She didn’t look at him when she straightened. After a moment, his arm fell away from her. She knew he was watching her, but she made a production of picking up her mug and taking a sip. Nell tried to think of something to say, then remembered she did have one more thing to ask him about.
“Emily and Hailey told me something.” Finally she did turn her head and met his eyes. “They said I had a boyfriend, I guess right before I disappeared.”
His gaze sharpened. “Did they say who?”
“Only that his name was Beck, Emily thinks. She says she told an officer who interviewed her back then, so it should be in the reports somewhere. He wasn’t a student at the high school. I said he was on his own, like maybe a dropout. Or I guess he could have been older, like a community college student?” But Nell couldn’t imagine herself at only fifteen hooking up with a guy in college. “For some reason, I didn’t want to introduce him to my friends, but she did see him once when she ran into us by accident. She said he looked wary.”
“I read your file not long ago. I’d swear there was nothing about a boyfriend.”
She shrugged. “It may not mean anything. I might have only met him the week before or something, but... How?” she blurted. “I was shy! And I could never have told my mother. Can you imagine?”
“No.” He was scrutinizing her the same way he had that night at the library, before he’d introduced himself. As if she were a...a victim, or a suspect. It was disconcerting. What was it police spokespersons always said? A person of interest. Not a woman he’d tugged into his arms a minute ago.
“You don’t remember him.”
“No.” Why did that sound defiant? Maybe because she had one of those creepy feelings, as if a ghost had brushed her. If she pushed up her sleeves, would she have goose bumps? “I was shocked when they told me.”
All he did was watch her.
“You don’t believe me,” Nell said indignantly.
“I believe you.” But he said it slowly enough, she didn’t believe him.
“I really don’t remember him,” she insisted. Only...it didn’t come out as strongly as she’d intended.
One of Colin’s eyebrows quirked.
Dismayed, Nell looked down to realize she’d wrapped her arms tightly against her torso and was squeezing. Hugging herself for comfort.
“I don’t,” she said again. Third time’s the charm. Except the theory didn’t work.
“What is it, Nell?” It was the deep, tender tone that got to her, as it did every time.
“When Emily said that,” she told him in a low voice, “about me having a boyfriend, I was surprised but also really anxious.”
“Thinking about him scared you.”
She closed her eyes for a moment. “Yes.”
“Then we’ll have to find out why.” He sounded practical and calm, exactly what she needed.
“How can we? What if he was really on his own, like a runaway?”
“I doubt he was, at least in the sense you mean. I gave this some thought not long ago. We don’t have street people in Angel Butte, and there’s good reason. Winters are too damn cold. Admittedly, there wasn’t any snow on the ground when you disappeared. Even so, where would this guy have been sleeping? If he’d been homeless, he’d have been dirty, probably stunk. Would that have appealed to you?”
She was shaking her head before he finished. “No, I probably wouldn’t have let him get near me.”
“So this Beck had to be living somewhere he could take showers, wash his clothes. He might have been staying with a friend, who introduced you.”
She’d never hated more the giant empty whiteboard in her head where there should be a colorful riot of memories, impressions, life. All she could do was shake her head. Was Beck one of those bad things her brain was determined to block out?
“Tomorrow, I’ll look to find out what Emily said at the time, and what was done to locate this guy.”
Nell nodded, hopefully maintaining her dignity. “Thank you.”
He frowned at her. “You look beat.”
“It’s been an eventful day.”
“Yeah, it has.” Again he made one of those lightning assessments. “How do you feel?”
Nell had to think about it. “Better. The ibuprofen helped, I think. The hot bath, too.”
“You do know you’re going to hurt come morning, don’t you?”
“Think you can sleep?”
“Probably.” Which would bring dreams. If only she could remember them better. She suffered from chronic nightmares that she suspected had to do with whatever had happened here in Angel Butte, but she couldn’t be sure because the images always faded no matter how hard she tried to hang on to them. Tonight’s near disaster was bound to make a nightmare surface.