The wrath of an angry pregnant woman scared him almost as much as Keely’s dad. “I promise.”
Jack went to find his cowgirl.
Two vehicles were in the parking lot at Quarter Past Midnight Stables. A Dodge Ram with Colorado plates and Keely’s dirty, beat up black Ford. Jack almost kissed the bug-covered grille.
The office door was unlocked. A buzzer sounded and within a couple minutes a bleary-eyed woman appeared in the enclosed office space. She slid open the glass partition. “Help ya with something?”
“Ah. Yeah. I’m looking for Keely McKay.”
The bleariness vanished and her focus turned razor sharp. She flipped her long, gray braid over her shoulder and folded her arms across her abundant cleavage. “And who would you be?”
“Never heard of ya.” She slammed the partition and turned her back on him.
Jack rapped on the glass. “Darla? AJ McKay said I could find Keely here. I saw her truck in the parking lot. I know she’s here somewhere. Please. I need to see her.”
Darla whirled back around but didn’t open the glass window.
She studied him. “You say you talked to AJ?”
“Yeah, she gave me hell too.”
“I always liked that girl.” Darla shook her finger at him. “Keely’s in the south white barn. If she don’t want you here, I’ll escort you off the premises with my shotgun, we clear?”
Darla hit the switch that unlocked the gate.
Jack forced himself not to run when he saw the white metal siding of the barn on the south end of the property. The door was already open. The pungent odor of horseflesh and horseshit blasted him as he walked in.
The dim lighting revealed little beyond twelve stalls lined up, six on each side. Very quietly he started down the center section and tiptoed past curious horses until he found her.
Keely had her back to him. Her glossy black braid hung past her shoulder blades. She wore a flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up. Faded jeans tucked into old shit-covered boots. One hundred percent country cowgirl. One hundred percent his.
Keely McKay was his. She belonged to him.
The self-admission was not the shock to his system he’d imagined. He suspected he loved her all along and he’d fought it, creating elaborate excuses and lying to himself that sex and circumstance made him feel this way. But as Jack looked at her, he really saw her. Her. The woman who owned him.
He’d found the once in a lifetime, bone deep, straight to the soul kind of love he’d never believed in.
For the longest time, Jack watched the woman he loved combing the Quarter Horse. Murmuring to it, running her hand across the withers. Keely pressed her face into the horse’s neck and tried to keep her shoulders from shaking as she cried.
Her every tear felt like a drop of acid on his heart. Jack didn’t deserve her, but he took a step toward her, toward their future together anyway. Would she let him soothe her? Kiss away her tears? He’d promise her the damn moon if she’d stay with him. If she’d give him another chance.
But would she ever love him the way he loved her?
Keely swiveled around at his approach, eyes swollen and nose red from crying. She still looked beautiful. His gut clenched knowing her misery was his fault.
When she didn’t yell at him, insult him, or ask him what the fuck he was doing here, Jack knew he had an uphill climb. A spitting mad Keely he could handle. But Keely seemed…defeated. And he didn’t know how to handle that. Waltzing in here and declaring his love for her would only muddy the waters. She probably wouldn’t believe him anyway. It’d keep.
“How’d you find me?”
“I called AJ.”
She stopped brushing the horse for a second. Then she resumed the long strokes. “I’m gonna kick her ass. She shouldn’t have told you.”
“I begged her.”
“Why? I’m surprised you even noticed I left.”
“I did. Look. I’m sorry you got stuck with Martine tonight.”
“Are you really?”
“Yes. Did Martine really corner you in the bathroom?”
Keely didn’t miss a beat in her horse grooming. “How did you find out?”
“A woman named Gina overheard the conversation.”
“Fuckin’ awesome. Did this Gina laugh about it when she told you?”
“No. She’s not like that, Keely.”
“Well, she’d be about the only one in that lousy group of women.” Brush brush brush. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter.”
“It matters to me.”
A snort. Hers or the horse’s?
“Why’d you leave without telling me?”
“Because I don’t answer to you, Jack, and I didn’t need your permission to leave. I needed to get away.”
