Bull’s-eye. Martine’s maliciousness torpedoed any remnant of Keely’s confidence.
“Don’t kid yourself he’ll actually go through with marrying you. Every year, it’s the same sad story.
Jack shows up at the conference with his latest piece of ass. Young. Hot. Oblivious. Everyone knows he’s trying to make me jealous. Trying to prove to his male colleagues what a stud he is. We all laugh. It’s so pathetic. I’m sure you noticed all the staring and whispering you attracted. This is a small community, and you’ll find no one will take the time to befriend you. What’s the point? This time next year you’ll be gone.”
Don’t cry. God, do not give this woman the satisfaction of seeing your tears.
Martine rearranged wisps of her hair in the mirror. “I feel sorry for you. You’re as gullible as you look and you’ve fallen hard for Jack’s charm. My best advice is to keep that ring he’s given you. It’ll buy you a new horse or repairs on your truck or whatever pitiful thing you need after he dumps your mousy ass back in Wyoming.” She twirled on her heel and flounced out.
Blood scorched Keely’s cheeks. A sick feeling of betrayal and finality settled deep in her bones. She wasn’t sure she had the strength to move. But she didn’t have the strength to stay either. Not in the bathroom, not in the hotel, not in Colorado. Not with Jack.
Go home. It’s where you belong. She felt like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, when the phrase “There’s no place like home” repeated in her head as she trudged back to the room.
In something of a daze, Keely changed her clothes and packed her suitcase. Rather than chancing running into anyone, she bypassed the elevators and hoofed it down the stairs to the garage level where she’d parked her truck. Oddly, it fit her frame of mind to discover she’d parked on the lowest level.
After she’d cleared the Denver city limits, she realized she was in no shape to drive to Sundance.
Holing up in hotel didn’t appeal to her. She didn’t want to see anyone she knew or talk to anyone she knew.
Confessing Martine’s degrading remarks would be bad enough. But hearing platitudes about how she shouldn’t let Martine’s insecurities affect her would be much worse.
Martine’s words had cut to the bone. Maybe they were just nasty barbs, but barbs stung whether the connection with them was intentional or accidental.
All Keely wanted was to reconnect with herself. To remember who she was.
On autopilot, she drove to the refuge she’d fled to the years she’d lived in Denver. She’d always found herself here. But before she climbed out of her truck, she curled up in the bench seat and cried.
Jack had tuned out the speaker’s drone an hour ago.
About the last time he’d seen Keely.
And whose fault is that?
His. He’d been busy networking and hadn’t realized Keely had gotten stuck with the coven at Martine’s table until the dinner was over.
His gaze zeroed in on her empty chair again. Where the hell could she have gone?
Clapping echoed as the speech finally ended and he distractedly joined in. Immediately Jack was on his feet. When his colleagues stopped him to talk, he couldn’t very well walk away, since he’d attended the conference to work. By the time he’d made it out of the banquet room, another twenty minutes had passed.
And still no sign of Keely.
Jack was starting to get worried.
He turned as Gina Arguello approached him. When Jack lived in Chicago, he’d collaborated with Gina’s husband Donnie on a couple of projects and he’d been to their house for the occasional barbecue.
“Gina. Nice to see you. How are the kids?”
“Getting big and ornery.” She hesitated and twisted her wedding ring around her finger. “I’m happy to see you here. I know the last couple years were rough on you.”
“Brutal. But things are looking up. Was there something you needed?”
“Ah. Well, I don’t know if it’s my place to say this or not, but I accidentally overheard a conversation between your fiancée and…Martine.”
“An hour ago.”
An odd feeling of foreboding replaced any sense of relief. “Where was Keely when you heard it?
Because I’ve been looking for her.”
Gina blushed. “In the lady’s room. I’m pregnant and I wasn’t feeling well after dinner so I went to the restroom. I was about to come out of the last stall when I heard Martine start in on her.”
Shit. “What did she say?”
“Martine went off on this tirade about you. Then she started belittling Keely. It was vicious. If I thought I’d felt nauseous before, it was worse by the time Martine finished with her.”
Jack forced himself to stay calm. “Tell me all of it.” When Gina finished, Jack stared at her in absolute horror.
