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Authors: Nicholas Sparks

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BOOK: The Longest Ride
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“So he was right.”

“He had great instincts. About everything.” The words came out without thinking, and when he saw her expression, he knew she’d picked up on it. He sighed. “He passed away six years ago.”

Her gaze didn’t waver, and impulsively she reached out, touching his arm. “I’m sorry,” she said.

Though her hand barely grazed his arm, the sensation lingered. “It’s okay,” he said, straightening up. Already he could feel the post-ride soreness settling in, and he tried to concentrate on that instead. “Anyway, that’s the reason I ride bulls.”

“And you like it?”

That was a tough one. For a long time, it was how he’d defined himself, no question about it. But now? He didn’t know how to answer, because he wasn’t sure himself. “Why are you so interested?” he countered.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe because it’s a world I know nothing about? Or maybe I’m just naturally curious. Then again, I might just be making conversation.”

“Which one is it?”

“I could tell you,” she said, her green eyes seductive in the moonlight. “But how much fun would that be? The world needs a little mystery.”

Something stirred in him at the veiled challenge in her voice. “Where are you from?” he asked, feeling himself being reeled in and liking it. “I take it you’re not from around here.”

“Why would you think that? Do I have an accent?”

“I suppose that depends on where you’re from. Up north, I’d be the one with the accent. But I can’t really tell where you’re from.”

“I’m from New Jersey.” She paused. “No jokes, please.”

“Why would I joke? I like New Jersey.”

“Have you ever been there?”

“I’ve been to Trenton. I rode in a few events at the Sovereign Bank Arena. Do you know where that is?”

“I know where Trenton is,” she answered. “It’s south of where I live, closer to Philadelphia. I’m up north, by the city.”

“Have you been to Trenton?”

“A handful of times. But I’ve never been to the arena. Or to a rodeo, for that matter. This is my first time.”

“What did you think?”

“Other than being impressed? I thought you were all crazy.”

He laughed, charmed by her frankness. “You know my last name, but I didn’t catch yours.”

“Danko,” she said. Then, anticipating his next question: “My dad is from Slovakia.”

“That’s near Kansas, right?”

She blinked. Her mouth opened and closed, and just as she was about to explain the concept of Europe to him, he raised his hands.

“Joking,” he said. “I know where it is. Central Europe, part of what was once Czechoslovakia. I just wanted to see your reaction.”

“And?”

“I should’ve taken a picture to show my friends.”

She scowled before nudging against him. “That’s not nice.”

“But it was funny.”

“Yeah,” she admitted. “It was funny.”

“So if your dad is from Slovakia…”

“My mom is French. They moved here a year before I was born.”

He turned toward her. “No kidding…”

“You sound surprised.”

“I don’t know if I’ve ever met a French Slovakian before.” He paused. “Hell, I don’t know if I’ve ever met someone from New Jersey before.”

When she laughed, he felt something relax in him, and he knew he wanted to hear the sound again. “And you live close by?”

“Not too far. A little north of Winston-Salem. I’m right outside of King.”

“Sounds fancy.”

“That’s one thing it isn’t. It’s a small town with friendly people, but that’s about it. We have a ranch up there.”

“We?”

“My mom and I. Well, actually it’s her ranch. I just live and work there.”

“Like… a real ranch? With cows and horses and pigs?”

“It’s even got a barn that makes this one here look new.”

She surveyed the barn behind them. “I doubt that.”

“Maybe I’ll show you one day. Take you horseback riding and everything.”

Their eyes met, holding for a beat, and again she reached out to touch his arm. “I think I’d like that, Luke.”

4

Sophia

S
ophia wasn’t sure exactly why she’d said it. The words had simply come out before she could stop them. It occurred to her to try to backtrack or play it off somehow, but for whatever reason, she realized that she didn’t want to.

It had less to do with his appearance, despite the fact that Marcia had been exactly right. He was unmistakably good-looking in a boyish kind of way, with a friendly, open smile highlighted by dimples. He was lean and wiry, too, his broad shoulders a contrast to his narrow hips, and the unruly mass of brown curls under his battered hat was definitely sexy. What really stood out were his eyes, though – she’d always been a sucker for beautiful eyes. His were a summer blue, vivid and bright enough to make you suspect colored contacts, as ludicrous as she knew Luke would have found such things.

She had to admit, it helped that he so obviously found her attractive. Growing up, she’d always been gawky, with long skinny legs, zero in the hips department, and prone to the occasional bout of acne. It wasn’t until she was a junior in high school that she’d needed more than a training bra. All that had begun to change during her senior year, although it mostly made her feel self-conscious and awkward. Even now, when evaluating herself in the mirror, she still sometimes caught sight of the teenage girl she used to be, and it surprised her to realize that no one else could.

As flattering as Luke’s appreciation was, what appealed to her most was the way he made everything appear easy, from the unflappable way he’d handled Brian to their meandering conversation. She never had the sense that he was trying to impress her, but his quiet self-possession made him come across as very different from the guys she met at Wake – especially Brian.

