At lunchtime, he didn’t feel like joining the rest of the crowd up at the Big House, so he only ducked into the kitchen, gave Morgan a peck on the cheek, and grabbed a ham sandwich off the pile she and Autumn had made.
"I’m going to eat on the run today," he said. Morgan only nodded. He left the house feeling even worse, but when he came back to the stable, Claire and Jamie were already there, talking in the shade of north wall.
"This isn’t about Morgan and you know it," Jamie was saying. He leaned against the side of the stable. Claire paced in front of him.
"Yes it is."
"Baloney. It’s about me wanting to start a family and you saying no."
Claire turned away from him and spotted Rob. "Damn it! Now you’re eavesdropping?"
"Just trying to find a quiet place to eat," Rob said, holding up his sandwich. He backed up quickly, spun on his heel and hiked over to the bunkhouse before Claire could start another fight.
Why didn’t Claire want to start a family? And what did it have to do with Morgan?
He couldn’t fathom it, but he resolved to talk to Morgan about it the first chance he got. Meanwhile, he relaxed some about the tension on the ranch. If Claire was angry at Jamie, rather than at him, things would eventually work out.
Still, when dinner time rolled around and his workday for Ethan was over, he looked forward to heading over to Carl’s where things weren’t so off-kilter. So when he arrived at the bunkhouse to gather his things and found Jake waiting for him on the front steps, his stomach sank.
"Whatever you’ve got to say, I don’t want to hear it," he stated and tried to push past him. Jake stood up and blocked his way.
"You seriously going to let that girl break our family apart?"
"Morgan’s not breaking anything apart. Dad’s the one doing the destruction. And what do you care, anyway – I’d think the lot of you would be happy to see the last of me."
"How do you figure that?"
"Oh, come on," Rob said. "You’ve spent your whole lives trying to run me off the place. Picking at me, criticizing me, making sure I don’t do anything meaningful over there."
Jake had the grace to look a little shamefaced. "That’s Ned, mostly."
"Mostly," Rob echoed. "And Dad, and the rest of you."
"Dad set this whole thing up for you, you know that, don’t you? That’s how badly he wants you to stay on the ranch." Jake still wouldn’t let him past.
"Set what whole thing up?"
"This…contest. The 200 acres. He told us point blank out in the barn after he announced it that it was meant for you – none of us were even supposed to try for it."
Rob blinked. "Why would he do that?"
Jake held his hands out wide. "Because he wants you to stay on the ranch. I just said that. He knew you were going to make a break for it."
Shaking his head, Rob turned around and stared out at the mountains in the distance. "Well, doesn’t that beat all. I don’t understand him. I don’t understand any of you." He turned back. "If you want me to stay, why the hell do you try so hard to make me want to leave?"
"I’m not trying," Jake said. "I thought we got along all right."
"Until I try to do anything that’s not your idea," Rob pointed out.
"Well, yeah. I guess so," Jake said. "Maybe I could work on that."
"Might as well not bother," Rob said gruffly. "Ned and Dad aren’t going to change."
A funny look came over Jake’s face. "I’m not so sure about Dad. He ain’t been feeling so great lately. He’s feeling his age. I think he wishes he’d done a few things differently."
"Dad’s hated me my whole life," Rob said. "I doubt that’s going to stop now. And I’m done trying to change his mind. I’ve got other people to worry about – like Morgan."
When he glanced Jake’s way, however, his brother was staring at him open-mouthed. "Dad…hates you? You’ve got to be kidding me."
"What the hell are you on about now?" Rob said, bracing himself for a new round of cruelty. Jake was right – usually it was Ned sticking the blade in and twisting it in his guts, but Jake was no slouch when he was in the mind to get a dig in.
"You never heard him spouting off about his rodeo star son down at the bar?"
"When has he ever done that?" Rob stared at his brother in open derision. Heck, he hadn’t even ridden much these past couple of years. Jake must be talking about ancient history.
"When doesn’t he do that?" Jake scratched the back of his neck. "You’re not at the right bar – you’re always at the Dancing Boot."
He sure as heck wasn’t going to hang around with a bunch of old fogies at Rafters, but he wasn’t going to say that to Jake. "He’s never even seen me ride. He always finds somewhere else to be when it’s my turn."
"You don’t get it, do you?" Jake said, leaning against the stair railing. "It’s like you’re totally blind. You’re the damn baby of this family, Rob. You’re the apple of Dad’s eye. He didn’t have time for the rest of us when we were young, but he was always hauling you around on top of his shoulders when he did his chores. I can remember when he taught you to ride. How damn proud he was of you. I wanted to knock you into next week. I’d been working on a trick to show him and he couldn’t take his eyes off you long enough to see it."
"You’re putting me on," Rob said, but his mind was busy dredging up old memories – a view of the stable-yard from way up high. Sitting on a horse that seemed as big as a Mack truck, his Daddy standing beside him, holding him steady. He hadn’t thought about any of that in years.
"When you started riding in the rodeo, he had this little book he kept in his pocket. He wrote down the dates and your scores. Shit, Rob."
"How the hell could he do that if he wasn’t even watching?" Rob said.
"He was watching, you just couldn’t see him. He couldn’t sit in the stands. He couldn’t sit still. He was so scared you’d…I don’t know. Fall, or get hurt, or lose, or be sad. He can’t stand it when you’re unhappy, don’t you know that?"
"So he yells at me all damn day long? Tells me how stupid I am for caring about anything other than ranching?" He couldn’t believe what he was hearing – it made no sense. Jake was making all this up, he knew it. He just didn’t know why his brother would take the time to spin such stories.
"He’s never called you stupid."
"He tried to make me stupid," Rob countered. "He ripped up my report card the first time I brought home A’s. He wants me stupid, ignorant, and stuck in his shadow for the rest of my life."