“Oh, God. Romeo and Juliet.”
She giggled. Solemn Nell Smith giggled. “Did she make you read Romeo?”
“Mercutio. Turns out he was a mumbler.”
Her face was still bright with laughter. “That fulsome language scared you, did it?”
“I felt like an idiot. Unfortunately, everyone else did, too. Had to be the worst Shakespeare read-aloud ever.”
“I know what you mean. But when she read Shakespeare or anything else...”
“Yeah, she had a voice, didn’t she?” His asshole father had met her during a rare showing at a parent-teacher conference, and on his way home he’d suggested she could have made big bucks working for a sex hotline. Colin remembered cringing. Mrs. Chisholm and sex, in the same sentence? Of course, after that he couldn’t get it out of his head and a couple of times had closed his eyes and tried to imagine while she read aloud. His conclusion was that he would never, no matter how desperate, call one of those numbers. The sexy voice on the other end could be from an eighty-year-old grandmother. Or—God—Mrs. Chisholm.
After a minute, he asked Nell how lunch with her mother had gone and saw her expression shut down.
“It was...fine.” She scowled. “No, weird is a better word. I’ve had friendlier get-togethers with parents who were mad we’d taken their kid into SafeHold. She was so distant. And I kept thinking she must know other people having lunch at the inn. I was braced for her to introduce me around and what the reaction would be. But we sat by a window, out of the way, and she didn’t say anything to anybody. I got to wondering whether she’d requested the table in advance so she didn’t have to introduce me.”
She was trying to hide the hurt, but not completely succeeding. As if fear and pain stripped her of some layers, she always looked younger at moments like this. More like the Maddie whose picture had been on his bulletin board for so many years, he couldn’t help thinking. Maddie meant nothing good to Nell Smith. The understanding made him feel guiltier than ever.
Colin didn’t blame her for hurting at her mother’s coolness, either. His father was abusive, his mother walked out on him, but at least there’d been emotion in his house. Good, hideous, everything in between. Then, he’d thought anything would be better. Now, he wasn’t so sure, not when he saw Nell’s face so pale that the freckles stood out in sharp relief.
To think how much sympathy he’d wasted on the Dubeaus, terrified for their daughter, mourning her—or so he’d thought.
“Back then,” he said slowly, “I noticed your mother always hung back at public appearances. I thought she was in shock and trying hard not to break down where she could be seen. I respected her dignity.”
“And now you wonder if she was feeling anything at all.”
“I guess that is what I’m wondering.”
Nell twirled spaghetti with great concentration but didn’t lift it to her mouth. “I had this really vivid memory today,” she said haltingly. “Nothing important, but I knew in it that I was a disappointment to my parents, and especially my mother. Not pretty enough, not athletic or graceful. I was relieved that I was going to the resort to hang out all day partly because it got me away from Mom.”
“I’m sorry,” he said gently.
She bent her head. “I am, too.”
He made sure the conversation was more general until they finished eating, but when she stood and said she would put the coffee on, he shook his head.
“There’s something we need to talk about first.”
She sank back into her chair, her eyes locked on his. “That doesn’t sound good.”
“I don’t suppose you’ll like it,” he admitted. “It occurred to me today that rumors are going to start spreading like wildfire. You’ll run into people you’ve completely forgotten but who recognize you. Let’s head off the necessity of you having to explain yourself over and over by holding a press conference.”
“We’ll bring your parents in on it. We have a daily newspaper, Bend does, of course, and La Pine has a weekly. A stringer for the Oregonian will show up. Local TV news. Let’s get it over with in a controlled venue.” Seeing her horror, he wished he could shield her from all of this. And by God he wished her parents had fallen on her with tears and joy. “You can’t stay incognito anymore, Nell,” he said, regret sounding in his voice.
“No, I know. It’s just—” The huff of breath might have been meant to be a laugh. “The day the KING-5 news team was filming at SafeHold, I was trying to avoid the camera. On the way home, I was thinking about it. I’ve always worried about encountering someone who knew me.” She grimaced. “You know that. Because I haven’t changed all that much. But I also know that I wouldn’t have wanted to appear on camera, no matter what. Public recognition wouldn’t have been my thing. Then what did I do? I made myself famous.”