She shook her head. “I’ve been a little busy, you know. And I haven’t been in town very long.” She thought back. “Nine days?”
“That’s true,” Colin agreed, but the creases remained in his forehead. “Duane told me he bowed out of the dinner because Felix had showed up and he didn’t want to get in the way. Listen, why don’t I have him to the house for dinner?” He raised his eyebrows at her brother. “Maybe you can join us?”
“Sure.” Felix sounded pleased. “I saw Uncle Duane at Thanksgiving, but not since I’ve been home this time. I have to head back to Salem on Sunday, though.”
“Tomorrow night, then.” Colin’s eyes glinted with amusement. “Here comes your peach tart.”
“Both kinds,” her brother murmured, then winked at Nell’s astonishment.
* * *
COLIN STOPPED BY the detective’s division to pick up Jane Vahalik before the meeting with Bystrom. Once again, he was accompanying her only to provide the authority of someone in a senior position. Backup, he thought, with a small grin.
She was waiting for him with news. A sergeant on the Bend police force who had served for ten years on the Drug Enforcement Team had immediately known the man in the picture, the one engaged in an intense conversation with Angel Butte’s own police chief.
“James Lewis, although that may be an alias. He’s a pilot who the DEA had been watching for years. They know damn well he was ferrying drug shipments. Before they were able to make an arrest, he dropped off everyone’s radar about five years ago. The assumption seems to be that he’s dead. Bend had gotten a tip about him, but by the time they caught up with him and his plane, it was clean and he had insisted he was only flying some skiers in from Southern California. A rich couple backed up his story. Nobody believed him, or them, but what could they do?”
“So our police chief just happens to have been conversing with a likely drug trafficker at a private airfield.”
“Right about the time he started pocketing some nice payments.”
Duane had joined them and heard the update. “Would you prefer I step in for Jane this afternoon?” he asked.
Colin shook his head. “She’s doing a good job. And me, I’ve already got a bright red bull’s-eye painted on my chest. Best if some people with seniority around here keep their heads down when the bullets start flying.”
Duane chuckled. “You know me. I like nothing better than hunkering down.”
“I wanted to talk to you.” Colin stepped to one side, his lieutenant joining him. “You still haven’t seen Maddie.”
“Things have been happening....” He grunted and rubbed a hand over his thinning hair. “Hell, I can’t lie to you. I think I’ve been making excuses to myself. I’m not kidding myself about what kind of reception she’s probably getting at home, and that makes me feel guilty. I knew she wasn’t very happy back in the day. My sister...” He hesitated. “She’s got problems. Reasons for ’em, but I’m not sure that excuses her for being as hard on Maddie as she was. All I’ve been able to think all these years is that maybe I could have made more of a difference if I’d tried harder.”
“You never said any of this.”
“Helen is my sister,” he said simply. “With Maddie gone, there was no point.”
“I’m sorry,” Colin offered. “I didn’t realize. I expected you to be first in line to greet her.”
“Honestly—I think I’ve been holding on to the memory of her as a little girl,” he said gruffly. “I really loved her. I don’t know the adult she is now. I guess I don’t want to find out she’s changed too much.”
Colin had no trouble understanding that. He was having enough inner conflict himself over the girl she had been and the woman she was now. Explaining that, though, would give too much away. Something told him Uncle Duane wouldn’t like finding out Colin was sleeping with his little Maddie.
“She would like to see you, though,” he said. “Any chance you could come to dinner tomorrow night? Felix will be there, too.”
Duane’s face worked, as though he were struggling to hide too many emotions. “Yeah,” he said finally, clearing his throat. “Yeah, that sounds good. Have her let me know if she wants me to pick her up. Felix, too.”
“I’ll do that.” Colin didn’t know why he was hiding the fact that Nell was living at his place, even from Duane. It was better if no one at all knew, he told himself. Saved him from admitting how much time they were spending together. “Six o’clock?”