“You’d better eat that,” he said, nodding at her plate. “You don’t want to hurt Hailey’s feelings.”
She wrinkled her nose at him, then stole a look toward the kitchen. “Oh, fine,” she muttered, and took a bite.
Colin hid his smile, sipping coffee while she ate the melt-in-your-mouth pastry with resignation.
Over lunch she’d told him about the two people she’d succeeded in talking to today. One had been a neighbor girl who had babysat Maddie and her brother when they were younger. She’d cried when she saw Nell. The other had been her fifth-grade teacher, who had been especially caring. When Nell talked, he could see how much it meant to her to have people welcome her with honest joy.
He could only ask himself again what in hell was wrong with her parents.
He left money on the table that included a generous tip when he and Nell left.
“Why don’t I drive? I’ll drop you back here to pick up your car when we’re done.”
“Yes, fine.” She waited while he unlocked. “I think I’ll go shopping this afternoon. I need some new boots. Maybe some more warm clothes. I didn’t bring that much with me.”
As he drove, he tried to keep her from dwelling on where they were going. Coming up with questions to ask was easy enough. He seemed to be unendingly curious about her.
She couldn’t afford skiing, but admitted to having gone ice-skating with some friends once and discovered she knew the basics. “Is there a rink here?” she asked.
“A couple of the resorts have them. I don’t know about your father’s.”
She gazed ahead, her forehead crinkling. “I don’t think so, but...I’m not sure.”
His sidelong look took in the clench she had on the seat belt where it crossed her chest. Clearly his diversionary tactics hadn’t been a complete success.
With the rising temperature the slush on the road was more water than ice. The forecast was for more of the same. If Nell wasn’t too upset, he might take a minute to walk over to the scene where the bones had been found.
The reminder filled him with fresh wonder. Damn, only a few weeks ago he’d feared those bones were Maddie’s, and now here she was. He stole another glance at her to see that she was staring straight ahead, deep in thought. It was disconcerting to realize he didn’t think of her as Maddie most of the time. He’d had lunch with Nell. Held Nell in his arms.
It was Nell Smith who wore sexy bras, not sad-eyed, teenage Maddie. He’d never thought of Maddie that way, and he was having trouble thinking of Nell in any other way.
But Nell Smith was often sad-eyed, too.
And, hell, if he were confused, what must she be feeling?
He parked close to the trail Maddie had been taking that night. Several familiar vehicles were parked not far ahead, belonging to the crime scene crew and detectives who had resumed work a few hundred yards away.
So damn close to where Maddie had been snatched, he thought again. So close, he had trouble believing it to be coincidental. Unless, of course, Duane was right when he wondered if there weren’t other bodies buried here beneath these old pines.
He turned off the engine and in the silence, Nell didn’t move. All she did was stare at the forest that incongruously survived between a housing development and the road. Colin stayed where he was, waiting. They were doing this her way. He wasn’t in such a hurry that there was reason to push.
At last she sighed and reached for the handle. “I’m glad it’s daylight.”
“You wouldn’t be able to see much in the dark.” Better than telling her the damn place was haunted at night.
By the time he got out, locked and reached her, she had tucked her hands in the pockets of a fleece vest and was eyeing the bulldozed road that led to the clearing where the trees had been taken out.
“Some of the trees were infested with pine beetles,” he explained. “The park department is having the sick ones removed in hopes of saving the rest. Bulldozers have made a real mess.”
She only nodded.
“This way,” he said quietly, and led her to the narrow path used by kids. Easy to miss if you didn’t know it was there. The ground was soggy and the undergrowth wet until they got under the trees. The peeling red bark of madrona added color against the brown boles of the ancient pines. White berries clung to some arching branches of snowberry bushes. That night twelve years ago had been dry, but otherwise he was looking at nearly an identical scene.
Nell kept up with him, her head turning as she took it all in. He couldn’t tell whether she didn’t remember a thing, or was keeping whatever she felt tucked deep.
He’d seen a lot of crime scenes in the intervening years. He shouldn’t remember this one as well as he did. He should have had to work to orient himself instead of being able to stop in the exact same spot he’d been that night when his flashlight glanced off metal.