It hadn’t been her face so much as her Princess Grace carriage that brought back Nell’s first memory of her.
“I used to tease you and insist your mom must make you walk around with a heavy book on your head for an hour a day,” she blurted.
Both women stared at her. “You remember,” Hailey whispered.
After a moment, Emily burst into delighted laughter. “Yes! After the first time you said that, I tried it.” She wrinkled her nose, reducing the air of dignity. “I was really good at it.”
They all laughed now.
Hailey sat on the carpeted floor, her back to one end of the sofa and her knees drawn up. She wore ragged, faded jeans and was engulfed by what looked like a man’s sweater that had reached midthigh before she’d sunk to the floor. If she’d started the day with any makeup, it was gone. Maybe the bright hair was statement enough.
Seeing the two of them, the contrast, did bring hazy memories.
“Why were we friends?” she asked, then blushed as she realized how untactful that sounded. “I mean, Emily, you’re so chic and I’m not.”
“And I’m really not,” Hailey chimed in.
A smile curved Emily’s mouth. “You should remember,” she said to Hailey before looking at Nell. “I looked like...like the classic flagpole even in eighth grade. I’m five foot eleven, you know. I towered over everyone, boys included, from kindergarten on. And I had these big feet.” She lifted one in demonstration. Yes, it was probably a size eleven. “My mother kept saying—with thinly veiled desperation—that everyone would envy me someday, because I’d have the face and figure of a high fashion model.” That merry laugh rang out again. “That didn’t quite happen, but at least I did, eventually, acquire some figure.”
Hailey grinned at her, their intimacy momentarily excluding Nell. “But not until you were sixteen.”
Emily smiled at Nell, erasing her momentary feeling of loneliness. “I thought I’d never get my period. Or meet a guy who’s taller than me and doesn’t love having a girl he can cuddle against his chest.” Her fond gaze wandered toward the kitchen, where they all heard the sound of running water. Nell had met Jason when she arrived and liked him immediately. He wasn’t that much taller than Emily—six foot one or two, maybe—and lean to the point of being skinny. He was also gentle, friendly and obviously in love with his wife. The way he’d looked at her had made Nell feel a pang of envy. He’d chatted for a minute and then excused himself, leaving the women alone.
“It’s true,” Hailey said. “The three of us were sort of misfits, in different ways. Emily got over it. I never did.” She didn’t sound as if she minded.
“I felt like a misfit.” Nell knew that much. “Always so awkward, so...”
When she hesitated, Emily finished her sentence. “So unsure of yourself.”
Nell blinked. She’d expected to hear “so sad.” This at least was different. It also fit with her recently recovered memories. “Yes” was all she said.
“My mother kept bucking me up,” Emily continued, her expression compassionate. “I’m pretty sure yours tore you down instead.”
“Yes,” she said again. She had ducked her head in a way that was uncomfortably familiar. I still do that, she realized in dismay. Hiding. “I wish I knew why.”
“Maybe you should ask her,” Hailey suggested. She, too, was watching Nell with kindness and sympathy.
Nell managed a smile. “Maybe I will.”
“You were the first one of us to have a boyfriend, you know,” Emily said slowly. Her forehead was crinkled a little.
“What?” Nell’s heartbeat picked up speed and everything in her clenched with intense anxiety.
“Wow,” Hailey said. She and Emily both were looking at her in puzzlement. “I’d forgotten. You talked about him, but I never saw him.”
“I did, once, but only because I ran into you two by accident.” A tiny hint of old hurt sounded in Emily’s voice. “You’d barely told us about him. I guess it was new, but...”
“Who?” She swallowed. “Who was it?”
Emily shook her head. “That’s the thing. He didn’t go to school with us. You said he was older, like sixteen or seventeen. You thought he really liked you.”
“How could he not have gone to school with us?” Nell asked, trying to understand. “Was there a private school or something?”
“You said he was on his own. Like a dropout? Truthfully, it freaked me out. This guy you were keeping secret, who didn’t even go to school? Or—wow—was even older than he’d told you. Later, I told the police about him, but I don’t know if they ever found him.”