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“Della?” he said, firmer. “What the hell are you doing?”
You mean other than trying not to think about where my face is? “What do you think I’m doing?” Then, realizing what his answer might be, she added, “Forget I asked that. I’m hiding. My dad’s in the gold Honda in the lane to the right.”
“Shit,” he said.
“I already said that,” Della spit out. And then another wave of panic set in. “Did he see me? Is he staring at the car?”
“No,” he said.
“Then why did you say ‘shit’?”
“Did I hurt you?” she asked, remembering how hard she’d slammed into his lap, and feeling her face getting warm with embarrassment.
“A little.”
“Sorry,” she said, patting the side of his leg before she realized how awkward that would feel. Her hands on his leg. Then again, why should patting his leg be awkward when she had her nose in his private parts?
The next noise he made was a chuckle. Deep, honest, and almost musical. It still pissed her off.
“Don’t laugh,” she said between tightened lips.
“Sorry, it’s funny.”
“No, it’s not,” she snapped back.
“Oh, yes it is.” She felt his hand gently brush some of her hair from her cheek. The car’s emergency brake handle bit into her ribs.
She closed her eyes, the heat of humiliation burning all the way inside her chest. “Has he turned off the freeway yet?”
“Not yet,” he said. “Just stay there.” His finger brushed over her ear, as if tracing the outer edges.
“Are you watching the road?” she blurted out.
“Then quit playing with my ear.”
He laughed again. “You’re worried about your ear?”
She moaned.
He chuckled again. “Try not to move too much.”
Could someone die of embarrassment? Della wondered. And after a couple of seconds, she asked, “You’re not lying, are you?”
“About what?”
“About my dad still being on the freeway.”
“No. I’m not lying. He’s about to pull off. I’ll tell you when it’s clear.” He paused one second. “Clear.”
She raised up. And with no other option, she looked at him. He burst out laughing.
“Your face is so red,” he said between gulps of laughter.
She growled at him, and then for reasons she couldn’t explain, it all of a sudden seemed funny to her, too. The chuckle leaked out and she couldn’t stop it.
They laughed practically all the way to the second address.
*   *   *
They made it back at 7:59. One minute before curfew. Burnett sat outside on the office porch, his phone in his hand, when they walked up. Della hadn’t reached the office yet when it hit her. The whole Steve leaving issue.
“I was just about to call you,” Burnett said, and stood up to open the cabin door. Chase and Della followed him into Holiday’s office.
“Anything?” he asked as he moved toward the desk.
Della suddenly wished she’d told Chase not to mention the near disaster of almost running into her dad. Knowing Burnett, the least little thing would put him back into protective mode where she was concerned.
“The Owen family wasn’t home,” Chase said.
Della held her breath, hoping and praying he didn’t bring it up, and ready to intervene with some other subject if he did.
“We did drop in on the Brian family,” Della added.
“Did you get anything there?” Burnett leaned against Holiday’s desk.
“Yeah. Both the parents are white.” Della filled Burnett in about knocking on their door trying to sell magazines.
“I knew that,” Burnett added. “Right after you left, the DMV finally sent me over copies of their driver’s licenses. I also got both Mr. and Mrs. Owen’s. White as well.”
Della nodded. “But as you said…”
“It could just mean they aren’t her biological parents,” Burnett finished her sentence for her.
“I still believe it’s one of them,” Della said. “Actually, I think she’s Natasha Owen.” The moment she said it, she felt certain. “If we’d had time, we would have gone back by their house.” She’d almost called Burnett and asked for an extended curfew, but being her first night to work the case, she knew he’d balk. “But if we left now—”
“No, it’s late. You need rest. You can go tomorrow evening.” Burnett ran a hand through his hair and looked over at the door. Della could hear someone coming up the office steps outside. Then she heard a baby’s coo.
“Why do you think her name is Owen?” Burnett asked, cutting his eyes to the door, obviously waiting for his wife and child to walk in.
Della looked at Chase. She hadn’t asked him earlier. Probably because she hadn’t wanted to think about it. “I felt something at her house. A sadness. I think the ghost was there. I didn’t feel that at the Brians’ house.”
Chase’s brow tightened.
“Did you feel it, too?” she asked him.
“Yeah,” he said. “But I was hoping I imagined it.”
Me, too, Della thought, but didn’t say it.
“Fine,” Burnett said. “You can go back tomorrow. Maybe you’ll find something out.”