He grunted, there in the darkness, because he didn’t know what to make of her, either. His fascination with Maddie he understood, but it wasn’t Maddie he was thinking about when he worried about her, or savored the idea of coming home tomorrow night to a woman in his house and good smells coming from the kitchen—and especially not when he found himself eyeing Nell’s subtle curves and wondering what she was hiding beneath too-loose clothes.
And then he thought about what she’d hinted at when she talked about her first months trying to survive on the streets of an unfamiliar city, and his gut clenched. He had a bad idea he knew how Maddie had learned to suppress the memories of home, and when he put that together with some ugly experiences with men when she was on her own... There was a reason, he thought, for those damn sacky clothes. Despite her pleasant demeanor with library patrons, Nell Smith had an aloofness he doubted many people had ever challenged.
It occurred to him she might not have been flustered when he insisted on holding her parka for her. She might have been scared because he was standing too close.
He swore under his breath.
Had Nell Smith ever trusted anyone?
“MADDIE DUBEAU.” MRS. Chisholm shook her head. “It’s really you.”
She’d said pretty much the same thing three or four times already, but Nell supposed her shock was understandable. Unfortunately, it made Nell feel like squirming. She hoped she got over it. Everyone who’d known Maddie was going to react pretty much the same way.
Of the teachers she had the fall semester when she disappeared, only three still taught at the high school. Two of those hadn’t awakened even a flicker of memory in her.
But the moment she saw the name Eva Chisholm, she’d pictured a raw-boned woman with no sense of style at all pacing in front of the class. Nell felt as though, if she strained, she could hear what Mrs. Chisholm was expounding on that day. In Nell’s memory, Mrs. Chisholm was just starting to gray, which made her old in Maddie’s eyes. Now, Nell realized the teacher might not even have been fifty.
Nell had slipped into the classroom after a bell rang and the classroom emptied. At the sound of the door, Mrs. Chisholm had glanced over her shoulder from where she was wiping a whiteboard clean. She had taken a couple of stumbling steps, then all but fallen into her chair.
“Maddie?” she had whispered. “Maddie Dubeau?”
Nell was having trouble moving her past the shock.
“You must have a class,” she said. “I was hoping I could arrange a time to talk to you.”
“This is my planning period. My goodness.” She pressed a hand that was large for a woman to her chest. “I can’t believe this. We all thought—”
“I know.” Nell smiled apologetically. She had already given an encapsulated explanation of the missing years. “I’m hoping...well, to learn more about myself by talking to people who knew me then. The minute I saw your name, I remembered you. That encourages me.”
In one way it did. In another, it scared her. Uncovering her history sounded like a good idea. It did. The reality of actually remembering made panic take wing inside her.
“I’m flattered,” Mrs. Chisholm said. She was almost homely, with the large bones and big feet and hands Nell remembered. But she also had kind eyes and a rich voice that belonged on public radio. The moment she’d said “Maddie,” Nell remembered the way she had read aloud so her students could hear the music in great literature.
“I have a minor in English,” she blurted. “I majored in psychology. I think I might have chosen English if I hadn’t been trying to figure out my own problems.”
Mrs. Chisholm beamed. “That certainly makes sense.” She paused. “Out of all my students, you’re memorable partly because of what happened, of course.”
Nell nodded her understanding. Mrs. Chisholm gestured to her to pull a chair up to the desk. It was, of course, a hard wooden chair with a straight back, the kind you hardly ever saw anymore except in a school. She found herself sitting primly, knees together and hands clasped on her lap. Like a slightly intimidated parent at an after-school conference? Or a student called in to explain her transgressions?
“I would have remembered you anyway,” the teacher continued slowly, as if reaching into the past. “You were very bright, of course, and you actually paid attention.” She chuckled suddenly. “You were one of the very few students I’ve ever heard read a part in Romeo and Juliet with passion and understanding. Only the once, and after that you were careful to plod along like all the other students did.”