Keely Welsh felt his presence before she looked up and saw him. It had been that way from the day she met Boone Sinclair, her best friend's eldest brother. The man wasn't movie-star handsome or gregarious. He was a recluse, a loner who hardly ever smiled, who intimidated people simply by walking into a room. For some unknown reason, Keely always knew when he was around, even if she didn't see him.
He was tall and slender, but he had powerful legs and big hands and feet. There were rumors about him that grew more exaggerated with the telling. He'd been in Special Forces overseas five years earlier. He'd saved his unit from certain destruction. He'd won medals. He'd had lunch with the president at the White House. He'd taken a cruise with a world-famous author. He'd almost married a European princess. And on and on and on.
Nobody knew the truth. Well, maybe Winona and Clark Sinclair did. Winnie and Clark and Boone were closer than brothers and sisters usually were. But Winnie didn't talk about her brother's private life, not even to Keely.
There hadn't been a day since she was thirteen when Keely hadn't loved Boone Sinclair. She watched him from a distance, her green eyes soft and covetous. Her hands would shake when she happened on him unexpectedly. They were shaking now. He was standing at the counter, signing in. He had an appointment for his dog's routine shots. He made one every year. He loved the old tan-and-black German shepherd, whose name was Bailey. People said it was the only thing on earth that he did love. Maybe he was fond of his siblings, but it didn't show. His affection for Bailey did.
One of the other vet techs came out with a pad and called in Bailey, with a grin at Boone. It wasn't returned. He led the old dog into one of the examination rooms. He walked right past Keely. He never looked at her. He didn't speak to her. As far as he was concerned, she was invisible.
She sighed as the door closed behind him and his dog. It was that way anyplace in town that he saw her. In fact, it was like that at his huge ranch near Comanche Wells, west of Jacobsville, Texas. He never told Winnie that she couldn't have Keely over for lunch or an occasional horseback ride. But he ignored her, just the same.
"It's funny, you know," Winnie had remarked one day when they were out riding. "I mean, Boone never makes any comment about you, but he does make a point of pretending he doesn't see you. I wonder why." She looked at Keely then, with her dark eyes mischievous in their frame of blond hair. "You wouldn't know, I guess?"
Keely only smiled. "I haven't got a clue," she said. It was the truth.
"It's only you, too," her friend continued thoughtfully. "He's very polite to our brother Clark's occasional dateeven to that waitress that Clark brought home one night for dinner, and you know what a snob Boone can be. But he pretends you don't exist."
"I may remind him of somebody he doesn't like," Keely replied.
"There was that girl he was engaged to," Winnie said out of the blue.
Keely's heart jumped. "Yes, I remember when he was engaged," she replied. It had been when she was fourteen, almost fifteen years old, just before he came back from overseas. Keely's young heart had been broken.
"It was just before you came back here to live with your mom," Winnie continued as if she'd read Keely's mind. "In fact, it was just about the time she started drinking so much more
" She hesitated. Keely's mother was an alcoholic and it was a sensitive subject to her friend. "Anyway, Boone was mustering out of the Army at the time. His fiancée rushed to Germany where he'd been taken when he was airlifted out of combat, wounded, and then
poof. She was gone, Boone came home, and he never mentioned her name again. None of us could find out what happened."
"Somebody said she was European royalty," Keely ventured shyly.
"She was distantly related to some man who was knighted in England," came the sarcastic reply. "Anyway, she ran out on Boone and he was bitter for a long time. So three weeks ago the phone rings and he gets a call from her. She's been living with her father, who owns a private detective agency in SanAntonio. She told Boone she'd made a terrible mistake and wanted to make up."
Keely's heart fell. A rival who had a history with Boone. It made her miserable just to think about it, despite the fact that she would never get close enough to Boone to give the other woman any competition. "Boone doesn't forgive people," she said, thinking aloud.
"That's right," Winnie replied, smiling. "But he's mellowed a bit. He takes her out on dates occasionally now. In fact, they're going to a Desperado concert next week."
