Finally standing again, she faced her brother. “Is this really what my room looked like then?”
“Messier,” he said. “Not bad, because Mom was so anal.” He grimaced. “Is so anal. You had a computer. I guess they got rid of that.”
“It would have been a little dated by now.”
He laughed. “No kidding. Um. There was a bulletin board. We weren’t allowed to ruin the walls by sticking thumbtacks in or using tape.”
She rotated until she was looking at the desk. “There, right over the desk.”
“Yeah.” He sounded a little gruff.
“This room looks like something out of a model home. Designed for a ten-year-old.”
“Mom didn’t pay much attention to what you wanted.”
She met his dark eyes. “What about you? Did you get what you wanted?”
He shifted, and she recognized his level of discomfort. “You really don’t remember, do you?”
Felix glanced over his shoulder, and she realized he was checking to be sure neither parent had followed them up the stairs. Then he looked at her, and pain was apparent in his eyes.
“Yeah, I mostly got what I wanted. Especially from Mom. She was always harder on you. I never understood.”
No, she didn’t remember, but Nell wasn’t surprised, either.
“Even when I was little, it was obvious. Her voice changed when she talked to you.”
“What about Dad?” Her voice was low.
He twitched a little. “He might have been more invested in me because I was a boy. I’m not sure. Mostly it wasn’t him, but he also didn’t notice or pay attention to stuff that should have been obvious.”
“I wondered if...” The words caught in her throat, but she felt as if they needed to be said. “If they’d have preferred I stayed tragically missing or dead.”
She could tell she’d shocked him, but she was determined to follow her thoughts to the logical conclusion. “They didn’t act the way most parents would when I showed up. Mom almost seemed mad because, wow, I put them through all that for nothing?” She drew a shaky breath. “It’s been weird.”
She suspected he wanted to deny it but couldn’t. “Things were strained at dinner,” he admitted after a minute.
“You should have been there when Mom and I had lunch the other day. We had the kind of conversation you make when a stranger politely lets you share her table because the café is jammed and there’s no other place to sit.”
That pained look was back in his eyes. “Mom tried to make you in her image.”
“I sort of looked like her, but I wasn’t pretty.”
He did some more squirming. Nell realized how far out of his comfort zone this conversation must be for a twenty-five-year-old guy. His “I don’t think it was that” sounded weak.
“What then?” she asked in a hard voice.
“You just weren’t...”
Waiting through his hesitation, she held herself stiffly. I will not let this hurt. But she knew better. Of course it would. Or at least it had, when she lived at home and wanted to be pretty enough, poised enough, graceful and athletic enough, to please her parents. What she felt now was more like an echo.
“She couldn’t understand why you weren’t more popular. She said it was your own fault. You hung back, you didn’t try.”
Felix shook his head. “I wished sometimes you would. She’d be icy, and you’d just sort of...”
His grimace was apologetic. “Yeah. It sucked,” he said with sudden vehemence. “I felt so guilty.”
“There’s no reason. It wasn’t your fault. You know that.” She managed a kind of smile. “I’m only sorry I didn’t have enough backbone to go out and get a tattoo and maybe a nose ring and dye my hair black.”
Felix grinned. “It’s not too late, you know.”
“I think it is, because the truth is I don’t care what she thinks anymore.” Nell examined the concept and something settled in her. “I’m okay with who I am. If she doesn’t like it, she can shove it.”
That earned her a rakish grin from this brother who had inexplicably turned into a man. “You tell her, sis.”
“I just might.” She returned his smile. “Hey, how long are you here for?”
“Until Sunday. I ditched a few days of classes when Mom called to say you were home.”
“Thank you.” Blast it, she was getting teary-eyed again. “You, I’m really glad to see.”
“Ditto.” He looked over his shoulder. “Incoming.”