“No. Damn.” He gathered her carefully into his arms and she leaned, taking comfort from the strength he was so willing to lend.
Eventually he shared some things her mother had told him, about her and Duane’s childhood. And then she voiced one of her greatest fears.
“Do you think it was only me? Or...have there been other girls?”
“I called Paula Hale tonight. Turns out Duane stumbled on them years ago. Told them he’d lived in teen shelters, and the adults that volunteered were his salvation. The irony is, that might even have been true. He’s been mentoring kids there for years. One at a time. Sometimes a boy, sometimes a girl.” His face had a grim cast. “He’d take them fishing, hiking, whatever. They felt lucky to have a cop as a role model. Of course the Hales were grateful he’d kept his mouth shut about them. They never noticed anything was wrong with the girls, but several of them disappeared. Like they told you, it happens. Two were girls whose bodies have been found in the area, one buried in the cinders right here in Angel Butte. She was fifteen years old and pregnant.”
“He found out she was pregnant,” Nell said with great certainty. “That she wasn’t an angel.”
“That’s what I think.”
“Do my parents know?” she demanded.
“If they’d listened to me, he could have been stopped.”
What else was there to say? Nell closed her eyes briefly and thought of girls she’d known at SafeHold—of Clarity, so painfully young and pregnant, of Katya, who came and went, running from who knew what. Of so many others like them. And then she imagined someone like Duane preying on them, stealing their last bit of hope.
No, she wasn’t sorry he was dead.
Colin didn’t say anything, only waited. Patient, as he had always been with her.
“I’m surprised you were allowed to stay like this. It’s so quiet. It must be the middle of the night.”
“It is.” He glanced at his watch. “Four thirty-seven, to be exact. And they probably wouldn’t kick me out anyway—”
“Because you’re an important man in this town,” she teased, amazed that she could.
His grin flashed. “That’s right. But just to be on the safe side, I lied.” Was his glance the slightest bit wary? “I told them we’re engaged.”
That took her breath away. “I’m expected back at work, you know. I won’t be here for Christmas. I mean, for you to give me a parka.”
“Yeah, you will be.” Dark with worry and something more, his eyes met hers. “Nell, I love you.”
Her heart did a dip and roll. Speech was impossible. Was that vulnerability she saw on his face? Captain Colin McAllister?
“Don’t ask me if I love Nell or Maddie,” he said hoarsely. “I love all that you are. Maybe I felt something for that sad-eyed girl all these years. I don’t know. Your eyes haven’t changed.” His thumbs caressed her cheekbones right beneath her eyes. “Now I’ve seen them happy a few times. I liked that. You were an amazing girl, and you’re an amazing woman. A survivor.” His smile was so crooked, it didn’t distract her from the dampness in his eyes. “I was...content alone until you came into my life. I’m not anymore. I need you to stay with me, Nell.”
With a muffled cry, she lifted her hand and touched his jaw, bristling with a day’s growth of beard. “I do love you.” Her voice shook. “So much. I kept wishing I’d told you, but then I thought maybe it was better that I hadn’t, so you wouldn’t feel so bad.”
He gripped her hand and turned his face to press a kiss against her palm. “Nothing would have kept me from feeling bad if I’d lost you.” He shook his head. “I can’t believe you defeated him again.”
“I guess I did.” She thought about it. “With some help this time.”
“I don’t think he’d have found you where you were hiding. I think you’d have survived no matter what.” Pride rang in his voice. For her.
“Marry me, Nell.” His voice was low and urgent, gruff. “You probably don’t want to stay in Angel Butte. I can’t blame you. I’ll quit and move to Seattle with you. Wherever you want. You can go to grad school. I can get a job anyplace we end up.” He cleared his throat. “If you’ll have me.”
Tears welled in her eyes, but she didn’t let them fall. “Of course I will. And...I think maybe we should stay here. Having all this about Uncle Duane come out will make everything worse in the police department, won’t it? You finally have the chance to make things better. You’re needed.”