," Brian said, catching her by the shoulders.

By then, she'd regained her balance and she assessed the situation with a sickening sense of predictability. He'd found her. They were face-to-face and alone together. Everything she'd been trying to avoid since the breakup. Great.

"Sorry about sneaking up on you like that." Like Marcia's, his words were slurred, which didn't surprise her - Brian never missed an opportunity to tie one on. "I didn't find you at the tables, and I had a hunch that you might be out here --"

"What do you want, Brian?" she demanded, cutting him off.

He flinched visibly at her tone. But as always, he recovered quickly. Rich people - spoiled people - always did.

"I don't want anything," he said, tucking one hand into the pocket of his jeans. When he staggered slightly, she realized he was well on his way to being falling-down drunk.

"Then why are you here?"

"I saw you out here all alone and thought I'd come over to make sure you were doing okay." He cocked his head, trying on his "I'm so wholesome" routine, but his bloodshot eyes undermined his efforts.

"I was fine until you got here."

He raised an eyebrow. "Wow. That's harsh."

"I have to be. You've been following me like a stalker."

He nodded, acknowledging the truth of her words. And, of course, to show that he accepted her disdain. He could probably star in a video entitled How to Get Your Ex-Girlfriend to Forgive You... Again.

"I know," he offered, right on cue. "I'm sorry about that."

"Are you?"

He shrugged. "I didn't want it to end the way it did... and I just wanted to tell you how ashamed I am about everything that happened. You didn't deserve it and I don't blame you for ending it. I realize that I've been..."

Sophia shook her head, already tired of listening to him. "Why are you doing this?"

"Doing what?"

"This," she said. "This whole phony show. Coming out here, pretending to be so abject and apologetic. What do you want?"

Her question seemed to catch him off guard. "I'm just trying to say sorry --"

"For what?" she asked. "For cheating on me for the third time? Or for lying to me ever since I've known you?"

He blinked. "Come on, Sophia," he said. "Don't be like this. I don't have any kind of agenda - really. I just don't want you to go through the whole year feeling like you have to avoid me. We've been through too much for that."

Despite the occasional slurring, he sounded almost credible. Almost. "You don't get it, do you?" She wondered if he honestly thought she'd forgive him. "I know I don't have to avoid you. I want to avoid you."

He stared at her, plainly confused. "Why are you acting like this?"

"Are you kidding?"

"After you broke up with me, I knew I'd made the biggest mistake of my life. Because I need you. You're good for me. You make me a better person. And even if we can't be together, I'd like to think we could get together and talk sometime. Just talk. The way we used to. Before I screwed things up."

She opened her mouth to reply, but his bravado left her speechless. Did he really think she'd fall for this again?

"Come on," he said, reaching for her hand. "Let's get a drink and talk. We can work through this --"

"Don't touch me!" Her voice rang out sharply.

"Sophia..."

She slid farther down the railing, away from him. "I said don't touch me!"

For the first time, she glimpsed a flash of anger in his expression as he lunged for her wrist. "Calm down..."

She yanked her arm, trying to free it. "Let go of me!"

Instead, he drew close enough for her to smell the stale beer on his breath. "Why do you always have to make such a scene?" he demanded.

As she struggled to break free, she looked up at him and felt a cold blade of fear. This wasn't a Brian she recognized. His brow was furrowed, almost wrinkled, his jaw ropy and distended. She froze, leaning away from his hot, labored breath. Later, she would recall only how paralyzed with fear she was, until she heard the voice behind her.

"You need to let her go," the voice said.

Brian looked over and back to her again, squeezing harder. "We're just talking," he said, his teeth clenched, the muscle in his jaw flexing.

"It doesn't look like you're just talking to me," the voice said. "And I'm not asking you to let her go. I'm telling you."

There was no mistaking the warning in the tone, but unlike the adrenaline-charged exchanges she'd sometimes witnessed at the frat houses, this stranger's voice sounded calm.

It was a beat before Brian even registered the threat, but he clearly wasn't intimidated. "I've got it handled. Why don't you mind your own business?"

"Last chance," came the voice. "I don't want to have to hurt you. But I will."

Too nervous to turn around, Sophia couldn't help noticing bystanders outside the barn beginning to turn their way. From the corner of her eye, she watched two men rise from the tractor tire and start toward them; another pair pushed off a section of the railing, their hats shadowing their faces as they approached.

Brian's bloodshot eyes flickered toward them, then he glared over Sophia's shoulder at the man who had just spoken. "What? You calling in your friends now?"

"I don't need them to deal with you," the stranger said, his voice even.

At the comment, Brian pushed Sophia aside, releasing the viselike grip on her arm. He turned and took a step toward the voice. "You seriously want to do this?"

When she turned, it was easy to understand the reason for Brian's swagger. Brian was six and a half feet tall and over two hundred pounds; he worked out at the gym five times a week. The guy who'd threatened him was more than half a foot shorter and wiry; he wore a cowboy hat, though it had definitely seen better days.

