“I suppose I was thinking that.”
In that moment, he made up his mind. “I’ll do my damnedest to keep the Hales out of this as anything but kind folks who helped you.”
“Thank you.” She seemed to be battling emotion. Not tears, he hoped. “Paula—Mrs. Hale—gave me the information she had on Beck even though she knew she was taking a risk. She said if one of their kids had been murdered, they’d do whatever they had to.”
Colin nodded acknowledgment. They’d seemed like good people to him. Officially, he couldn’t approve of an operation designed to thwart the law he upheld. But he’d been abused himself. He knew how often courts sent kids back for more, in part because quality foster and group homes were scarce.
“Did she remember Beck?”
“Yes. Mostly because his name is unusual. He’d only been with them about six months when he disappeared. She said kids sometimes just leave. That’s what they assumed he’d done. She gave me the entire file on him, which isn’t much.”
She dug in her bag and produced it. Colin flipped through the few pages. Beckett Spencer. Birth date included. He would have been seventeen when Maddie knew him. The uncle’s address in Eugene matched up with the address of the studio where the photograph had been taken of mother and son.
“Now you can find out if he’s alive, can’t you?” Nell asked, an entreaty in her voice.
“I can.” He spoke gently, because they both knew the boy hadn’t lived to turn eighteen. “He must have taken you out to the shelter.”
“Yes. Paula said they discourage kids from bringing friends home, but don’t forbid it. She’s sure she never met me, though, or she’d have remembered me when there was all the coverage after I disappeared.” She huffed out a breath. “It makes me crazy. I can drive straight to a place I probably only went to once or twice, but I can’t see his face.”
“You’re protecting yourself.”
She dropped her spoon. “I wish I’d quit.”
“It’s coming back, Nell, you know it is. Dealing with those memories in increments has got to be easier than being slammed with all of them at once.”
She nodded, but her expression said she was frustrated and angry. Colin didn’t blame her. He hated having his own emotions fluctuate. How would he handle feeling as helpless as she must?
“Eat,” he said.
She made a face at him, but complied.
She’d finished half her sandwich before she said anything else. Then she fastened her gaze on him. “Do you think he hurt me, and that’s why I blocked him out?”
Although still a possibility, it was a remote one in Colin’s opinion. There must have have been a confederate. Somebody had dumped Maddie in the trunk of that car and then driven north to dispose of her. Somebody had shot Beck and buried his body.
“We can’t rule it out, but...no. That’s not what I think happened.”
“Then what?” she exclaimed in frustration.
He could only shake his head.
* * *
NELL OFFERED TO load the dishwasher while Colin studied the scant information in the file and then made a call. She couldn’t hear everything he said, just enough to know he was talking to the woman detective Nell had met. He gave the basic facts about the attempt on Nell’s life. Hearing anyone, but especially Colin, discuss it so coolly upset her for reasons she couldn’t pin down. She’d been trying to keep herself from remembering, and the matter-of-fact recitation made it flash in living color behind her eyelids.
She blinked hard, trying to obliterate the images, and became aware that, even as he talked on the phone, Colin’s gaze rested on her.
She turned her back and squirted soap into the saucepan.
Behind her there was a pause. Then... “Beckett Spencer.” Colin spelled the first name. “Yeah, that’s right.” There was a pause before he gave the date of birth and uncle’s name and address. “If the uncle doesn’t know Beck’s current whereabouts, it would be helpful if he can point us to dental records. After this many years, it’s not likely he kept something of the boy’s we might be able to get DNA from, but you never know.” He said “uh-huh” a few times before ending the call.
“Nell?” He’d come up behind her silently.
She took her time hanging up the dish towel before turning, her face carefully composed. “Are you heading back to work now?”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
There was something in his voice and in the way he was looking at her. Her whole body seemed to flush, and then did it again. She wanted to back away, even as she longed to throw herself into his arms.