Riley gripped his best friend’s arm and hauled him around the back of the house. He ignored the concerned look Jack threw his way, the smile Donna threw him as they marched past, and the fact that Eli was wriggling in an attempt to get away. They came to a stop out of view of everyone, and Riley finally released Eli
“I can’t do it,” he blurted as Eli stepped back and away rubbing at his arm.
“What?” Eli asked, “And dude, you don’t know your own strength.”
Riley’s fears vanished in an instant when he saw Eli massaging his arm. “Shit, did I hurt you.” Eli was cancer free, but Riley was always sure to be extra careful with Eli.
“Fuck off with the cancer pity,” Eli snapped his usual response. Then he braced himself and crossed his arms over his chest. “What can’t you do?”
Riley’s fears poked back at him, sharp and painful. “Deal with Hayley leaving us.”
“She isn’t though; she’s in Colorado studying, like a lot of other girls her age.”
Eli sighed. “Riley she won’t be alone, she’ll meet a guy, let’s call him Dave, and despite the tattoos and piercings and the motorbike he’ll love her, and only let her have the soft drugs.”
Riley sighed noisily. “You're not helping.”
“Dave will look after her all through the pregnancy.”
“Eli, for god’s sake. She’s…” Riley couldn’t even begin to vocalize the entire mess in his head where Hayley was on her own out there in the world without him and Jack backing her up. Not to mention being without all the other guys on this ranch who kept an eye on things when Riley couldn’t.
Eli stepped closer and placed a hand on his arm. “She’s what Riley? When I see Hayley, all I see is confidence and this bright love of life that just shines around her. She is loved and loves, and she is the most sensible person I’ve ever met.” Then he snorted a laugh. “She must get that from her mom.”
Riley couldn’t even rise to the familiar teasing. “What about her diabetes?” He could hear himself clutching at straws like an idiot.
Eli frowned at him. “When was the last time that was a problem?”
“It’s not that, but what about her medical checks and—“
“Riley, you need to breathe,” Eli shook him a little and Riley snapped out of it.
“I am breathing,” he murmured. “I’m just losing my shit here, and Jack is all calm and keeps saying things like ‘It’s only Colorado,’ and what am I supposed to say to that?”
“Do you remember our first year in college?”
“That’s not helping either,” Riley groaned and scrubbed at his eyes. “You know what I was like, there are boys out there and all they’ll want…” he trailed because no boy was going to treat Hayley like he treated girls in college. He only settled down a bit when he met Hayley’s mom, but he didn’t even treat her as well as he could. “What if someone like me… look… what if her heart gets broken and we’re not there to help.”
Eli hesitated for a moment, and he looked deadly serious. Riley waited for the words where Eli said that everything was going to be okay; words he could maybe believe.
“She’ll get her heart broken,” he said instead, and Riley tensed. That wasn’t what he was expecting. “She’ll meet this Dave, and he’ll hurt her, and she’ll likely hurt him, and there will be tears. She’ll even call you and Jack, and you’ll want to drive right up there and hug her, and probably kill Dave.”
“Dave would be a dead man,” Riley growled as an image of a mean biker landed in his head fully formed
“That’s part of being a dad. Look, the reason she can go to college is because you are here for her, and she knows that she can count on you always.”
“But something else, the biggest bravest thing she’ll do is solve things for herself without her dads.”
Everything Eli said was making sense; the anxiety settled a little. Hayley was a good kid, hell, she was a beautiful, confident young woman now.
“Since when did you get so wise?” Riley mused.
Eli shrugged. “Since Robbie and I did all this talking and thinking about what we wanted next. Y’know, children and all that.”
Riley held his breath, Eli worried his cancer would be back, and even though Robbie wanted children, he accepted that Eli was nervous. It had been enough just to get Eli to agree to marry him, let alone expand the family.
“And?” Riley asked, needing to focus on something other than his embarrassing meltdown.
“It's big, but we’ve talked to Marcus; he’s a good guy, says he’d help us work our way through it all.”
Riley pulled Eli into a close hug. “I’m pleased, this is huge,” he said. He didn’t just mean the expansion of Eli and Robbie’s family to three or more, but this was evidence that Eli had resolved some of the issues in his head around cancer, or at least come to terms with them.
“Don’t go telling anyone except Jack, not until Robbie and I have signed on the dotted line.”
Riley mimed zipping his lips and nodded. “Promise.”
The tantalizing scent of barbecue drifted their way, and Eli sniffed the air. “Let’s get food.”
Riley wasn’t feeling completely settled, but he listened to Eli, and he knew himself that Hayley would be fine; he was just an overprotective idiot who needed his head examining.
He couldn’t see Hayley when he and Eli got back to the barbecue, which was a shame because Riley wanted a hug right at this moment, but he was happy to carry Connor around on his back pretending to be a horse. He’d find Hayley in a bit.
And he would try his hardest to let her go to college without getting too emotional.
* * * * *
Hayley saw Logan the minute he arrived. Not that she’d been watching for him in particular. She just happened to be out front of the house, with Max, looking at the horses and he’d driven up in the beat up old truck that he spent ages working on. He parked and stepped out of the cab, rolling his neck and looking skyward.
He was finished with college soon, well at least the first chunk of it, following his dad, Hayley’s Uncle Josh into law. There was talk in the family that he would be working alongside Josh, and she hoped he would because that meant he’d come home soon.
He looked so good, tall, with the Campbell genes, dark hair that fell over his brow and nearly into his eyes. And his eyes. She didn’t have to get close to know their particular hue of blue. Her heart skipped a beat as he shut the door on the truck and hitched his jeans. He was gorgeous, and everything she wanted.
She’d loved Logan since she was nine. He was her future, her everything.
Movement from the other side of the truck had her focusing and then her chest tightened. A tall, leggy blond in heels tottered around the cab and fell into Logan who caught her and laughed. They talked for the longest time, hugged, and she cradled his face before pressing a kiss to his forehead. Then, hand in hand they walked toward the house.
And her heart was in pieces because the worst thing had happened.
Logan had found someone else.