"Go along now," the cowboy said, backing up a step. "There's no reason to make this any worse."

Brian ignored him. With surprising speed, he lunged toward the smaller man, his arms wide, intending to take him down. She recognized the move, had watched Brian flatten countless people on the lacrosse field, and knew exactly what was going to happen: He'd lower his head and drive hard with his legs, felling the other man like an axed tree. And yet... while Brian did just what she'd expected, it didn't end the way she'd seen it happen before. As Brian closed in, the man kept one leg in place as he leaned to the opposite side, his arms sweeping as he used Brian's momentum to throw him off balance. A moment later, Brian was facedown in the dirt with the smaller man's scuffed cowboy boot on the back of his neck.

"Just calm down, now," the cowboy said.

Brian began to struggle beneath the boot, preparing to push himself up, but with a quick hop - while still keeping one boot planted firmly on Brian's neck - the cowboy's other foot slammed down on Brian's fingers, then quickly moved aside. On the ground, Brian retracted his hand and screamed while the boot on his neck pressed down even harder.

"Stop moving or it's only going to get worse." The cowboy's words were clear and slow, as if he were addressing a dimwit.

Still stunned by the rapidity of the events, Sophia stared at the cowboy. Recognizing him as the figure she'd noticed standing alone by the railing when she'd first walked out, she noted that he had yet to look at her. Instead, he seemed intent on keeping his boot in the proper place, as if warily pinning a rattlesnake to the canyon floor. Which, in a way, he was

.

On the ground, Brian began to struggle again. Again, his fingers were stomped while the other boot remained fixed on his neck. Brian stifled a wail, his body gradually growing still. Only then did the cowboy look up at Sophia, his blue eyes piercing in the reflected lights outside the barn.

"If you want to go," he offered, "I'll be glad to hold him for a bit."

He sounded unconcerned, as if the circumstances were nothing out of the ordinary. As she struggled for an appropriate response, she took in the messy brown hair poking out from beneath his hat and realized that he wasn't much older than her. He looked vaguely familiar, but not because she'd seen him at the railing earlier. She'd seen him somewhere else, maybe inside, but that wasn't quite right. She couldn't put her finger on it.

"Thanks," she said, clearing her throat. "But I'll be okay."

As soon as he heard her voice, Brian resumed his struggle; again it ended with Brian jerking his hand back amid howls of pain.

"You sure?" the cowboy asked. "I'm sensing he's a bit angry."

That's an understatement, she thought. She had no doubt that Brian was furious. She couldn't suppress the tiniest of smiles.

"I think he's learned his lesson."

The cowboy seemed to evaluate her answer. "Maybe you should check with him," he suggested, pushing his hat back on his head. "Just to make sure."

Surprising herself, she smiled at him before leaning over. "Are you going to leave me alone, Brian?"

Brian gave a muffled yelp. "Get him off me! I'm going to kill him..."

The cowboy sighed, putting even more pressure on the back of Brian's neck. This time, Brian's face was pressed hard into the dirt.

She turned to the cowboy, then back to Brian again. "Is that a yes or a no, Brian?" she asked.

The cowboy laughed, revealing even white teeth and a boyish grin.

Although she hadn't noticed it earlier, four other cowboys had surrounded them in the meantime, and Sophia wondered if this whole incident could become any more surreal. She felt as though she'd stumbled onto the set of an old western, and all at once, she realized where she'd seen this cowboy before. Not inside the barn, but earlier, at the rodeo. The one Marcia had called eye candy. The bull rider who'd won it all.

"You doing okay, Luke?" one of the circle asked. "Need a hand?"

The blue-eyed cowboy shook his head. "I got it for now. But if he don't stop wiggling, his nose is gonna get broke whether he likes it or not."

She looked at him. "You're Luke?"

He nodded. "You?"

"Sophia."

He tipped his hat. "Nice to meet you, Sophia." Grinning, he glanced down at Brian again.

"You gonna leave Sophia alone if I let you up?"

Defeated, Brian stopped moving. Slowly but surely, the pressure eased off his neck and Brian cautiously turned his head. "Get your boot off my neck!" he grunted, his expression simultaneously surly and fearful.

Sophia shifted from one foot to the other. "You should probably let him up," she said.

After a beat, Luke lifted his boot and stepped back. In that instant, Brian leapt to his feet, his body tense. His nose and cheek were scraped, and he had dirt in his teeth. As the circle of other riders tightened, Brian turned from one bull rider to the next, his head swiveling back and forth.

Though drunk, Brian wasn't stupid, and after glaring at Sophia, he took a step backward. The five cowboys stayed put, appearing not to care one way or the other, but Sophia sensed it was only an illusion. They were prepared for whatever Brian might do, but Brian again took another step backward before pointing at Luke.

