Sure he did. Back in grade school, his mother used to require him to help weed her vegetable garden at least once a week. The most hated chore on the ranch – at least among the menfolk – it was always passed off onto the youngest child who could competently complete the task.
In other words, Rob.
He hadn’t hated the chore, though. He’d liked the feel of dirt between his fingers, and the way the vegetable plants looked bigger and happier as soon as he cleared the weeds away. His mother would chatter to him about the different plants, including the flowers that bordered her square garden. She didn’t require him to answer back much, so he’d let his attention wander, half-listening to her, half-daydreaming in the warm sun, his mind slipping away to the hows and whys of seeds, dirt, water, and bees.
Ned walked past on the way to the main house, probably raiding the fridge between chores. He did a double-take when he spotted Rob beside his mother.
Here it comes, thought Rob.
"Just like old times," Ned called out. "The flower-sissy’s back!" He laughed as he continued on and clattered up the steps to the house. Beside him, his mother tsked.
But in his mind Rob was seven again, on a spring-morning recess at the small public school in Chance Creek. A crisp wind blew down from the hills. The ground was damp beneath his feet from the receding snow. His classmate, Daniel Warden, waved at a green point breaking through the dirt.
"Look – it’s a tulip."
"No, it’s not, it’s a crocus," Rob had corrected him without thinking.
Daniel, a hot-tempered boy who couldn’t bear to be wrong, had shoved him, hard. "Who cares what it’s called, you flower-sissy!"
Of course the name stuck.
His own brothers thought it was hilarious and taunted him about it for days, rubbing crocuses into his face when their parents were out of sight, pushing him into his mother’s newly dug flowerbeds when they ran to the house for mealtimes. The next time his mother called him to work in the garden, Rob had hid in the hayloft and refused to come out. He’d taken a paddling for it when he came in for supper, and then hid the following day, as well. When Lisa finally tracked him down and got the truth out of him, she’d sighed, and sent him on his way.
She’d never asked him to weed the garden again.
And Rob devised a suitable revenge on Daniel. His first practical joke. He slipped out of bed early one morning, picked a handful of tulips and hid them in his backpack until he reached school. There he slipped inside before the first bell rang, snuck into his classroom and left them on his teacher’s desk – along with a note:
To Mrs. Ramsey, from Daniel Warden.
When the bell rang and he filed back into the classroom with the rest of the students, Mrs. Ramsey was holding the tulips, a smile on her face. "Look at what Daniel brought me," she said, lifting them high.
"You teacher-loving, flower-sissy," Rob drawled, as loudly as he could.
That particular whipping was worth it. And that practical joke was the start of a life-long run of tormenting first his enemies, and then his friends. He learned fast that a good shock or scare kept everyone at arm’s length.
"I’ve forgiven folks for plenty of things in my life," Lisa said, breaking into his thoughts. She sat back on her heels and gazed at him from under her cream-colored cowboy hat. "But the way your father and brothers destroyed your love for the garden, for everything natural," she waved a hand to encompass the whole ranch, "is something I’ve found it hard to forgive. I’ve found it hard to forgive myself for letting it happen."
He looked down at his hands in the dirt. Remembered the peace of working in the garden. Remembered his early days exploring the ranch and all its wonders.
The man he wanted to be when he was five.
"They might have stopped me back then, but they can’t stop me now," he said. He wasn’t the smallest kid on a playground full of bullies anymore. And while he couldn’t name his calling, he knew it wasn’t being low man on the totem pole on a ranch that already had four other men to run it.
He leaned over and kissed his mother on the cheek. "Don’t give up on me yet."
She tousled his hair. "Never."
* * * * *
At eight o’clock, Elliot Cassidy’s black Lincoln Town Car pulled up in front of her apartment and Morgan let herself into the back seat. She’d been on these dinner dates with the Cassidys before and she knew what to expect. Elliot would be in the driver’s seat. Duncan riding shotgun. She’d take her lowly place in back and play second fiddle to them for the rest of the night.
At the restaurant, Elliot would send back the first wine, demanding something better, while Duncan would dictate to her what she should order. The remainder of the meal would be spent listening to them pick apart the service, the food, other wineries, and their own employees. By the time she returned home she’d have a migraine and a strong desire to slit her throat.
As she slid onto the seat and fastened her seatbelt, the car pulled away from the curb.
"Only the two of us tonight," Duncan said, and she looked up with a start, her heart beginning to pound when she took in the empty passenger seat.
"Where’s your father?"
"He thought we young folks might like an evening to ourselves." Duncan smiled into the rear view mirror, a self-satisfied smirk she longed to slap right off his face.
"Forget it. Take me home."
"I don’t think so." Duncan pushed down on the gas pedal and the car leaped forward. Glancing out the window, Morgan saw they weren’t headed downtown.
"Where are we going?"
"You’ll see." He sped up again. He was driving way too fast for this neighborhood. Had he been drinking?
"Duncan, I’m serious. Take me home."
"Relax, Tate. You’re always so uptight. Maybe if you were getting some you wouldn’t be such a bitch."
Getting some? She hoped he didn’t think he’d be getting some tonight.
She stealthily unlocked the door and gripped the handle. She couldn’t jump out of a moving vehicle but sooner or later he’d have to slow down. No way was she going to let him whisk her out of the city to some private place where she would be at his mercy. She knew all too well that men would use their strength against her, given half a chance.
Against her will, a memory of the night she and Claire had gone after Daniel Ledstrom flashed into her mind. Daniel – Claire’s ex – had taken thousands of dollars of interior design supplies from her home and stashed them in the garage of his mother’s vacant house. Claire thought she knew where he’d put them, and when they’d gone to check it out, they’d been cornered by Daniel and two of his thug friends. Morgan closed her eyes against the memories of the man who’d tossed her over his shoulder, hauled her into the house and dumped her on a bed. When he’d climbed on top of her, she’d thought she’d never get away. He’d torn her blouse open – touched her…