Jack dry-washed his face and forced himself to stay calm. “Fine. But I’m here. Will you talk to me now?”
“Nothin’ left to say.”
“I was wrong about a lot of things.”
Fuck being polite. “Me too, Keely. Wrong to insist you go to that stupid cocktail party in the first place. Wrong to leave you at Martine’s table, subjected to her ugly whims. Wrong not to notice you were gone until it was too fucking late. If anyone is in the wrong here, it’s me. Not you.”
Keely spoke lowly to the horse. Gave him one last pat on the rump before she picked up a bucket and exited the stall.
Jack stood aside from the gate to let her out. She never looked at him. He was undeterred by her coolness and he followed her to the tack room.
She put away the supplies and hung the bucket on a wooden peg. Ignoring him. Killing him with aloofness.
“Talk to me, goddammit.”
“What do you want me to say? I went so far beyond my comfort zone tonight that I lost myself? But in some respects it only made me realize how different we are?”
“We’re not that different.”
“Really? I don’t live my personal or professional life in the shadow of expectations from others,” she shot back.
“And I do? That’s the type of man you think I am?”
Finally Keely looked at him. “That is the type of man you are, Jack. Instead of being who you are on the inside all the time, you change who you are to fit the circumstances.”
That stung. But it wasn’t the point. Why was Keely making this about him? She was the one who’d been ambushed by Martine. She was the one who’d bolted from the party. And not because she’d suddenly realized some startling truth about his business acumen—or lack thereof. She was focusing on him, his flaws, rather than the issue at hand. How badly she’d been hurt.
Clever. Sneaky. But he wouldn’t let it slide.
Jack stalked her. Her spine hit the tool bench; he curled his hands around her biceps. “I’m sorry. I’m a total and complete fuck up. A total and complete jackass. I will let you yell obscenities and scream insults at me to your heart’s content, but first I need you. I need this.” He lowered his mouth to hers and kissed her. He kept kissing her until she responded with the sweetness, goodness and heat that filled the empty part of his soul. He hadn’t understood the depth of the missing piece until she came into his life.
He whispered kisses along the elegant line of her neck. “Please. Come back with me, cowgirl.”
“I won’t be paraded through the hotel like a naughty child who’s run away and is back to face the music. And it goes beyond me not wanting to run into Martine.”
“Does it go beyond you not wanting to be with me?”
“I don’t know.”
Another direct hit. “Well, buttercup, you can’t sleep in this barn, though I’m sure you’ll point out as a Wyoming tough girl you’ve done it more than once.”
“That would be true. And horses are better company than people. They don’t judge. They don’t talk back.”
“Yeah, but they smell like shit and try to throw you on your ass at every opportunity.” He saw her lips twitch. “Besides, I won’t let you drive back to Wyoming this time of night by yourself. Whatever you do, stay here, or go back to the hotel, I’ll be with you.”
Keely absentmindedly brushed tufts of hair from her cheek. “I’ll stay at your condo until I can leave tomorrow.”
“Either I stay at your place or I hit the road. Choose.”
“My place it is.”
They’d crawled under the covers; a chasm yawned between them as wide as the bed. Close but not touching. Not sleeping. Keely faced away from him. He stared at the ceiling, a million thoughts raced in his head. None coherent.
Jack finally asked her the question that’d bugged him all night. Been bugging him for years, actually.
“Keely, do you think I’m shallow?”
She rolled over. “Sometimes. With some things. But I don’t think you’re as shallow as you pretend to be.”
Jack frowned. “Meaning what?”
“If you wear expensive suits, live in a swanky condo and drive a pricey car, people will think you’re successful.”
“That makes me shallow?”
“No. That makes them shallow because that’s all they see. Are you successful because you care about other people’s perceptions? Or are you successful because you want to be?”
“What do you think?”
“I think you’re successful because you love what you do, Jack. The money is just a bonus.”
He smiled in the darkness.
“But it’s easy to get trapped in that name brand mindset. To start to believe that what’s on the outside—what you wear, where you live, what you drive, where you’ve been—is more important than who you are inside those trappings.”