She’d also found Hailey Allen and learned that, unlike Emily, who had gone away for college, Hailey had never left the area. After finishing a two-year program in culinary arts at Central Oregon Community College, she’d gone to work in a restaurant in Bend. A year or two ago she had opened her own restaurant in Angel Butte. Nell must have gone right by it yesterday.
Hailey might not have much time to chat, but Nell intended to drop by this morning and at least say hello.
She’d peered for some time at the pictures of Hailey, too, trying to reconcile them with any of the faces swimming through her damaged memory, but failed. It might only be that she looked different than she had at fifteen years old. Her hair was currently short, spiky and dyed shocking pink, plus she seemed to be clowning around in all the pictures on her page. Nell hoped seeing her in person would trigger something. It would be awkward to have to say, I’m told we were friends, but I don’t remember you at all.
Of course, if she stayed in town long, she was going to have to get used to admitting that to a lot of people. In fact, last night Colin had said he’d be happiest if she made her amnesia sound even deeper than it really was.
She’d snapped, “Thanks, way to make me feel safe,” and told him good-night, marching through the cold to the apartment in what she told herself was a temper, but knew was closer to a new and improved anxiety attack.
What he didn’t realize was how completely vulnerable she already felt. The idea of other people knowing her on a level she didn’t even know herself, while she had no memory at all of them, made her want to curl up into a little ball like a hedgehog with all her quills bristling. Except she didn’t have anything as useful as quills to protect her.
I have Colin.
He had definitely appointed himself her guardian, although she wasn’t entirely sure why. That was part of what worried her, of course. Perhaps he’d realized right away that he would never be able to lure her back to Angel Butte unless he could convince her that he could keep her safe. Nell didn’t like to think he’d wanted to produce her like a rabbit from a hat only so he’d look like a wizard on the job. Was he hoping for some kind of promotion?
But she didn’t believe that his satisfaction and amazement at finding her were that self-centered. She thought he’d believed there were people here who had grieved and needed to know she had survived. The fact that he seemed to be one of those people still puzzled her, even as it made her feel soft inside. She might not understand, but she was clinging to the knowledge that, for whatever reason, she really mattered to him.
And she was depending almost entirely on him. Nell Smith, who never let herself really depend on anyone. Until him, she had never told a single person that she didn’t remember who she was or where she came from.
It wasn’t smart to need anyone so much. Which was one of the reasons she had to continue exploring her history on her own. The more she learned, the less vulnerable she’d be.
* * *
A YOUNG WAITRESS with half a dozen studs climbing each ear plus a nose ring wanted to seat Nell the minute she walked into the Kingfisher Café.
“I do want lunch,” Nell said, “but I’m actually hoping to see Hailey. I’m an old friend.”
“Oh!” The girl’s face brightened. “I’ll go get her. Um...what did you say your name is?”
Nell hesitated. “I’d like to surprise her.”
Fingers biting into her palms, Nell waited until a woman emerged from the back. She was short, a little plump and big-breasted. The spiky hair was hot pink like in the pictures, her expression inquiring, her face quirky and interesting.
Nell would have thought her a complete stranger if she hadn’t known better.
Hailey Allen’s shock was becoming familiar although it still made Nell wince.
“Yes.” She tried for a smile. “Back from the dead.”
“Oh, my God. Emily didn’t call me.”
She registered that Hailey assumed she would contact Emily first. Because they’d been closer friends?
“I haven’t gotten in touch with her yet. I figured she’d be in school today, and, well, once I saw on Facebook that you had a restaurant...”
Hailey began to cry and reached out to hug Nell, who after an instant squeezed back. Someone else who was genuinely glad to see her. So why don’t I know her?
Once Hailey had wiped her tears away, she led Nell to a booth at the back. “Sit,” she demanded. “Talk. What happened to you?”
Colin’s caution ran through Nell’s mind. In this case, saying she didn’t remember wouldn’t be a lie. “All I know is that I was assaulted,” she said. She explained about having come to in the trunk of a car, her escape and the amnesia that had kept her from making her way home.