Place used to be a summer camp. We foster kids off and on, have family that comes and goes. Works for us.
Voice elaborately casual. The guy had felt the need to explain the unusual.
Nell turned an alarmed look on him.
“The place is a shelter, isn’t it?” He braked at a red light as they came into town. Home Depot on the right, Staples on the left. Colin was able to turn his head and see the worry and guilt and who knew what else in those big brown eyes. “Did you already know about it, Nell?”
Her shoulders sagged finally, about the time the light turned green and he was able to start forward. “No. Colin, I’ll tell you about it, but I want you to promise you’ll leave them alone,” she begged. “Please.”
He wanted to give her the moon, but knew better. “I can’t promise until I know what you’re asking.”
After a moment she swallowed and nodded. But then she looked out the window, lost in thought, and stayed silent. Knowing how much she’d been through, he let her stay that way.
Colin kept an eye on his rearview mirror as he drove through town toward home. Nobody stuck behind them for an unreasonable length of time. In fact, they had the road to themselves when he turned into his driveway. He used the remote to raise the garage door and parked inside. Nell got out and stood waiting for him, her body language awkward and even rebellious. For a flicker he saw Maddie. She would have looked just like that, waiting for one of her parents.
The brew of anger and fear in him kept Colin from feeling as sympathetic as he might otherwise have.
“Come on up to the house,” he said. “Have you had lunch?”
She shook her head.
He didn’t ask if she were hungry. He knew what she’d tell him, but by God she was going to eat.
Inside, he nudged up the thermostat, then shed his parka as she did the same. He headed to the kitchen, and saw her set her bag on the table.
As he put soup on to heat and began assembling sandwiches, he said, “Talk to me, Nell.”
“I told Paula I’d try to keep what they do there to myself.”
“What is it they do?”
She told him, every word reluctant. A runaway shelter that, for all practical purposes, didn’t exist. Kids who refused to go home no matter what the courts determined. An underground referral network, he imagined.
“Kids can be damn fine con artists,” he said. “How do these people know they aren’t falling for sob stories and hiding criminals?”
“We didn’t get so far as to discuss how they screen the kids they take in. But Beck’s file...” She stopped, as if just realizing what she’d said.
Colin turned slowly from the stove. “Did you just say what I think you did?”
“Yes.” She lifted her chin defiantly. “I was going to show it to you.”
“But not tell me where you got it.”
“I was going to tell you about the shelter, just not where it is or who runs it.”
He swore under his breath and faced the stove again. The soup had reached a hard boil and with a frustrated motion he yanked the pan off the burner.
“You think I don’t trust you,” she said, sounding timid and diminished in a way that made him even madder.
He was overreacting and knew it. A man whose rigid self-control was so integral he never had to think about it, he didn’t like discovering he could be knocked off center so easily. This wild swing of emotion threw him back to his youth, to a time he didn’t want to revisit.
Dishing up the soup and carrying it to the table gave him a minute to regain a semblance of his usual calm.
Even that was shaken again at the sight of her face, pinched and anxious, turned up to his.
“Shit.” He set down the bowls, bent over and kissed her. The taste and scent and feel of her soaked in, giving him the reassurance he’d so far lacked. Arousing him, too, but he tried not to think about that as he ran his fingers over her cheek and into her hair. For an instant she stayed completely still, not pulling away but not responding, either. Then her lips softened and she pushed herself up enough to deepen the kiss.
Satisfied, he was able to straighten. Her cheeks were flushed, her hair tousled by his fingers. “I meant it when I said you scared me,” he told her.
She gulped and nodded, her eyes huge.
No...Nell. All Nell when she kissed him.
He returned to the kitchen for the sandwiches and drinks.
Sitting down, half a sandwich in his hand, Colin watched as she picked up her spoon but made no move to start eating.
“Nell,” he said, “I know you have good reason to sympathize with what the Hales are doing. If anybody had recognized you during the years you were on the run, you’d have been returned to your parents, no question. Nobody would have listened when you said you were afraid to go home.”