“I know I should’ve jumped in and put a stop to it, but I don’t want to tangle with Martine. Ever.
Donnie needs the consulting work with Baxter, especially with another kid on the way. I’m sorry—”
“It’s okay, you don’t have to apologize. There’s no way to stop the shit that Martine spews. Do you know where Keely went after Martine left?”
Gina shook her head. “I planned on talking to her and telling her Martine was full of lies, but when I left the stall, Keely wasn’t around.”
He squeezed Gina’s arm. “Thank you, Gina.”
His gut was tied in a mass of knots.
As he walked to the elevator, Jack dug out his cell phone and called Keely. Automatically the message kicked over to her voice mail.
He drummed his fingers on the handrail as the elevator whirred up to his floor.
Jack even managed not to take the length of the hallway at a dead run.
He inserted his key card and called out, “Keely?”
When he saw her key card on the dresser but no suitcase, all calmness evaporated.
She was gone.
“Goddammit straight to fucking hell, Keely McKay. Where the hell did you go?”
Jack called her cell phone again. He left another message.
Over the next hour, Jack called her cell phone twenty-seven times. He called her home phone twenty-nine times.
After nearly wearing holes in his shoes from pacing, he called information in Sundance. His heart raced as the phone rang. An irritated female voice snapped, “You’d better have a good reason for calling me this late, whoever you are.”
“AJ. It’s Jack.”
She went on alert so fast he felt her panic through the phone lines. “What happened?”
“Keely’s gone. She’s not answering her cell phone and I’m going crazy.”
“What did you do to her?”
“Nothing! I swear. We were at a business banquet, we got separated at dinner and evidently an old…girlfriend of mine said some upsetting things. Keely left without a word to me. I only know that much because a woman overheard their conversation.”
“So you guys weren’t fighting again?”
“Not this time.”
“When did this happen?”
“At some point in the last two hours she got in her truck and took off and… Shit, I’m worried because I know she’s upset. Jesus. I’m upset. And I will wring her neck if I find out she’s driving all the way back to Sundance this time of night by herself.”
AJ was quiet. “Let me try calling her. Maybe she’s just not answering your calls.”
Jack closed his eyes. “Thank you. Call me right back. Please. And if you do talk to her, tell her I’m sorry. So goddamn sorry and I had no idea that she’d gotten stuck—”
“Jack. Calm down. Let me try her first before you start relaying all the things you want me to tell her, okay?”
He flexed and smacked his fist into the mattress while he waited for AJ to call. His phone rang five minutes later. “What did you find out?”
“She’s not just ditching your calls. She didn’t answer when I called from my cell, or from the house phone, or even from Cord’s phone.”
“Either she’s really really pissed or she’s driving through Wyoming where there’s no cell service.”
“That doesn’t help much.”
“I don’t know what else to tell you.”
He didn’t buy it. “Where is she?”
“I don’t know.”
“She’s your best friend. What’s your gut feeling? Is she driving home?”
AJ sighed. “My gut feeling is no. She needed time alone to sort things out and she’s smart enough after the accidents in her family not to act rashly when she’s upset.”
“Where would she go?”
Jack knew AJ knew exactly where Keely had gone. “AJ. I know your first loyalty is to Keely. I get that. I wouldn’t ask if I wasn’t losing my fucking mind. Jesus. I need to make this right. She walked into something tonight that had nothing to do with her and I didn’t warn her. That part is my fault, okay? But that also means I need to fix it. Christ. I’ll do anything to fix it. Please. Just help me find her.”
AJ sighed again. “When we went to school in Denver and we were missing home, we’d head to the Quarter Past Midnight Stables. Keely got chummy with Darla, the owner, and exercised horses and cleaned stalls for fun. After I married Cord and moved home I know she spent lots of time there.”
Sounded like Keely. Making friends all over the damn place and finding fun and solace in a damn barn. “What if she’s not there?”
“There is another place she’s goes, but it’s much closer to home. We’ll cross that bridge if it comes down to that.”
“Thank you, AJ.”
“You’re welcome. After you find her, make her call me, Jack Donohue, so I know she’s okay. Or I swear to God I will sic her brothers on you. One at a time. Before I call Carson.”