“I’m not miserable. I don’t know how I could be miserable when I’m with you.”
It was all I could do not to kiss him. I wanted to badly, but while I was brave enough to hold hands with him on the streets of Houston, that was as far as I thought we should push things. “I’m glad I’ve been able to make this time all right for you.”
“It’s a lot more than all right. I think maybe…”
Riley stared at me, his eyes full of uncertainty. If he was about to say what I thought he was, I both wanted him to and didn’t. I knew I was falling for him, but I also knew I’d have to send him on his way much too soon.
“Come on.” I tugged on his hand. “Let’s keep walking, and you can tell me about what you wanted to be when you were a kid.”
Riley seemed reluctant at first, but once we’d walked a little ways, he said, “When I was really little and my mother was still alive, I wanted to run the ranch.”
His words knocked the breath out of me. “You did?”
“We lived in Houston then, and we only went out there on some weekends. My granddad still lived out here then, and my dad was focused on growing his company. The ranch was just a weekend house to him, but I always wanted to stay longer. My mom loved horses, and even though she explained the reality of what happened on a ranch, she let me pet the baby calves and watch them frolicking in the fields. My best memories of Mama are of us standing by the pasture fence in the warm sun with her holding my hand while we gazed at the cows and listened to the birds sing.”
I was so sad that he’d lost her. “Your mother sounds amazing.”
“What happened later, after she was gone, to make you stop wanting to run the ranch?”
“My dad didn’t want to live in the house I’d grown up in anymore after she was gone. He was different then, and I truly believe he loved her. Looking back, I realize he was struggling with depression and things weren’t going well with his company during the real estate crash. We moved to the ranch, and at first I thought that was going to be awesome, but my dad grew more and more bitter and wouldn’t let me do anything to help with running the place. He was always sending me away, telling me I was underfoot. He harped on me to focus on schoolwork instead of lazing around outside. As he became more and more obsessed with re-building his company and making money, he tried to make me care about those things too. He wanted me to be just like him.” Riley sighed and before I could respond, he continued.
“Eventually, instead of feeling like the ranch was a great place to get away and have some space, I started to feel trapped there, confined despite all the open land around me. I longed to be around more people, different kinds of people, especially once I realized I was gay. But most of all, I needed to be as far away from my dad as I could get.”
“You’re not like him at all,” I assured him.
“Thank you. Even at my brattiest I don’t think I was ever as mean as him. But the more he tried to force me into a box, the worse I behaved. None of the people who worked on the ranch liked me. I was doomed already by being my dad’s son, but I was always on the defensive.”
“That’s not true.”
He frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I liked you. Not like I do now—you were way too young, but I could see, even then, that you had a lot of good in you, but I don’t remember you being around the barn much.”
Riley laughed, but the sound was bitter. “Every time I did something wrong, my dad would take away my riding privileges, so I mostly stopped riding so he couldn’t hold that over me.”
I often imagined what it would have been like to grow up with horses in my own backyard. My mom couldn’t afford a horse for me, but she’d done everything she could to provide me with lessons including working at the stables to earn tuition credit. The hours I’d spent on horseback as a teen were some of my favorite memories. “That was wrong of him to take away something you loved like that, Riley. There were other ways to change your behavior.”
“He should have done a lot of things differently, but I should have too.”
“That may be so, but you were a kid, and you were just reacting to the way he treated you.”
Riley nodded. “I guess I was. For a while I thought if he was going to force me to major in business, I’d take it seriously and start a company that would do even better than his just to show him. But after taking my first business class, I realized how much I would hate that and decided I’d never be able to do it anyway. So, instead, I chose to do nothing at all besides spend as much of my dad’s money as I could. But you know what?”