“Come here, boy.” Blake pulled me to him again. “I want you to see what you can do on your own, but you have my number, and if you call me, I’ll answer. Just remember that you have everything you need right here”—he tapped the side of my head—“and right here.” He laid a hand over my heart.
“But if I need you…”
“If you really need me, no matter what and no matter when, I’ll come for you. I would do anything for you, boy.”
“I lo—” love you. “Thank you, Daddy.”
My breath caught as I imagined Riley finishing the sentence he’d started. I love you. I longed to say those words to my sweet boy, but it would be the worst timing ever. He needed to know he could be okay without me. He could do this on his own, knowing I was there if he needed me. It was probably good I’d be over four hundred miles away, so I couldn’t run to his rescue on a daily basis.
As I’d waited for Riley, Andy from the KC next door had texted to ask if we needed any help during calving. In the past, we’d borrowed one or two of their hands. I wrote back, giving him a brief rundown of what had happened. He’d offered me a place to stay on their ranch, but I’d known that would be too hard—on me and on Riley. Calving would be over in a month, and Riley would have to leave. By then I wasn’t sure where I would be. I couldn’t hide out with my mom forever, even though right now I just wanted to curl up by her big fireplace and hide under some blankets. I knew people made mistakes, but this was a fucking big one. It was going to be hard as hell to find a job as good as this with no reference from Lawson. Ken and Andy would likely give me a reference, but I hated to ask since I’d never actually worked for them.
How long had I been lost in thought? I shook my head, trying to clear it. “I’m sorry. This is all just…”
Riley traced my cheekbone with his thumb. “Are you going to be okay? Really? Because once this is done, if I get my money—”
“No, Riley. I’m not going to take your money. I have a lot in savings, and I will ultimately find a job on another ranch. I might have to work my way up again, but I’ve got the skills to do it.”
“You’re incredible, Blake. In every possible way.”
I slid my hands into his hair, holding on to him as I lowered my lips and brushed them over his. He leaned in, obviously wanting to deepen the kiss, but I didn’t let him. “I should go. You have work to do.”
“I don’t want to say goodbye. I don’t want this to be the end.”
I kissed his forehead gently. “It’s not the end, Riley. It’s a new beginning.”
“Not for us. It’s—”
I laid a finger over his lips. “Boy, believe in yourself. Do this, and we’ll see what the future brings.”
“Do you mean we could—”
“I mean don’t let all the work we’ve done go to waste. Get what you deserve. Find your direction, and I’ll support you.”
Riley took a shaky breath. “I’m scared I’ll never see you again.”
The thought of that made me feel sick. “You will see me again. I’m not going to say exactly when or where or how, but I promise you that, okay?”
“O-okay.” Riley sniffled. His eyes shone with tears, and I knew he was fighting hard not to cry. I wanted to pull him into my arms and tell him I’d take him with me after all, but there was no way in hell I would take away his chance to be self-sufficient.
“Tell me ten things you know about this ranch.”
That made Riley smile. “Just ten?”
“Just ten, but they all have to be different things than what you told me last night.”
He closed his eyes, and I watched his chest rise and fall for several seconds. Then he did it, naming facts about roundups and things about all the paperwork he hated. He didn’t pause even once.
“That’s my boy. You can do this, and if you start to feel like it’s too much, pause and do exactly what you just did. Think of ten things you know and remind yourself how capable you are.”
He looked only slightly less sad. “But I won’t have you here to discipline me when I fuck up.”
“You’ll just have to imagine it for now.”
His eyes lit up then. “If I keep track of everything I do wrong, will you…”
“I promise we’ll see each other again. I don’t think we should say more than that.”
I wondered if that would be the last time I’d ever hear those words from him. I would see him again. I wouldn’t break that promise, but by then, he might be a very different person, one who no longer believed he needed a Daddy.