A stirring of arousal had him trying to block that particular speculation.
“How was your day?” she asked, then wrinkled her nose. “That sounds Stepford-wife, doesn’t it? Sorry.”
“I like that you asked,” he said, tugging at the knot on his tie. “And my day was routine. Let me change clothes.”
Once he was more comfortable in jeans and a sweatshirt, he followed the sound of running water to the kitchen.
“I’m best at Italian. I hope you like it.”
“Love it. Is there anything I can do?”
She shook her head, then changed her mind. “I haven’t looked for place mats yet, or whatever you use.”
“I’ll set the table.” He didn’t tell her he couldn’t remember the last time he’d taken a place mat from the drawer in the buffet. He ate at the breakfast bar, rarely lingering. He did cook for himself, unlike when he was younger and more likely to grab a bite on the way home, but he didn’t make a production out of the dining part. Why bother, when he was alone?
Steam rose from the stockpot on the stove, and Nell measured out spaghetti and let it slide into the boiling water. Then she stirred the sauce bubbling beside it, tasted a small sample and said, “Yum.”
His stomach grumbled.
“I’m amazed at how much the town has grown,” Nell commented, clearly feeling the need to make conversation. “My memory is good enough to know it didn’t look like this when I left.”
“No. I’ve been here while the growth happened, and still have moments of disbelief.”
“Is it all because of the new Nordic Center?”
“That was a catalyst, but the tourist industry in this entire region of central Oregon is booming. We’re getting a lot of retirees, too. Good medical care, clean air, plenty of recreational and cultural opportunities. Bend and Sun River have gotten so expensive, newcomers started looking to towns like La Pine and Angel Butte, up north to Redmond. The skiers still have reasonable access to Mount Bachelor, but they can live a little cheaper and with less crowding.”
“If you say so.” She wrinkled her nose. “I’ll concede Angel Butte doesn’t look like Seattle or the suburbs yet, although there’s more resemblance than there used to be.” She turned off one burner. “Do you want to dish up at the stove, or should I use serving bowls?”
“We can dish up here. Let’s save on the washing up.”
She grinned impishly at him. “Is that because I’m the cook and therefore you’re the washer-upper?”
Wow. An emotion he hardly understood slammed him, leaving him unable to give her a light answer. This was the first time he’d seen her face relaxed, her eyes alight with humor. Was this what she’d been like before, with a few words, he’d threatened the life she so carefully built?
I know you.
He had been so damn happy to find her, he hadn’t let her obvious fear and resistance stop him.
“What’s wrong?” she whispered, and he realized her smile had vanished and she was staring at him with wide-eyed alarm.
“Nothing.” Self-recrimination came a little late, didn’t it? And he still didn’t know whether she was better off recovering her past. “I’m sorry. It was, uh, the way you were smiling. I haven’t seen you do a lot of that.”
Her eyes searched his. “You haven’t seen me at my best.”
He remembered the snippet captured by the television camera, when she’d spoken so softly with that pathetically young and very pregnant teenager, then hugged her so gently.
“I wouldn’t say that.” He cleared his throat. “Just...not happy, I guess. That’s what hit me. Maybe you were before I blew your safe little world out of the water.”
“The first day, that’s what I thought... Oh!” she exclaimed, turning to the stove. She mumbled to herself in obvious exasperation as she snatched the heavy pan off the burner.
Once they’d dished up and sat down, he got her talking about her day. The nuances of her voice were familiar, but now he could watch the flickers of expression on her face, too. During their phone calls he’d craved the sight of her.
She told him about the two teachers she’d managed to talk to, one of whom she didn’t remember at all and who she thought remembered her only because of the publicity surrounding her disappearance. Her face softened when she talked about the other teacher, though, a Mrs. Chisholm.
“She was the best. Even I hadn’t managed to forget her,” she said with a little laugh. “We hugged, and she had tears in her eyes.”
“Hey...” Fork halfway to his mouth, he paused. “I had a Mrs. Chisholm for freshman English. Big, strong woman?”