Jake sighed. "Shit. I remember that. You know why he did that, don’t you? Nah, you probably don’t." He wiped a hand over his face. "Aw, heck, I never realized until you disappeared to Canada how much we’ve screwed things up – me and Ned and Luke."
"What do you mean?" Rob turned away again. This whole conversation was making him mighty uncomfortable. The past was the past, and the only reason it kept dragging into the present was because his father was trying so hard to keep him under his thumb.
"What a mess," Jake said. "Okay, you’re going to hate me, but try to understand – you’re the youngest. We didn’t mean to keep secrets from you."
"Secrets?" Rob didn’t like the sound of that at all.
"Yeah, secrets. Although I have to admit I’m surprised you never guessed."
"Guessed what?" Shit, was Jake going to tell him he was adopted? He tensed, not sure he could handle that.
"Dad can’t read. Not much, anyway. You really never figured that out?"
"Wait, hold on a minute." That was the last thing he expected Jake to say. "What do you mean he can’t read?"
"Why do you think he dropped out of school at fourteen? Why’d you think he hates books so much?"
"Think about it," Jake said, and Rob did. To his surprise, a number of things fell swiftly into place.
"Mom does all the paperwork," he said.
"Bingo. Now you’re catching on. That day he tore up your report card?" Jake laughed, but it wasn’t a happy sound. "You kept shoving it in his face. Wanting him to read all the things your teachers wrote about you."
"Hell." That day had been the end of his career as a straight-A student. Once Holt was through bellowing about sissies and wastes of time, he’d sent Rob out to the stables to muck out every single stall himself.
Rob had learned that lesson well.
"Why the heck didn’t anybody tell me?" he asked now.
Jake studied his feet. "Didn’t think you could keep the secret, probably. No one but our family knows." He glanced up and caught Rob’s eye. "No one can know."
Rob heard his unspoken message: this was a secret the Mathesons would take to their graves. If the rest of the town knew, they wouldn’t be able to hold up their heads anymore.
"Why doesn’t he learn how? Then there wouldn’t have to be a secret." So many years of his life he’d blamed himself for his father’s coldness. All because Holt couldn’t read? No, there had to be more to it than that.
"From what I can figure out, he fooled his teachers for years this way and that, and no one figured it out until about the eighth grade. Then they sent him to some kind of specialist. The other kids gave him heck about it, though, until he quit school outright. So when Ned started having trouble, he refused to have anything to do with any doctors or interventions. He decided no kid of his was going to get teased."
I got teased, Rob wanted to say, but held his tongue. "Ned can’t read, either?" Well, that made sense. Ned never was any good at school.
"Yep. Same problem as Dad. Gets his letters all turned around."
"They’re dyslexic?" How the hell had he never known? "There’s all kinds of things they do for that nowadays."
"Only if you admit you have it," Jake said. "And they won’t admit it."
"So Dad protected Ned and left me hanging high and dry," Rob said. "Helluva thing to do."
"Dad knew you’d do fine," Jake countered. "And you have, haven’t you? You’ve always been able to protect yourself one way or the other. Everybody’s been scared to death of you since you reached junior high. Remember what you did to the guy who attacked Morgan? You’re a fighter, Rob – with your fists and your jokes. Now you’re engaged to Morgan, you’ve got two jobs, a parcel of land…hell, I’m envious."
"Envious?" But as Jake’s words sunk in, he realized his brother was right. He’d nursed his childhood grudges for way too many years, but no one had actually hurt him since…since…well, grade school, now that he thought of it. Even Ned hadn’t touched him since they were kids. He still nagged him all the time, needled him and generally behaved like an ass, but he couldn’t remember the last time they actually fought.
No. That wasn’t true. He did remember. It had been the usual scrap, out by the barn, over chores or something along those lines. They’d tussled and rolled in the dirt and he’d finally landed a punch on Ned’s chin that snapped his brother’s head back. Ned had scrambled to his feet, kicked him clumsily, and run away.
He’d run away.
And instead of acting like the victor, Rob had kept telling himself the same old story – that he could never beat his older brothers, that he’d always be picked on, that there wasn’t anything he could ever do to win.
Glancing around him, he wanted to laugh at his own stupidity. Or bang his head against a wall, maybe. Why was he still acting like his father could force him to do things he didn’t want to do? At any time in the last decade or more he could have left home, gotten a job and run his own life exactly the way he wanted to. Instead, he’d blamed everyone else for his dissatisfaction and didn’t lift a finger to change.
"You’re in a hell of a lot better situation than I am," he told Jake honestly. "You’ve always known you wanted to be a rancher and you work like a son-of-a-gun. I’m still figuring out what I want to do."
"Maybe so," Jake said, "but my life ain’t perfect, either. There are things I’d like to try with the ranch that I can’t because Dad vetoes them. Still, even if our family’s not perfect, it’s something. I hope you won’t turn your back on us, and for what it’s worth," he took a deep breath, "if you really think planting grapes would make you happier than running cattle, then I’m on your side. It’s your 200 acres. You do what you want with them." He stuck out his hand.
Rob slowly reached out and took it. "You mean that? What about Ned and Luke?"
"I don’t think Luke cares one way or the other. You’re on your own when it comes to Ned. Maybe it’s time the two of you sorted a few things out."
"There’s no way Dad will agree to the vineyard, though, and I won’t come back on any other terms," Rob said.
"I heard a rumor Claire might not let you have the vineyard over here, either."
"You let me worry about that."
"I will. I hope you work something out. You’ve always been better at gardening than ranching."
As Jake walked off, Rob lingered where he was. Hell, he thought he’d been hiding his true nature all this time. Turns out he wasn’t fooling anyone.