Keely frowned. "He likes hard rock?" she asked, surprised. He looked so staid and dignified that she couldn't picture him at a rock concert. She said so.
Winnie laughed. "I can," she said. "He's not the conservative, quiet man he seems to be. Especially when he loses his temper or gets in an argument."
"Boone doesn't argue," Keely mused aloud.
He didn't. If he was angry enough, he punched. Never women, of course, but his men knew not to push him, especially if he was broody. One horse handler had found out the hard way that nobody made jokes at the boss's expense. Boone had been kicked by a horse, which the handler thought was hilarious. Boone roped the man, tied him to a post and anointed him with a bucket of recycled hay. All without saying a word.
Keely laughed out loud.
"What?" Winnie asked.
"I was remembering that horse wrangler.
Winnie laughed, too. "He couldn't believe it, he said, even when it was happening. Boone really does look so straitlaced, as if he'd never stoop to dirty his hands. His cowboys used to underestimate him. Not anymore."
"The rattlesnake episode is noteworthy, as well," came the amused reply.
"That cook was so shocked!" Winnie blurted out. "He was a really rotten cook, but he threatened to sue Boone if he fired him, so it looked as if we were stuck with him. He'd threatened to cook Boone a rattler if he made any more remarks about the food. He added a few spicy comments about why Boone's fiancée took a powder. Then one morning he looks in his Dutch oven to see if it's clean enough to cook in, and a rattlesnake jumps up right into his face!"
"Lucky for the cook it didn't have any fangs."
"The cook didn't know that!" Winnie laughed. "He didn't know who did it, either. He resigned on the spot. The men actually cheered as he drove off. The next cook was talented, and the soul of politeness to my brother."
"I am not surprised."
She shook her head. "Boone does have these little quirks," his sister murmured. "Like never turning on the heat in his bedroom, even in icy weather, and always going around with his shirts buttoned to the neck."
"I've never seen him with his shirt off," Keely remarked. It was unusual, because most of the cowboys worked topless in summer heat when they were branding or doctoring cattle. But Boone never did.
"He used to be less prudish," Winnie said.
"Boone, prudish?" Keely sounded shocked.
Winnie glanced at her and chuckled. "Well, I guess that really doesn't fit at all."
"No, it doesn't."
Winnie pursed her lips. "Come to think of it, he's not the only prude around here. I've never even seen you in a T-shirt, Keely. You always wear long sleeves and high necklines."
Keely had a good reason for that, one she'd never shared with anyone. It was the reason she didn't date. It was a terrible secret. She would have died rather than tell Winnie, who might tell Boone.
"I was raised very strictly," Keely said quietly. And she had been; for all their odd tendencies, both her parents had insisted that Keely go to Sunday School and church every single Sunday. "My father didn't approve of clothing that was too flashy or revealing."
Probably because Keely's mother propositioned any man she fancied when she drank. She'd even tried to seduce Boone. Keely didn't know that, and Winnie didn't know how to tell her. It was one reason for Boone's antagonism toward Keely.
Things would have been better if Keely knew where her father was. She'd told people she thought he was dead, because it was easier than admitting that he was an alcoholic, just like her mother, and linked up with a bunch of dangerous men. She'd missed her father at first. But she'd have been in more danger if she'd stayed with him.
She still loved him, in her way, despite what had happened to her.
"Come to think of it, Keely, you don't even date."
Keely shrugged. "I'm a vet tech. I have a busy life. I work on call, you know. If there's an emergency at midnight on a weekend, I still go to the office."
"That's a lot of hogwash," Winnie said gently as they paused to let the horses drink from one of the crystal-clear streams on the wooded property where they were riding. "I've even tried to set you up with nice men I know from work. You freeze when a man comes near you."
"That's because you work with the police, Winnie, and you bring cops home as prospective dates for me," Keely said mischievously. It was true. Winnie worked as a clerk in the Jacobsville Police Department's office during the day, and now she was doing a stint two nights a week as a dispatcher for the 911 center. In fact, she was hoping that job would work into something permanent, because being around Officer Kilraven all day when he was on the day shift was killing her.
