He said some things—how glad he was she had made the decision, how gutsy he thought she was—but most important he renewed his promise not to tell anyone about her, not to warn a soul that she was coming.
One of the things he said shook her a little because he delivered it so thoughtfully. “It might be interesting to see how people react to your reappearance.”
“I have to get time off from work,” she said. “I’ll let you know.”
After they’d said good-night and ended the call, Nell discovered she was sitting on the kitchen floor, very close to the corner, her back to the cupboard, her knees drawn up tight.
“Gutsy,” she said aloud, and laughed until she cried.
* * *
TOO ANTSY TO sit behind his desk, Colin killed an hour watching the SWAT team train, went by a house where an ugly domestic scene had occurred the night before and finally simply drove the streets of his town.
He wasn’t fit company right now. Knowing Nell was on her way worked like the most powerful shot of caffeine he’d ever had. His heart kept racing and occasionally thudding out of sequence. It felt like Christmas morning when he was young, before his father’s drinking and temper tainted every family occasion. A couple of times he caught a glimpse of himself in the rearview mirror and discovered he was grinning like a fool.
Not something he wanted anyone to catch him doing. If he’d hung around the station, he might have come face-to-face with Duane. Usually Colin prided himself on his ability to hide what he was thinking. He doubted he’d succeed today, especially with a man who knew him well.
Yesterday he’d been okay, even though he’d known Nell was planning to leave after she got off work. He’d made it home before he started envisioning her car like an electronic blip on his mental screen. Leaving heavy downtown Seattle traffic. Hitting Tacoma. An empty stretch, then Olympia. Had she reached Chehalis yet? He wondered if she’d made reservations at a Portland hotel, or had waited to spot one at a freeway exit and gambled on vacancies.
“I know I could make the drive in one day,” she had told him, “but I’d rather it be daylight when I get there.”
He didn’t blame her. Given that she would be arriving on the first of December, she was nervous about driving on snowy roads and would rather cross the Cascades in the morning when she was fresh. Colin had checked weather reports last night and again first thing this morning. It sounded as if Highway 26 had been plowed where it climbed high by Mount Hood. He hoped she’d stop for coffee and even lunch rather than pressing on.
At lunchtime, he finally called his assistant and told her he was taking half a day. As useless as he was, he might as well make his absence official.
Just after one, Nell called.
“I’m on the outskirts.” She sounded tense. “You’re right, I wouldn’t have recognized a thing. There’s a Walmart here.”
“Walmart is everywhere. And yes, we have a half mile stretch filled with chain stores and restaurants, pretty much like every other city in America.”
“Did you make a reservation for me?”
“Why don’t you meet me at my house?” he suggested. “I’m there now.”
Her hesitation was brief. He gave her directions and paced while waiting, one ear cocked for the sound of a car in his driveway.
He had the front door open before she came to a stop. She drove a peanut of a car—a Ford Focus, the one she’d backed right up to in the parking lot at the library.
As if he gave a damn. Part of him couldn’t believe she was here. But the driver’s side door opened, and there she was, just as he remembered her from the library, unmistakably Maddie Dubeau. Her warm brown eyes were wary, but the young Maddie hadn’t looked on the world with much faith, either.
Seeing her this time was different, though. He’d felt a punch that evening at the library because, damn, he’d found Maddie. But getting to know her during their long phone conversations had complicated his thinking. The woman he was looking at now wasn’t Maddie grown up. She was a woman named Nell, who had amazing cheekbones, legs a mile long and a build he thought was a little short-waisted to make up for those legs. He was surprised by her lush mouth, something that either had changed since she was a teenager, or hadn’t shown in those photos because she kept her lips pressed together so tightly.
He was attracted to her. Nonplussed, Colin did his best to shut it down. She’s Maddie Dubeau. This isn’t personal.
It was all he could do not to wince at the inner jeering. Still, the lecture had worked to an extent. Maddie. She was Maddie.
“You made it.” Despite the evidence before his eyes, he still fought a disbelief that mixed with his newly confused feelings.