“I’ve planned to get together with Emily and Hailey tonight. Can we make it tomorrow instead?”
“Oh. Of course.” Helen’s smile was obviously forced. “I didn’t realize Hailey was still in town.”
The sky was a pale, pearly gray, but snow had quit falling. The little that had stuck after the parking lot was plowed in the early morning squeaked underfoot. After leaving the Dubeaus at their car, Colin kept a hand lightly resting on Nell’s arm in case she slipped as they headed for her shabby little Ford.
“Glad that’s over?” he asked.
She let out an explosive breath that formed an icy cloud. “I cannot tell you.” She looked up anxiously at him. “Did I do okay?”
“You were fantastic,” he told her sincerely. “You handled the questions just right.” Her dignity, combined with a quality of emotional fragility, had had the impact he’d hoped for—those reporters had gotten quieter toward the end, more respectful. Now, if only they would give her space. But he didn’t tell her any of that. She wouldn’t like the word fragile applied to her, and he wasn’t sure it was even accurate. The very fact she’d survived twelve years ago meant she had guts and the smarts to make good decisions. Her willingness to come home despite her fear reinforced his opinion of her.
“You called me Maddie,” she said softly.
There was something in her voice he couldn’t quite identify. “You went out of your way not to tell anyone about Nell. I thought we should keep it that way.”
“Thank you.” She unlocked and opened her car door, but didn’t get in right away. “Are you in trouble?”
“With Chief Bystrom?” When she nodded, he gave a shrug. “Our dislike is mutual. There’s nothing he’ll be able to do.”
“Because you’re the hero who brought Maddie Dubeau home.”
He smiled. “Exactly. What he doesn’t like is not being the ringleader for this circus. I thought you needed me there instead of him.”
She shuddered. “Yes. Is he really somebody I should remember?”
“Your parents were friends with him and his wife,” he said slowly, but, damn it, he didn’t like the expression on her face. Had seeing Gary Bystrom triggered an unpleasant subliminal memory? “How close, I don’t know. I take it you don’t remember him at all?” He kept his tone casual.
“Not even a whisper. I just didn’t like him.”
“Okay. And you read him right. He’s a jackass. Not something I should say aloud.”
Her quick flicker of a grin made his heartbeat stumble. Colin hesitated, then bent his head and kissed her cheek. Her skin was cold but soft. He didn’t let himself linger or wish she’d turn her head so their mouths met. “I’ll see you at home,” he said, straightening, hoping she didn’t notice that he sounded a little hoarse.
Her gaze was startled and shy. “If you’d like, I can make dinner again.” Her forehead puckered. “But you might not want company tonight. If not, that’s fine. I’ll just have a snack before I go out.”
“I would love to have company.” He made sure she could tell he meant it. “We even have leftovers. But I thought you were getting together with your friends.”
“Maybe after dinner. I haven’t even talked to Emily yet.”
“Okay.” He smiled and stepped back. “Drive carefully.”
He walked far enough so she wouldn’t notice he’d stopped, then turned to watch Nell carefully maneuver out of the parking slot and into the street. Had she been more shaken by being put on display than she’d let him see? Damn it, he should be driving her home, but of course it was too late.
Not until her car was out of sight did he sigh and head back in to face his irate commander.
“I CAN’T BELIEVE you’re here.” Emily shook her head in obvious bemusement. “And the three of us together again.”
Emily and her new husband had recently bought a house in town only a block from the river. It reminded Nell a little too much of the Dubeau home, although this one was more modest. She could tell, though, that it was as dignified and gracious as Emily herself. Nell couldn’t help thinking this was the daughter her own parents had wanted her to be.
Emily sat now in a wing chair, a pretty, elegant woman with her masses of blond hair worn up in a simple twist. She’d kicked off her shoes, but beneath slacks she wore tights or knee socks with an elaborate pattern of climbing vines.