“Haven’t seen you around here before.”
“I’m new in town. Just getting to know the place.”
“New in town, huh? You’ll have to come and visit our ranch sometime. The Double-Bar-K is one of the oldest in the county. Any friend of Ned’s is a friend of ours.”
“Yes, come to Sunday dinner,” Lisa chimed in. “I’m sure Fila would love to have you there.”
Ned didn’t miss the implications of his parents’ statements. Holt was treating Camila like Ned was dating her instead of Fila. Lisa was letting him know she assumed she was Fila’s friend. No good could come of the invitation either way. “I doubt Camila’s interested in our ranch,” he began.
Camila cut him off. “Are you kidding? All I do is hang out at the Flying W if I’m not at the restaurant, and everyone there is so busy they don’t have much time for me. I’d love to see your ranch. What time?”
“Six o’clock sharp,” Lisa said. “Ned will give you the directions. We’d better go get our lunch.” She poked Holt in the ribs.
“At the restaurant, huh? Are you a chef?” Holt asked, not budging.
“Can you make a steak?”
“Best steak you ever had. You come by my place once I’m open. I’ll give you one on the house, Mr. Matheson.”
“That’s a deal. I’ll hold you to it.” He turned to Fila. “Stick with this lady. She can teach you something.”
Before Ned could say a word, Lisa took hold of her husband’s elbow. “Stop being cantankerous. Where’s my dinner, old man?”
“Don’t old man me.” But Holt allowed himself to be led away. Ned breathed a sigh of relief.
“What was that all about?” Camila watched them go. “Don’t you cook steaks, Fila?”
“No,” Fila said shortly.
“You should taste her bolani,” Ned put in loyally.
“I’d love to. What is it?” Camila’s eyes danced with fun.
A glance told Ned Fila didn’t share her amusement at the situation. “Flatbreads,” he explained. “Best thing you’ve ever tasted. Of course, I’m biased.”
Camila’s gaze flicked from him to Fila and she frowned for a moment. An instant later, she tossed her lustrous hair over her shoulder and gave him another smile. “I don’t think I’ve ever tried Afghan food before. I’m looking forward to it.”
Ned couldn’t help but smile back.
Fila was beginning to think the meal would go on forever when Camila looked at her watch and gasped. “I’m going to be late.” She fished in her purse and threw a twenty dollar bill on the table, but Ned picked it up and handed it back to her.
“My treat today.”
As yet another hundred-watt smile flashed across Camila’s pretty face, Fila tensed.
“Thanks! I’ll get it next time.”
“Where are you off to in such a rush?” Ned asked.
It was like she wasn’t even there, Fila thought. Of course that was her fault. If she didn’t talk, why would anyone notice her?
“Volunteering! See you soon!”
Then Camila was gone in a whirlwind of coats and scarves and clicking heels. After she left, the atmosphere at their table felt dull and flat.
“Nice girl, huh?” Ned said, finishing up his lunch.
Fila nodded. Nice was hardly the word for Camila. Brilliant. Exciting. Beautiful. She was a peacock to Fila’s sparrow.
“Something wrong? Should we get you home?”
She stifled a sigh. Ned was so in tune with her needs. Too bad those needs were so boring. What if they weren’t, though? What if she was the kind of girl who longed to ride a horse, or learn to drive, or go to a concert—or be kissed? Would his intuition be even more keenly tuned to hers? Would he grow more interested with each passing day rather than less, as she feared he would soon do? No hot-blooded man wanted to be burdened with a timid, weepy woman like her.
So she’d have to change. Starting right now.
“I’d like to learn to ride a horse.”
Ned nearly dropped his fork. “Are you serious?”
“Yes.” She wasn’t. She didn’t want to be. But she had to be. And wow—was he definitely interested now. Could he read the fear in her trembling voice or had she held it steady?
“I’ll teach you any time.” He glanced outside at the snow that was falling and made a face. “We might have to wait a bit.”
That was fine with Fila. Just the suggestion had made Ned light up. He wasn’t thinking about Camila’s pretty face or wide smile now, was he? That’s what was important.
“I know the perfect horse, too. We’ll have you riding like a pro in no time. I bet you’ll end up in the rodeo.”
Now it was her turn to smile, and though she knew hers wasn’t nearly as bright as Camila’s, nor did she laugh out loud like Camila would have done, it brought out an answering shine in Ned’s eyes.
“I swear I can see it now.” He nudged her gently. “Fila Sahar—star barrel racer.”
“What is a barrel racer?”
“What’s a barrel racer? Hell, girl. We need to get you to a rodeo!”
“Here you go, boss.” Luke dropped a stack of folders on Ned’s workbench late that afternoon. Outside, the sky had already darkened to dusk and more snow was falling. Flakes sparkled on Luke’s wide shoulders and pooled around his feet.
“What the hell is that?”
“Taxes. The appointment with the accountant is next Tuesday. You’ll want to go through all that before you hand it in to him.”
Ned dropped the screwdriver he’d been using to disassemble a tow-behind trimmer and stood up. “Mom does the taxes.”
“She won’t last forever.”
“Hell, she’s only in her sixties. I don’t think she’d care for you acting like she’s on death’s door.”
“I don’t think she should have to handle the paperwork at her age.”
Ned moved away from the workbench. “So I bet you told her you’d do it, then you dumped the job in my lap. You can just take it back again.”
Luke squared off with him. “I think whoever is in charge oughta know how to keep the books.”
“What the hell is this really about?” As if he didn’t know.
“It ain’t fair—that’s what this is about. Just because you were born a year ahead of me don’t mean you know anything I don’t know. I can run this place—I know it! I just want a chance.”