“Yes.” Tear-drenched eyes finally met his again. “He used to talk about how innocent she was. How pure. Nothing like our bitch of a mother. That’s what he said. ‘Nothing like our bitch of a mother.’ And he was right. She was.” Helen seemed to struggle for what she needed to say. “I spent years wishing I wasn’t a girl, because that made me like her. I suppose...”
She didn’t finish. Didn’t have to. Colin could finish her sentence. She supposed she’d rejected her own daughter, because she was a girl. Helen presumably despised herself on some level, rejecting her own femininity.
And he could imagine Duane worshipping everything that was pure and angelic in his niece even as he corrupted that innocence. What had happened? Had she responded too sexually to something he did, disillusioning him?
Or had he discovered she had a boyfriend?
God. Colin rubbed a shaking hand over his face. Yeah, that would have done it.
All he could do was nod at the two of them and walk away. He couldn’t bring himself to sit beside them pretending they were all united in a common fear for Nell.
They were here, and he supposed that was something. For him, it was too little, too late.
He loved Nell, and he’d almost been too late.
Had she really said she loved him?
Damn. Out of sight of the Dubeaus, he turned, flattened his hands on the wall and bent his head, trying to regain some semblance of control.
* * *
NELL UNGLUED GUMMY eyelids and raised them. A monitor close by was beeping softly. Dim lighting was adequate for her to see the rails on her bed, the IV stand beside it, the pleats of a curtain that mostly circled the small space, although a gap allowed her to see the head of the empty bed that shared the room with her. Really, all of that was only background. Mostly, she saw the man who sat in a chair pulled up to the bed. Leaning forward, elbows resting on his knees, he was watching her steadily. She looked down to see that he was holding her hand.
She’d woken up several times before, first in recovery. Different nurses’ faces had appeared above her. She’d been given ice chips to moisten her mouth. They’d asked questions that she thought she’d answered. She remembered being wheeled to a room and shifted to this bed. Later, she thought she’d even talked to Colin, but she’d still been so fuzzy.
Nell wriggled her fingers and his tightened. “I really didn’t die,” she whispered, and he laughed, low and husky.
“No. Why did you think you had?”
“The white light.”
He nodded. “That makes sense. It was a searchlight coming from a helicopter.”
He chuckled again. “In a way.”
He stood to hand her the button she could use to administer pain medication. She squeezed it once, twice, and sighed in relief. He helped her sit up a little and sip water until her mouth no longer felt as if it had been stuffed full of winter-dead sagebrush.
“Better?” Colin asked, smiling at her.
“Yes.” She wished she didn’t have to breathe, but at least now the pain was less sharp, more of a deep ache. “I was shot.”
“Twice.” He smoothed hair from her forehead, stroking so gently she closed her eyes and tried to nestle her face into his big hand. “A bullet entered your back and lodged under your shoulder blade. The other passed through the muscle on your upper arm. You had surgery to remove the one bullet and they cleaned up your scrapes and cuts. You were a mess. One ankle was so swollen they thought it was broken, but apparently it’s only a severe sprain. You’ll be on crutches for a few weeks, though.”
She did an inventory and discovered she knew which ankle was injured. She could feel each and every one of those scrapes, too. “I suppose I ruined my parka,” she said in resignation.
This laugh sounded helpless. “Parkas can be replaced.”
“I bought it for this trip,” she told him with some indignation. “It was expensive.”
Colin let down the rail and sat on the bed next to her, his hip pressing against hers. “I’ll buy you a new one for Christmas.”
“You’re laughing,” she said suspiciously.
“No. Maybe.” Now his mouth curved. “Yes. You survived, and you’re worried about a parka.”
She guessed it was silly. She was avoiding asking the important questions, like whether he expected to spend Christmas with her. But also...about the monster her mind had tried so hard to block from her memory.
No more hiding.
She didn’t have to. She’d won again.
She heard the soft shush, shush of footsteps in the hall. They passed her room without hesitation.