She also liked that he was comfortable leaving her alone with her thoughts. A lot of people felt the need to fill every silence, but Luke simply watched the bulls, content to keep his own counsel. After a while, she realized that the music from the barn had stopped temporarily – the band on a short intermission, no doubt – and she wondered whether Marcia would try to find her. She found herself hoping that she wouldn’t – not yet, anyway.

“What’s it like living on a ranch?” she asked, breaking the silence. “What do you do all day?”

She watched as he crossed one leg over the other, the toe of his boot in the dirt. “A bit of everything, I guess. There’s always something to do.”

“Such as?”

He absently massaged one hand with the other as he thought about it. “Well, for starters, horses and pigs and chickens need to be fed first thing in the morning and their stalls need to be cleaned. The cattle have to be monitored. I have to check the herd every day to make sure they’re okay – no eye infections, no cuts from the barbed wire, things like that. If one is hurt or sick, I try to take care of it right away. After that, there are pastures to irrigate, and a few times a year, I have to move all the cattle from one pasture to the next, so they always have good grass. Then, a couple of times a year, I have to vaccinate the herd, which means roping them one by one and keeping them separated afterwards. We also have a pretty good-sized vegetable garden for our own use, and I’ve got to keep that going, too…”

She blinked. “That’s all?” she joked.

“Not quite,” he continued. “We sell pumpkins, blueberries, honey, and Christmas trees to the public, so sometimes I spend part of my day planting or weeding or watering, or collecting the honey from the hives. And when the public comes out, I have to be there to tie down the trees or help carry pumpkins to the car, or whatever. And then, of course, there’s always something broken that needs repairs, whether it’s the tractor or the Gator or the fencing or the barn or the roof on the house.” He offered a rueful expression. “Trust me, there’s always something to do.”

“You can’t possibly do all that alone,” Sophia said in disbelief.

“No. My mom does quite a bit, and we have a guy who’s been working for us for years. José. He handles what we can’t, essentially. And then when we have to, we’ll bring in crews for a couple of days to help shape the trees or whatever.”

She frowned. “What do mean by ‘shape the trees’? You mean the Christmas trees?”

“In case you were wondering, they don’t grow in pretty triangles. You have to prune them as they’re growing to make them come out the way they do.”

“Really?”

“And you have to roll the pumpkins, too. You want to keep them from rotting on the bottom, but you also want them to be round, or at least oval, or no one will buy them.”

She wrinkled her nose. “So you literally roll them?”

“Yep. And you have to be careful not to break the stem.”

“I never knew that.”

“A lot of people don’t. But you probably know a lot of things that I don’t.”

“You knew where Slovakia was.”

“I always liked history and geography. But if you ask me about chemistry or algebra, I’d probably be lost.”

“I never liked math that much, either.”

“But you were good at it. I’ll bet you were among the best in your class.”

“Why would you say that?”

“You go to Wake Forest,” he answered. “I’d guess you aced every subject growing up. What are you studying there?”

“Not ranching, obviously.”

He flashed those dimples again.

She picked at the railing with her fingernail. “I’m majoring in art history.”

“Is that something you were always interested in?”

“Not at all,” she said. “When I first got to Wake, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, and I took the kind of classes that all freshmen take, hoping I’d stumble on something. I wanted to find something that made me feel… passionate, you know?”

When she paused, she could feel his attention on her, focused and sure. His genuine interest reminded her again of how different he was from the guys she knew on campus.

“Anyway, when I was a sophomore, I signed up for a class in French Impressionism, mostly to fill out my schedule, not for any particular reason. But the professor was amazing – intelligent and interesting and inspirational, everything a professor should be. He made art come alive and feel
relevant
, somehow… and after a couple of classes, it just clicked for me. I knew what I wanted to do, and the more art history classes I took, the more I knew how much I wanted to be part of that world.”

“I’ll bet you’re glad you took the class, huh?”

“Yeah… my parents, not so much. They wanted me to major in pre-med or pre-law or accounting. Something that will lead to a job when I graduate.”

He tugged at his shirt. “As far as I know, it’s having a degree that’s important. You can probably get a job doing almost anything.”

“That’s what I tell them. But my real dream is to work in a museum.”

“So do it.”

“It’s not as easy as you might think. There are a lot of art history majors out there and only a handful of entry-level positions to go around. Plus a lot of museums are struggling, which means they’re cutting back on their staff. I was lucky enough to get an interview with the Denver Art Museum. It’s not a paid position, it’s more of an internship thing, but they said that there’s a possibility it could evolve into a paying position. Which, of course, begs the question as to how I’d be able to pay my bills while working there. And I wouldn’t want my parents to support me, not that they could afford it. I have a younger sister at Rutgers, and two more starting college soon and…”

She said nothing, momentarily daunted. Luke seemed to read her mind and didn’t press. “What do your parents do?” he asked instead.

“They own a deli. Specialty cheeses and meats. Fresh-baked bread. Homemade sandwiches and soups.”

“Good food?”

“Great food.”

