He was brooding when Nell called to let him know she was free for the rest of the afternoon. He asked if they could have lunch, and she suggested her friend Hailey’s place.
“Give me fifteen or twenty minutes,” he said. “I have one call to make before I leave.”
That call was to Duane, who reacted explosively to the news that a potentially crucial piece of information had gone missing from one of his investigations.
“A boyfriend,” he muttered. “A guy older than her, someone nobody knew. Damn it, I know I had somebody go back and talk to the Henson girl! I just can’t remember who.” He grunted. “Please tell me Maddie remembers him.”
“No.” Colin didn’t say, but mention of his name scares the shit out of her.
“Why are you poking around in this?” Duane asked. “She’s home.”
“Because I don’t like leaving it hanging. The very fact that she’s home could make somebody nervous.” He hesitated. “She had a near miss last night, Duane. Could have been an accident, but it could as well have been deliberate. She was crossing the street and was almost hit.”
Duane swore. “I hadn’t thought. I should have. Hell. Did she see enough to give you a lead?”
“Unfortunately, no.” In what might seem like a non sequitur, he commented on the rising temperature. “Sounds like we might get a week or two above freezing.”
Duane knew what he was thinking. “The crew is back to work at the park this morning. The pile shouldn’t be in too bad shape. We had tarps spread over it.”
“Good,” Colin said. “Keep me on top of it. Hey. You haven’t seen Maddie yet, have you?”
“I didn’t want to push it. The poor kid has a lot to take in.”
“Not a kid anymore.”
Silence. “No. Damn, I still think of her...” He cleared his throat. “Anyway, I’m going to try to make it to dinner at Helen’s tonight.”
Oh, right. Of course Duane had been invited. “Good enough,” Colin said, and they signed off.
At least that investigation could move forward, he thought, leaving his office. He wished he thought they’d uncover something that would allow them to identify the victim.
He got lucky and found parking half a block from the café, where he’d eaten a number of times. He’d even seen the small plump woman who ran it. Guessing what color her hair would be in any given week amused him. He’d never heard her name, though, and had had no idea that she was connected to Maddie Dubeau.
Just the sight of Nell waiting for him gave him a jolt of pleasure. She must have just walked in, because her cheeks and nose were pink and her hair was messy, making him guess she’d worn a hat. She was trying to finger-comb it when she felt the draft from the open door and saw him.
“Hi,” she said, a little shyly, not at all as if he were the man who’d carried her to the bath last night.
Or maybe exactly because he had lifted her into his arms and seen her without her shirt. In a bra that had lived up to his expectations after he’d caught that glimpse of her socks. Picturing the saucy little bra and all that smooth, creamy skin made him wonder what she was wearing today beneath the too-sacky sweater.
He didn’t know what he said, but was glad to be seated immediately. He was good at controlling his facial expressions, but apparently not as good at suppressing his physical reaction to the woman who was trying to hide inside those boring clothes.
Damn it, why her? he asked himself, disturbed.
He had no answer, but couldn’t tear his gaze from her face.
Nell and he were halfway through lunch when her friend Hailey appeared to give him the once-over, which he withstood with good humor. He liked that she felt protective. He watched when she returned to the kitchen, then looked back at Nell.
“You’re still planning to have dinner with your parents tonight?”
“Yes, Mom called.” She sounded carefully neutral.
He only nodded, despite feeling a pang of regret. Sometimes he enjoyed having dinner with a woman, but a cancellation never bothered him, either. The time with Nell had been different. Sharing his house, having her seem at home in his kitchen. Talking as if they were old friends, if not more.
He wanted to be more, but was still convinced that would be a mistake. Nell was Maddie, which made any relationship between them complicated. Made her complicated. God knew this wasn’t a good point in her life.
She’d progressed to pushing bits of a lemon pastry around her plate. He suspected at best Nell wasn’t a big eater, but as little as he’d seen her actually put in her mouth and swallow, Colin worried she was going to start dropping weight she couldn’t afford to lose. He’d seen the same worry in her friend Hailey’s eyes as she brought them the flaky treats on plates and said, “No, don’t argue, these are on me.”