"You and I aren't finished yet," he spat. "You understand that?"

He let the words hang before focusing on Sophia. There was anger in his expression and betrayal as well, and with that, he turned and started back toward the barn.

3

Luke

O

rdinarily, he wouldn't have gotten involved.

Hell, anyone who went to bars had been confronted with this scenario before, the events unfolding with an almost ridiculous predictability: a couple enjoying a night out, both of them drinking, when - no doubt fueled by too much booze - an argument begins. One starts yelling at the other, the other yells back, the anger escalates, and nine times out of ten, the man ends up grabbing the woman. By the hand, the wrist, the arm, whatever. And then?

That's where things got trickier. A few years ago, when he was riding in Houston, he'd been in much the same situation. He'd been decompressing at a local bar when a man and woman began arguing. After a minute or so, with their voices rising, it turned physical and Luke had intervened then, too - only to be turned on by both the man and the woman, each screaming at him to leave them the hell alone and to mind his own business. The next thing he knew, the woman was clawing at his face and latching on to his hair while he scuffled with the man. Fortunately, no real damage had been done - others had quickly intervened to separate the three of them. Luke had walked away shaking his head and swearing that from then on, he would stick to his own affairs. Hell, if they wanted to act like idiots, why try to stop them?

Which was exactly what he'd intended to do in this instance. He hadn't even wanted to join the after-party in the first place, but he'd been talked into it by a few fellow riders who wanted to celebrate his comeback and drink to his victory. He'd ended up winning the event, after all - both the short go and the event total. Not because he'd ridden particularly well, but simply because no one else had completed his ride in the final round. He won essentially by default, but sometimes that was how things played out.

He was glad no one had noticed his hands shaking beforehand. The tremors were a first for him, and although he wanted to believe that it was because of the long hiatus, he knew the real reason. His mom did, too, and she'd made it clear that she opposed his return to the ring. Ever since he'd mentioned the possibility of riding again, things had been strained between them. Ordinarily, he'd call her after he finished an event, but not tonight. She wouldn't care that he'd won. Instead, he'd simply texted her after the event that he was fine. She hadn't responded.

After a couple of beers, he was only just feeling the acidic rush of fear ebb away. He'd retreated to his truck after each of his first two rides, needing to be alone and settle his nerves. Despite his advantageous standings, he'd actually considered forfeiting. But he'd crushed that instinct and gone back out for his last ride of the night. He'd heard the announcer talking about his injury and subsequent hiatus as he was getting ready in the chute. The bull he'd drawn - a rank bull named Pump and Dump - spun wildly as soon as he broke free, and Luke had been barely able to hold on until the buzzer. He'd landed hard after freeing himself from the wrap, but there'd been no damage done, and he'd waved his hat while the crowd roared its approval.

After that came the backslaps and congratulations, and he couldn't very well say no when so many people wanted to buy him a drink. He wasn't ready to go home yet anyway. He needed some time to unwind, to replay the rides in his head. In his mind, he was always able to make the adjustments he hadn't been able to during the ride, and he needed to think through those steps if he planned to continue. Though he'd won, his balance was nowhere near what it once had been. He still had a long way to go.

He was replaying the second ride when he first noticed the girl. It was hard not to appreciate the cascade of blond hair and deep-set eyes; he had the sense that, like him, she was wrapped up in her own thoughts. She was pretty, but beyond that there was something wholesome and natural about her appearance, the kind of girl who probably looked equally at home in jeans or a formal gown. This was no dolled-up buckle-bunny, hoping to hook up with one of the riders. They were everywhere on tour and easy to find - a pair of them had sidled up to him in the barn and introduced themselves earlier - but he'd had no interest in encouraging them. He'd had a few one-night stands over the years, enough to know they inevitably left him feeling empty.

But the girl on the railing interest

ed him. There was something different about her, though he couldn't pinpoint what. Maybe, he thought, it was the unguarded, almost vulnerable way she stared into the distance. Whatever it was, he sensed that right now what she really needed was a friend. He considered going over to talk to her, but he pushed aside the idea as he focused on the bulls in the distance. Despite the arena lights, it was too dark to make out all the details, but he searched for Big Ugly Critter anyway. They would forever be linked, he thought, and he wondered idly whether the bull had already been loaded up. He doubted the owner of the bull had planned to drive all night, which meant the animal was here, but it still took some time before he was able to locate him.

It was while he was staring at Big Ugly Critter that the drunk ex-boyfriend had walked up. It was impossible not to overhear their conversation, but he reminded himself not to get involved. And he wouldn't have, at least until the huge brute had grabbed her. By then, it was obvious she didn't want anything to do with him, and when he heard the blonde's anger give way to fear, Luke found himself pushing away from the railing. He knew his decision would probably backfire on him, but as he stepped toward the two of them, he thought again of the way she'd looked earlier, and he knew he didn't have a choice.


Tags: Nicholas Sparks Romance
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