“So if I ever go in there, what should I order?”

“You can’t go wrong with anything. My mom makes an amazing mushroom soup. That’s my favorite, but we’re probably best known for our cheesesteaks. At lunch, there’s always a long line and that’s what most people order. It even won an award a couple of years back. Best sandwich in the city.”

“Yeah?”

“Oh, yeah. The newspaper ran a contest and people voted and everything. My dad framed the certificate and it hangs right by the register. Maybe I’ll show it to you one day.”

He brought his hands together, mimicking her earlier stance. “I think I’d like that, Sophia.”

She laughed, acknowledging his comeback and liking how he said her name. It came out slower than she was used to, but also smoother, the syllables rolling off his tongue in a pleasing, unrushed cadence. She reminded herself that they were strangers, but somehow it didn’t feel that way. She leaned back against the fence post.

“So those other guys who came over… did you come here with them?”

He peered in their direction, then turned back to her. “No,” he said. “Actually, I only knew one of them. My friends are inside. Probably ogling your friends, if you want to know the truth.”

“How come you’re not in there with them?”

He used a finger to push the brim of his hat back. “I was. For a while, anyway. But I wasn’t in the mood to do much talking, so I came out here.”

“You seem to be talking fine right now.”

“I guess I am.” He gave a sheepish grin. “There’s not much to tell, other than what I’ve already said. I ride bulls and work on the family ranch. My life ain’t all that interesting.”

She studied him. “Then tell me something you don’t usually tell people.”

“Like what?” he said.

“Anything,” she said, lifting her hands. “What were you thinking about earlier, when you were standing out here all alone?”

Luke shifted uncomfortably and glanced away. He said nothing at first. Instead, buying time, he folded his hands before him on the railing. “To really understand, I think you’d need to see it,” he said. “But the problem is, it’s not exactly here.”

“Where is it?” she asked, puzzled.

“Over there,” he said, motioning toward the corrals.

Sophia hesitated. Everyone knew the stories:
Girl meets guy who comes across as nice and pleasant, but as soon as he gets her alone

And yet, as she regarded him, she didn’t hear any warning bells. For some reason she trusted him, and not simply because he’d come to her aid. It just didn’t feel like he was coming on to her; she even had the sense that if she asked him to leave, he’d walk away and she’d never talk to him again. Besides, he’d made her laugh tonight. In the short time they’d spent together, she’d forgotten all about Brian.

“Okay,” she responded. “I’m game.”

If he was surprised by her answer, he didn’t show it. Instead he simply nodded, and putting both hands on the top railing, he hopped gracefully over the fence.

“Show-off,” she teased. Bending down, she squeezed through the rails, and a moment later, they started toward the corrals.

As they crossed the pasture toward the fence on the far side, Luke maintained a comfortable distance. Sophia studied the undulations of the fence line as it rode the contours of the land, marveling at how different this place was from where she’d grown up. It occurred to her that she’d come to appreciate the quiet, almost austere beauty of this landscape. North Carolina was home to a thousand small towns, each with its own character and history, and she’d come to understand why many locals would never leave. In the distance, the pines and oaks, scrabbled together, formed an impenetrable scrim of blackness. Behind them, the music gradually faded, the distant sound of meadow crickets emerging in its wake. Despite the darkness, she felt Luke appraising her, though he was trying not to be obvious about it.

“There’s a shortcut after the next fence,” he said. “We can get to my truck from there.”

The comment caught her off guard. “Your truck?”

“Don’t worry,” he said, raising his hands. “We’re not leaving. We’re not even getting in. It’s just that I think you’ll be able to see better from the bed. It’s higher and more comfortable. I’ve got a couple of lawn chairs in the bed that I can set up.”

“You have lawn chairs in the bed of your truck?” She squinted in disbelief.

“I’ve got a lot of stuff in the bed of my truck.”

Of course he did. Didn’t everyone? Marcia would have a
field day
with this.

By then, they’d reached the next fence, and the glow from the arena lights was growing stronger. Again, he hopped over it effortlessly, but this time the slats were placed too narrowly for her to squeeze through. Instead, she climbed up, perching on top before swinging her legs over. She took his hands as she jumped down, liking their callused warmth.

They trekked to a nearby gate and veered toward the trucks. Luke angled toward a shiny black one with big tires and a rack of lights across the roof, the only one parked with the nose in the opposite direction. He opened the tailgate and hopped up into the back. Again, he held out his hands, and with a quick lift, she was standing next to him in the bed of the truck.

Luke turned around and began rummaging, moving things aside, his back to her. She crossed her arms, wondering what Marcia was going to think of all this. She could imagine her questions already:
We’re talking about the cute one, right? He took you where? What were you thinking? What if he was crazy
?
Meanwhile, Luke continued to sort through various items. She heard a metallic clunk as he finally reappeared beside her with the chair, the kind that most people brought to the beach. After opening it, he set it down in the bed of the truck and motioned toward it. “Go ahead and sit. It’ll be ready in just a bit.”

BOOK: The Longest Ride
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