"Policemen make me nervous," Keely was saying. "For all you know, I might have a criminal past."
Winnie wasn't smiling. She shook her head. "You're hiding something."
"Nothing major. Honest." What she suspected about her father, if true, would have shamed her. If Boone ever found out, she'd really die of shame. But she hadn't heard from her father since she was thirteen, so it wasn't likely that he'd just turn up someday with his new outlaw friends. She prayed that he wouldn't. Her mother's behavior was hard enough to live down as it was.
"There's this really handsome policeman who's been working with us for a few weeks. He's just your type."
"Kilraven," Keely guessed.
"Yes! How did you know?"
"Because you talk about him all the time," Keely returned. She pursed her lips. "Are you sure you aren't interested in him? I mean, you're single and eligible yourself."
Winnie flushed. "He's not my type."
Winnie shifted in the saddle uneasily. "He told me he wasn't my type. He said I was too young to be mooning over a used-up lobo wolf like him and not to do it anymore."
Keely gasped out loud. "He didn't!"
The older girl nodded sadly. "He did. I didn't realize that I was so obvious with it. I mean, he's drop-dead gorgeous, most women look at him. He just noticed more when I did it. Because I'm who I am, I guess," she added darkly. "Boone might have said something to him. He's very protective of me. He thinks I'm too naive to be let loose on the world."
"In his defense, you have led a sheltered life," Keely said gently. "Kilraven is street smart. And he's dangerous."
"I know," Winnie muttered. "There have been times that he's been in situations where I sweat blood until he walks back into the station. He's noticed that, too. He didn't like it and he said so." She took a long, sad breath and looked at Keely. "So you can know all about my private agony, but you won't share yours? It's no use, Keely. I know."
Keely laughed nervously. "Know what? I don't keep secrets."
"Your whole life is a secret. But your biggest one is that you're in love with my brother."
Keely looked as if she'd been slapped.
"I would never tell him," Winnie said quietly. "That's the truth. I'm sorry for the way he treats you. I know how much it hurts."
Keely shifted her eyes, embarrassed.
"Don't be like that," Winnie said, her voice gentle. "I won't tell. Ever. Honest."
Keely relaxed. She drew in a breath, watching the creek bubble over rocks. "It doesn't hurt anything, what I feel. He'll never know. And it helps me to understand what it might be like to love a maneven if that love is never returned. It's a taste of something I can never have, that's all."
Winnie frowned. "What do you mean? Of course you'll be loved one day! Keely, you're only nineteen. Your whole life is ahead of you!"
Keely looked at her friend, and her dark eyes were soft and sad. "Not that way, it isn't. I won't ever marry."
"But one day
She shook her head. "No."
Winnie bit her lower lip. "When you're a little older, it might be different," she began. "Keely, you're nineteen. Boone is thirty. That's a big age difference, and he thinks about things like that. His fiancée was only a year younger than he was. He said that people should never marry unless they're the same age."
Winnie sighed. "I've never talked about it much, but our mother was twelve years younger than dad. He died a broken man because she ran away with his younger brother. He always said he made a major mistake by marrying someone from another generation. It was just too many years between them. They had nothing in common."
Keely felt heartsick for the family. "Is your mother still alive?"
She bit her lip. "We
don't know," she said. "We've never tried to find her or our uncle. They married, after the divorce, and moved to Montana. Neither one of them ever tried to contact us again."
"That's so sad."
"It made Boone bitter. Well, that and then his fiancée cutting out on him. He doesn't have a high opinion of women."
"You can't blame him, really," Keely had to admit. She patted her horse's neck. "It's sad, isn't it, that we're both too young for the men we care about?"
"Only in their minds," Winnie returned. "But we can always change their opinions. We just have to find an angle. One that works."
Keely laughed. "Doesn't that sound easy?"
Winnie grimaced. "Not really." She tugged on the reins, backing her horse out of the creek. Keely followed suit.