green II

The phone rings only once before a woman sounding entirely too nice to do any sort of business with Thorne Baxter answers. The sweetness of her voice makes Riley want to hang up at once. Pretend she didn't get through. Lie and say the number was no good. Anything to keep her boss out of this poor lady's life. But nothing doing. He's sitting right there, watching expectantly as she moves systematically down the scrawled list of numbers he shoved at her within seconds of sitting down.

"Yes, hello. Are you...are you someone I could talk to about goats?" Riley has no idea how to phrase her request, largely because she doesn't comprehend it. Baxter rarely gives her more than the bare minimum of instruction to go on, when he assigns her a task. He prefers to keep her slightly unsure, so that when she inevitably asks questions, he can be impatient with her for not understanding. And so Riley has learned to pay extremely close attention at all times, in hopes of knitting together the random strands of Baxter's desires ahead of his expectation that she fulfill them.

It is exhausting.

It is, thankfully, part-time.

Mercifully (it's the third number down on the list and Thorne is getting annoyed at her poor success rate), the woman on the other end of the line is indeed someone to talk to about goats.

"Wonderful," gushes Riley, hoping to offset her boss's inevitable future rudeness with as friendly a tone as possible now. "I'm afraid I've never rented goats before, so you might have to walk me through the--"

"Buy!" snaps Baxter. "I don't want to rent them I want to buy them!" He rolls his eyes at his assistant's incompetence, and Riley catches Grant Bloodworth politely look down at his coffee.

"Actually we'd like to buy them, sorry. Do you have any to, ah, sell?" Riley has to shout this last, as Baxter has chosen this moment to finally explain to her what it is he wants. (I just want four or five goats to live on one of my properties and clear the grass. That's all. Tell her I just want to buy some goats, I'll pay whatever she wants, but they need to be delivered today or tomorrow. Just find me some goats. Come on, girl!) 

This new information doesn't matter, however, because the woman on the phone has just inquired of Riley where the goats are wanted. And they are wanted some four hundred miles away from where they currently exist. "Oh, you're in Sonoma..." repeats Riley for the benefit of her boss. "That might be too--"

"Hang up! Just hang up!" (Which she does, but only after thanking the woman kindly for her time. Because no matter how poorly her boss might conduct himself in his business and interpersonal affairs, Riley has pledged not to let him rub off on her.)

Grant is first to break the silence following the call. He puts a hand lightly across Riley's wrist. "Darling, I can find you goats. My dear friend Alex has a massive orchard, and keeps several of them. I'll speak to him and then pass his info along to you."

Riley could kiss him. Not for the referral, which she suspects won't be good enough for Baxter (it isn't) but for his gesture of warmth in front her boss. Any reminder that she is flesh and bone and feeling, not some robot to be loaded up with commands and functions. She silently renews her determination to use today's brunch as another such a reminder. Riley sits up straighter in her seat as the waiter approaches.

"I want my usual. The Baxter omelet." Thorne hasn't even given the waiter a chance to speak. "What's your name? Mario. Mario, listen. I'm gonna take care of you, okay? But listen to what I want. I just want the omelet I always get, ask Sally, you know who Sally is? Good. Ask Sally what I get. She knows. Just the omelet and two plates. We're gonna split it." At this he waves a hand dismissively toward Riley. In all the time she has worked for him, in all the restaurant meals they have shared together, not once has she been allowed to order for herself. So this is no surprise.'s Saturday. And, she reflects, I wasn't even supposed to work today. This is my day off. I'm doing him a favor, by even coming here today. I'm basically being a wingman, and he knows it. It's Saturday, she repeats to herself, gathering the courage to speak up. 

"Could I just..." Riley puts out a hand to receive one of the menus the waiter holds. But Thorne is having none of it. "No, just the omelet for the two of us." He yanks the menu out of her reach. She blinks, fast, while Grant orders his own breakfast.

Again it is Grant who cuts the tension. "What is it you don't like?" he puts to Riley, and she recognizes the opportunity to use an allergy, or a strong food aversion to explain why she wants to order something else.

But Riley can't help herself. Months of biting her tongue have left her with nothing the faint taste of blood in her mouth. "Being told what to do," she says dryly. Half-hoping the humor of the remark will carry her safely across the grave she probably just dug herself. Knowing, of course, that it won't. Even Grant winces, splashing his cup down heavily.

"Then you can bring your own money next time." Thorne's retort is barbed, certainly, but there's something even nastier in it. Something resentful. Riley isn't sure what it is, but she supposes it has to do with her boss's need to keep her as low--and lowly--as possible. A king doesn't feel kingly without servants to provide contrast. And Thorne Baxter needs desperately to feel himself a king.

Riley knew it was coming, had walked herself right into it. Still, it stung. They always did, Baxter's snipes. The trick was to shrug it off and quickly change the subject before he got himself worked up to even more anger.

And as luck with have it, a change of subject had just arrived at the table. Five foot five. Curvy, dark-haired, and dark-complected. In a graphic t-shirt (I rock, you roll), sleek black riding pants, and lightly clutching a dove grey ostrich Birkin. A single statement ring coiled like a tiny gold snake around olive-skinned fingers polished in cocoa. This must be her boss's date. Naturally Riley knows next to nothing about the woman, who greets her with a flashy smile as Riley excuses herself from the booth.

"So nice to meet you. I've got to make some calls about goats, and rather than shout in everyone's ears I think I'll just step outside..."

"Goats?!" the woman, introduced now as Mia, exclaims with delight. "I love goats!" Riley catches the flicker of irritation that crosses Thorne's face. Took the attention away from you, did I, old boy? Made my job sound interesting and fun? Have to acknowledge that goats are lovely and lovable animals and not just more bodies for you to boss around?

Riley was glad to have a reason to escape for a few minutes. She took her time making calls, learning about the various species of goats available, leaving voicemails for the ranchers to which she was referred. More than anything she wanted to be able to return to the table triumphant, to announce that suitable, geographically close goats had been found. Alas. When Riley returned to the table it was to declare her failure. Just as Baxter preferred it.

At least the food had arrived. Something to keep her boss happy for a full ten minutes. And, Riley as soon realized, the arrival of Mia was an even better addition to the table. Because Mia--despite every aspect of her appearance suggesting otherwise--was definitely another ally.