“The divorce was bitter,” he said, before she could ask an innocuous question, like what his sister was studying. “I didn’t see much of them after that.”
He’d closed up, as if he were reluctant to betray emotion.
“Why?” she asked, then flushed with shame. “I’m sorry. That’s really nosy of me. I can tell you don’t want to talk about it, and it really isn’t any of my business.”
“That’s not true, Nell. I want us to be friends. The fact that I know so much about you has got to make you uneasy. I’ve been hoping we can find a better balance.”
Uneasy? What a weak word to describe this complex brew. It bubbled in her chest, sometimes barely simmering, sometimes reaching a furious boil that splattered her painfully and threatened to overflow.
He didn’t wait for her to respond. Instead, he went on.
“I haven’t spoken to my mother in, oh, seven or eight years and not often before that. I hated my father, and she chose to take my sister but not me when she left.”
“You hated your father?” And he had lost his mother, too.
“He abused my mother and beat me. I...tried to protect her, and most of all Cait, but it wasn’t always possible. I was as big as he was by the time I was fourteen or fifteen, and I quit taking it. We fought, sometimes physically. Punched holes in the walls, threw furniture. I suspect that, by the time my mother worked up the nerve to leave him, she associated me with the violence as much as she did Dad.”
“So she saved herself and not you.”
“That’s what she did,” he said flatly. “I forgave her in one way, because she did save Cait, too.”
“I can’t imagine abandoning my own child.”
She could hear him breathing. Somehow she wasn’t surprised when he managed a wry chuckle. “By that age I was hairy, six feet tall, uncommunicative and angry all the time. Probably didn’t bear much resemblance to her little boy.”
“Still.” Nell pictured boys she’d gotten to know at SafeHold. Rebellious, obscene, angry and, yes, violent, but also bewildered—the vulnerable boys still visible beneath the troubled teenagers.
“Still,” Colin echoed, and she heard that same bewilderment in his voice, although she doubted he was aware of it.
“I’m surprised you didn’t run away.”
“Crossed my mind, but I was too proud. I vowed never to back down. If he beat me bloody every day, I wasn’t going to surrender one iota of defiance and hate.” Colin was all man now, sardonic and almost amused at the idiot boy who had set himself up for such brutality. “Kept my vow, too.”
“What happened?” she asked.
“Finally left for college—none too soon—at Portland State University. Started out thinking I was pre-law, but after a few courses in criminal justice, I was sucked in. The couple of times cops came to our house, I saw that Dad was intimidated by them. I guess there’s nothing subtle about my choice.”
Nell found herself smiling. “No.”
“Fortunately, I got over the swaggering ‘I am armed and more powerful than you’ phase quickly. I hadn’t been home in four years. I’m sure I took the job in Angel Butte because I wanted to face down the monster from my childhood, but...”
Nell didn’t say anything, only waited for him to think through how much he wanted to share, or perhaps choose the right words to describe how he had felt.
“While I was gone I’d grown, or he’d shrunk, I was never sure which. No surprise, he was a heavy drinker and was showing the effects by that time. He owned a tavern when I was growing up, but he’d lost it. Angel Butte was changing, brew pubs were already hot and his place was dimly lit, unwelcoming to women, homey only to intolerant sons of bitches like him. Business declined and he had to give up. Ended up bartending for someone else—finally lost that job, too. He was a heavy smoker and died of lung cancer four years ago.”
“I’m sorry,” Nell said simply.
“Don’t be. I’m sorriest that Cait and I are strangers. She’s the one part of my family I’d have liked to keep.”
Nell had an unsettling thought. “She must have been close in age to me.”
Was she wrong in hearing an undertone to this silence?
“She is,” he agreed at last.
“I wonder if we knew each other. If we were ever in a class together.”
“That...never occurred to me. I suppose you might have been.” He sounded a little disturbed at the idea.
Nell’s pulse quickened. “She might have recognized me, if we’d happened to run into each other.”