I saw Riley stiffen, and I wanted to punch Lawson. How did he not see that he was setting Riley up to fail? No wonder the kid thought he couldn’t do anything. He was just meeting Lawson’s expectations.
“Mr. Lawson, Riley has learned a lot this week. I’m impressed with his progress.”
He narrowed his eyes at me. “That’s a credit to your teaching then.”
“Riley is a good student.”
“His track record would say otherwise.”
“That’s enough. We’ve got ranch business to discuss.” He glanced toward Riley. “You’re dismissed.”
I wished like hell I could follow him. I had a feeling he needed a friend, and as far as I knew I was the closest thing he had to one here. I was still annoyed with the way he’d acted in the barn. He needed to work on his attitude, but his father treating him like that was only going to make it worse.
It was over an hour before our meeting ended because Lawson decided to put up an argument about the change in feed supplier I’d proposed. Yes, the new feed would cost a little more, but studies showed the switch could easily pay for itself in increased health for our cows.
When I left his office, I walked out the front door and then sneaked back in through the kitchen. I didn’t want Lawson knowing I intended to talk to Riley.
Maryellen was rolling out some dough on the counter. “Do you know where Riley is?” I kept my voice low.
“In his room. I’m glad you’re here to check on him. He was crying after he left that man’s office.” Maryellen often referred to Lawson as “that man.” She said she only stayed on to cook for me and the hands. “I tried to get the boy to eat something, but he refused.”
Fuck. Why did Lawson have to be such an asshole. I got why he was frustrated with Riley. Hell, the boy pissed me off multiple times every day, but I could tell he was hurting. He wouldn’t be half as much of a pain in the ass if Lawson showed the least bit of real concern for him. All he cared about was how Riley wasted his money or how his actions looked to others. He was a person, not a fucking showpiece.
“I’ll go see if he wants something now,” I said.
“Whatever he’s done, don’t be too hard on him.”
“I won’t, but he’s got to give a little. I want him to succeed, but if he doesn’t change his attitude, that’s not going to happen.”
“Isn’t there one of the younger hands that could help him out a little?”
“Maybe Casey.” He was also out and about Riley’s age. “They mostly just see him as the boss’s son, so they’re hesitant to talk to him. I would be his friend if he’d let me.”
She narrowed her eyes. “Don’t tell me you don’t see how hard that boy is crushing on you.”
Shit. I didn’t think anyone else had noticed. “That doesn’t mean I can’t help him.”
“No, it doesn’t. But you need to be careful.”
She was right, but I was tired of being careful, tired of the tension between us, tired of catching him looking at me and wanting to take him in hand in every possible way. “I know what I’m doing, Maryellen. Which room is he in?”
“Upstairs, second on the left.”
“Thanks.” I braced myself for confrontation and headed toward Riley’s room.
I knocked softly, hoping his father was still down in his office. The last thing I needed was to get caught in Riley’s room.
When I got no response, I tried the door. It wasn’t locked, so I let myself in. Riley was face down on top of his comforter, sound asleep. I could’ve turned around and left. He was safe, and I wasn’t going to wake him to rehash what had happened when we could talk the next day.
But I didn’t leave. I walked to the bed and very carefully eased myself down until I was sitting on the mattress. Riley’s eyelashes were damp, and I could see the tear tracks on his face. I wanted to march downstairs and tell his father exactly what I thought of his parenting skills.
Riley might lack discipline, but he didn’t deserve to be demeaned. I reached for the blanket that was folded at the end of the bed and pulled it up over him. He smiled softly and made a contented little sound. I wanted to hear more from him, gasps and pants as he let me know how much he needed me, but that wasn’t going to happen. I forced myself to stand up and slowly backed out of the room, closing the door without a sound.
The next morning, I beat Blake to the barn for the first time since the day I’d arrived. I wasn’t sure why I’d bothered though. I couldn’t seem to make myself give in and accept that Blake was trying to help me, even if I knew it was true, and after last night, it was obvious my father was never going to believe I could do anything right.