Because she reminds me of Cait?
Being confused like this didn’t sit well with him.
He didn’t like seeing her scared and sad and not being able to do anything about it, either.
“I picked up a tourist brochure for you that has a map of town. Not every street is on it, but enough to get around.”
She blinked and then nodded, and he realized that reverting to practicalities had been exactly what she needed.
“Thank you,” she said meekly.
“Part of me wants to trail you everywhere you go,” he admitted.
“Of course you can’t do that.”
“I want you to be careful. Have you ever taken a class in women’s self-defense?” That’s right, scare her even worse.
Her pointy chin rose stubbornly. “Actually, I have.”
“Practice what you learned. Be self-aware. Don’t head out to your car without looking around—make sure no one is watching you. Look inside before you get in. Lock your doors before you even drop your purse on the seat beside you. Don’t meet anyone in an isolated spot.”
She stared at him in bewilderment. “I don’t understand. You’re the one who convinced me to come for a visit. I left twelve years ago. That’s a long time, Colin. Why are you suddenly...” She seemed to be searching for a word.
“Getting nervous?” He managed an apologetic smile. “Because it’s an occupational hazard?” Pleased to see that relaxed her, he continued with a greater truth, because, damn it, he did want her to take every precaution. “Because I keep thinking about the evening when I cornered you at the library. Your fear ran deep, Nell. It wasn’t the kind of fear a teenager feels when she’s running from an abusive parent. Whatever or whoever you were running from is likely long gone or no threat, but...a lot of people you would have known are still here in town.” He finished with a shrug. “That’s why I’m nervous.”
So much swirled in her eyes, he felt a familiar ache in his chest, but she sounded sturdy when she said, “I’ll be careful.”
“Besides lunch with your mother, do you have any plans yet?”
“I thought I might go by the high school in the morning and find out who my teachers were that last year or two, and which of them are still around. If they remember me, they might be able to give me a better idea of what I was like. Who I hung out with. If I could track down some friends...”
“Back then, your parents said your best friend was a girl named Emily Henson. She might be married or have moved away, but it’s worth checking to see if her parents still live in the same place. In fact, let me go grab the phone book.”
He found their names for her, and Nell asked if she could take the phone book until she could pick one up. He told her to use his since he rarely did.
Finally she gave him a smile that was made pert with that freckled nose. “So, Captain McAllister, does my itinerary for tomorrow meet your approval?”
He clasped his hands behind his head and leaned back in his chair. “As long as you plan on dinner here so I can hear what you’ve learned.”
“You truly want to know?”
“Yeah.” He cleared the gruffness from his throat. “I truly want to know.”
She studied him with a puzzlement and worry she couldn’t hide, but nodded at length. “I could cook, if you want to tell me when to plan dinner for.”
“I enjoy cooking. Plus...” Her shoulders jerked. “I owe you. And no,” she said before he could argue, “don’t bother saying it. Of course I do. Making dinner is the least I can do.”
“Okay, but let me give you a key to the house. No, don’t argue. You’ve got a microwave and two burners up in the apartment. No oven, and a minimum of cookware. I’ve got staples here, plus the pans and what have you that you’ll need.”
Although alarmed at the idea of entering his house when he wasn’t here, in the end she surrendered, took the key and added it to the ring that held her apartment and car keys. He helped her with her parka, although unlike at her parents’ house he could tell the small courtesy flustered her. It was mutual, since touching her flustered him.
She said good-night, and he watched her cross the short distance to the garage. He waited until he saw a light come on before he went back inside and locked the front door.
And yeah, seeing that light kindled a warm spot in him that had never made itself known before.
He lay in bed for a long time before he slept, thinking about the tense reunion at the Dubeaus’, about Nell’s unease, about her plans and the sense he had that she didn’t know what to make of him.