Shock seemed to have frozen both their faces, but they stood, too.
“Yes, of course,” her mother said. “Perhaps we could go to the Newberry Inn. You always loved it.”
She smiled, unwilling to admit she didn’t remember the inn. “Twelve-thirty? Why don’t we meet there?”
Colin moved even faster than she did. He was holding out her parka by the time she reached the front door, and helped her into it before putting on his own.
Marc held out his hand to Colin. “Thank you for bringing Maddie to us.”
“I’m glad I was able to.”
The two men shook. He nodded at Nell’s mother. “Mrs. Dubeau.”
“My husband has mentioned you. You were one of the police officers who came to talk to us the night Maddie disappeared, weren’t you?”
“Yes, I was. Brand-new on the force.”
“Maddie?” Her father touched her arm, his expression softer. “We’ve dreamed about this. You walking in the door. We’re more grateful than you can know to have you here.”
She nodded and offered a smile that wobbled. Tears burned her eyes again. “Yes. It’s been...” She didn’t know what it had been and gave up the attempt to put her complicated feelings into words. “Um...good night.”
Again, Colin guided her down the porch steps and the walkway, this time with a hand on her back. He unlocked his big SUV and came around to the passenger side with her, as if unsure she could get in without help.
A moment later, they were backing out, Nell very aware of her parents still standing on the porch, watching them go.
* * *
COLIN KEPT AN anxious eye on Nell during the drive home. She stared straight ahead, her hands locked together on her lap.
A block or so from the Dubeau home, he observed, “Not quite what I expected.”
“No” was all she said, in a small, almost stricken voice.
He stayed silent after that, thinking she needed time to absorb the reunion with her parents.
But when they got home and she immediately headed for the staircase to the apartment, he said brusquely, “You don’t need to be alone yet, Nell. Come and have a cup of coffee with me. We can talk as much or as little as you want.”
She stopped, her back to him. It was a long time before she turned and nodded. Even given that the outdoor lighting leached color from the scene, her face was ghostly pale, her eyes huge and dark.
Colin took her arm again, more to reassure himself that she was here and real than because he thought she needed the physical support.
He left her in the living area while he put coffee on to brew, but was able to watch as she wandered, studying the books on his shelves rather than sitting down. When he joined her, she glanced at him.
“You’re a reader.”
“I am. I use the library plenty, but I like owning books, too.”
“You haven’t graduated to an eReader yet?”
“I’m digging in my heels,” he said, going for relaxed. If she needed to ground herself with the commonplace, that was what they’d do. “If I did a lot of traveling, I’d probably want one. As it is, I like the feel and look and smell of books. I’ve never been a fan of reading lengthy documents on my computer. You?”
“I love books, too.” She gave a small, choked laugh. “I guess you know that.”
He smiled. “You dropped some at my feet the first time we met.”
“So I did.” Her smile widened, then faded as she searched his face with huge, desperate eyes. “Thank you for coming with me. I might have chickened out if you hadn’t been there.”
“Dragging you up to the door?” He smiled again. “You marched right up there without any pressure from me. You’d have done it, Nell.”
She jerked one shoulder. “Maybe. I don’t know. I panicked at the end. You probably noticed—I practically ran out.”
“The whole visit was awkward.”
“Yes.” She nibbled on her lower lip. “I was afraid they’d weep and want to clutch me, but...instead they were so stiff. I don’t know which is worse.”
He understood. She had to be wondering right now how glad her parents were for her to come back from the dead.
“Maybe my being there inhibited them.”
She looked away. “If you had spent years fearing your sister was dead, and she came knocking on your door, would you even notice another person was with her?”
A question he didn’t want to answer. “What matters is how you felt, Nell. Did alarms go off? Memories stir? What do your instincts say about their reaction?”
He knew he’d taken the right tack when the most obvious of her distress eased and her eyes unfocused, as though she were replaying a movie in her head.