Dinner was excellent, as were the tarts topped with cream Colin thought he recognized. Especially when she set a plate in front of Felix and murmured something in his ear that made him laugh.
His own was cherry, but when he glanced across the table as Felix took a bite, he recognized peach and hid a grin.
“I hope you like blueberry,” she said politely to Duane. “If not, I’d be glad to switch. Mine’s apple. I confess I bought these. I went for a variety.”
“Either’s fine,” Duane assured her. “Dinner was a treat. I’m ashamed at how rarely I make a real meal for myself. Your mother is a heck of a cook, too, you know.”
“I’d kind of forgotten.” A frown crinkled Nell’s forehead. “She was out at the lodge the other day,” she offered. “She said they’re refurbishing some cabins, and Dad leaves things like that in her hands. I wonder if she gets bored?”
Felix and Duane began to speculate on what Helen actually did most of the time to fill her days, their ideas growing wilder by the minute. Colin would have expected Nell to be laughing, but her smile looked forced. They were still at it when she excused herself to refill coffee cups, then to clear away dessert plates, declining offers of help. Colin began to wish their guests would notice that their welcome had worn out.
He’d barely finished the thought when Felix drained his cup and stood, stretching. “Time for me to get going.” He flashed a smile at his sister. “Happens I have a date.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Anyone I know?”
He grinned. “Yep. Sometimes things look different when you come home. People, too.”
She rolled her eyes. “I can’t decide whether to be disapproving or not.”
“Not.” He kissed her cheek. “We’re just having fun.” Colin was pretty sure he was the only one who heard the addendum. “Lots of fun.”
Their byplay went right by Duane, but he pushed himself to his feet, as well. “I’d better be off, too.” He frowned at Colin. “You’re not going to hold my niece hostage so she cleans the kitchen, are you?”
Colin laughed. “No, but we have some things to talk about.”
“You mean, while I’m slaving over the dirty dishes?” she retorted pertly.
The two of them walked Felix and Duane to the front door. Duane was beginning to look a little suspicious, but, to Colin’s relief, chose not to ask questions about where she was sleeping. At least, not in front of her.
On the doorstep, he faced her. “I can’t tell you what it means to me to have you home, Maddie.” He sounded choked up. “I want you to know, anything you need...” He labored to a stop, finishing with a harrumphing sound.
Nell gave him a small, polite smile that failed to disguise her discomfiture. “That’s kind of you. You’ve been more welcoming than Mom and Dad.”
“Having you stay away on purpose, that may be hard for them to swallow.”
“It...wasn’t exactly like that,” she said, stilted.
“Either way.” He looked as if he wanted to envelop her in a hug again, but recognized from her tightly held posture that she would be happier if he didn’t. “Good night,” he said, nodding at Colin. “Call me tomorrow if you can tell me what’s happening.”
Colin had dodged him yesterday afternoon.
“I’m...in a holding pattern. It’ll probably be Monday before I know what comes next.”
Felix kissed Nell on the cheek, and the men departed together, talking until they separated to get in their vehicles.
Colin closed the door and took Nell in his arms. She made a little sound, wrapped her arms around his waist and leaned as if she needed him to hold her up. He rubbed his cheek against her head and reveled in the feel of her body, fitted against his. As tough as this homecoming had been, she had rarely seemed as fragile as she did right now.
She finally sighed and straightened. “That was really hard. I don’t think I handled it very well.”
“You weren’t comfortable with Duane.” He hadn’t seen her so stiff with anyone, not even her parents.
“No.” Uncertainty filled her eyes. “I don’t know why. At first I was really freaked-out.”
“Like when you tried to remember Beck?”
“I don’t know.” Her frustration was obvious. “It felt like that, but...I really don’t know. Part of it is meeting someone who has all these expectations of me, but who feels like a total stranger to me. I could tell I was really hurting his feelings.”
“I noticed. I’d warned him, but I guess he assumed once you saw him all those beautiful memories would come swooping back.”