When Ethan dealt the cards for their table, Ned told him they’d share a hand. “It’ll take you a bit to get the hang of it, so for now you watch,” he told Fila. As he walked her through the game, at first she could barely concentrate on his words. She was too aware of the others at the table—too aware of the men mixed in with the women, something that seldom happened in the village back in Afghanistan. She found herself plucking at a burka that wasn’t there, wanting to hide her face.
“Hey. No one’s going to hurt you here,” Ned said in a low voice. “Look at the cards, not at the crowd.”
She did as he said and he started his explanation over. After a few minutes, she got caught up in the game. She watched what Ned did and noticed how the other players reacted. Several minutes later, when it was Ned’s turn to make a move, she pointed to the card she wanted him to discard and he nodded. “Now you’re getting it.”
His praise brought a smile to her face. She caught Morgan’s eye and Morgan smiled back, her dark hair loose around her shoulders. “Fun, isn’t it? Just wait until you start betting.”
The pile of dollar bills in front of Ned was growing, much to her satisfaction.
“Fila must be your lucky charm,” Jake said in disgust the next time Ned raked in the pot.
“Lucky, nothing. She’s whispering what to do in my ear.” Ned pulled in all the dollar bills and stacked them neatly to the side.
“She can come here and whisper in my ear, then,” Jake said.
“She’d better not,” Hannah called out from the other table.
As the room erupted in laughter, Fila felt her cheeks warm. Her hands curled around the arms of the chair she sat in.
Ned covered one of them with his. “Don’t mind them. They wouldn’t joke with you like that if they didn’t like you. You know that, right?”
She nodded and took deep breaths like Autumn had taught her. In and out. In and out.
“Tell me what to do now,” Ned said, holding the cards where she could see them. She bent closer, considering, and didn’t even notice when her panic slid away.
“Fila, are you sure you don’t have any more of those appetizer things with you?” Rose called out some minutes later. The petite brunette sat next to Cab, who towered over everyone else in the room. Fila had been intimidated by the large sheriff until she got to know him.
Fila shook her head. “Sorry.”
“Bring more next time,” Jamie Lassiter said.
“Yeah!” Several voices chimed in.
“I know what you should do,” Mia said brightly. “You should have a big taste testing party. You could make up a bunch of things you plan to put on the menu at your restaurant and everyone could have a little bit of everything. Then people could vote on them. The most popular dishes would win.”
“That’s a great idea,” Cab called out. Everyone laughed.
“It is a good idea, though. You could use my kitchen—I’d be glad to host the party here,” Autumn said.
“I think she should have it at the restaurant,” Rose said. “That way she’d get a chance to try all the appliances out and make sure they work right. It would be a test run for the place.”
“I want to test run taking orders and working the register!” Mia said, nearly bouncing in her chair.
“What do you think?” Ned asked her. “A week from Saturday, maybe?”
After a moment’s hesitation, Fila nodded slowly. “Okay,” she said.
Her anxiety came rushing back.
Ned had lived in Chance Creek all his life, so it surprised him to realize he’d never noticed 5454 Third Street before. It was a nondescript two story building containing a chiropractor’s office, a cleaning business and the Chance Creek Volunteer Center on the second floor. When he opened the door to the center, he found himself in a reception area with a no-nonsense gray carpet and black and gray metal chairs set up in a waiting area. He introduced himself to a middle-aged woman behind the counter and she told him to take a seat.
He did so, noting the battered toys in a basket in one corner and dog-eared magazines on the end tables. Apparently, not everyone who came here was illiterate.
“Ned? Is that you?”
At the sound of his name, dread tightened his chest. Damn—he’d been found out. As his mind raced to concoct a reason why he’d be in such a place, he scanned the room for the speaker. He knew that bright, cheerful voice, even if he couldn’t place it immediately. He caught sight of Camila standing at the edge of the waiting area. Today she wore a knee-length red pencil skirt, a black blouse and red baubles at her throat and wrists. The large, chunky jewelry would have looked ridiculous on anyone else. On Camila, they looked just fine.
“What are you doing here?” His response was far gruffer than he’d intended and for a moment she looked taken aback.
“I’m your tutor! Isn’t that a coincidence? I nearly freaked out when I saw your name on my list this morning. Come on back.”
Ned stayed in his seat. He had no idea how to extricate himself from this situation. There was no way he’d let this woman tutor him. He couldn’t even stand that she knew he had a problem to begin with. But could he leave without speaking to her—without an explanation? Somehow he doubted it.
“I—” He stood up and edged toward the door. “I just remembered—I mean, I can’t—”
“Oh, for God’s sake, get over here,” Camila said impatiently. “You aren’t the first man with dyslexia. Cowboy up—isn’t that the phrase? Let me do my job and feel good about myself.” She tapped over to him on her high heels, grabbed his sleeve and dragged him down a short hall to a small, windowless office. Inside was a table and two chairs—and little else except for a small bookcase filled with books.
Ned hovered near the door. “I don’t really need—”
“Sit down and shut up, Ned. You want to learn to read and I’m going to help you. I won’t tell anyone what we’re doing here and by the time we’re through, you’ll read just as well as anyone else. Got it?”
“You’ve done this before?” He still sounded surly. He didn’t care—he was surly.
“I have. Back in Houston.” She turned serious. “Tutoring does work, Ned. People have been studying dyslexia for years. Not everyone with dyslexia will be able to read perfectly, but a lot of people can be helped by this method. Give it a chance, at least.”