“What do you want me to do, sir?”
Ryland started making his way around the desk. “We’ve been trying to push a farmer into our employ. Stubborn old coot named Davy. Doesn’t want our protection for a share of food from his farm. I want you to persuade him.”
A cold knot formed in my stomach.
“All due respect sir, I think this is the kind of job better suited to your regular scavengers.”
Ryland stopped in front of me and folded his arms over his chest. “They gave me their opinion on you, too. They think you’re weak. A coward too afraid of doing what you have to do for your family.”
Rage bubbled under my chest. I couldn’t control myself this time.
“You’re not my family.”
Ryland didn’t wince at the dangerous growl in my voice. He showed no emotion at all.
“We’re the only family that matters. Your other family is dead. Because they were weaker than you.”
Ryland shoved hard against my shoulders. I stumbled back. “I made you stronger.” Another push, another stumble. “I made you better.” Harder this time, almost toppling me over. “I made you a man.”
He pushed me again. When I stumbled, my back hit the wall.
“And all you do is whine and cry like your bratty siblings did.”
My temper snapped before I could realize what I was doing. I surged forward and drew back my fist, ready to knock out Ryland’s teeth. Which was exactly what he wanted me to do.
He knocked my hand away and slugged me in the jaw. Nearly dislocated the damn thing. My head was sill spinning when another punch collided with my right cheek and snapped my head to the side. Two hits smashed into my ribs and stomach, winding me.
Ryland’s enormous hand curled around my throat and yanked my head back to the wall. He bashed my head against it, squeezing my throat closed.
“You need to stop assuming you’re special,” he growled. “I brought you in because I saw something in you. A strength to survive. You could be someone great if you quit thinking you’re the only one who has it rough. You want those boys to respect you? Do something to earn their respect. Show that old farmer where his place is.”
Show him his place. Beat him to a pulp. They were the same thing in Ryland’s mind. I’d heard about Davy and his stubbornness when it came to his farm. He was tough to be sure, but he was fair. He didn’t form allegiances to one marauder Clan, because he knew everyone was equally desperate. He gave some to us, some to other Clans, and some of the underground colonies when they came up for Scavenging Day. Secluding him to us alone would make dozens of survivors suffer.
More than that, I didn’t have it in me to hurt an innocent old man doing his best in a broken world. Ryland had toughened me up, but I kept my morals in place. I would never break them, no matter what he did to me.
“No,” I rasped out.
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