“How many times do I have to come here?”
“As many as it takes,” she said pertly. “Commit to ten lessons, at least, okay? Just to see the difference it makes? After that you won’t need any convincing.”
Ned scratched the back of his neck. He wanted to turn on his heel and walk right back out of this building, but that wouldn’t solve anything. He still wouldn’t be able to read and Camila would still know about his dyslexia. “Okay,” he said grudgingly.
“Okay, you’ll stay?”
“Yeah, I’ll stay.”
Camila beamed at him. “It’ll be great!”
“Don’t push your luck.”
When Ned hardly spoke at dinner time, Fila thought at first he’d had another run in with his father or brother, but when they’d cleaned up and he moved to the living room to sit on the couch, she asked if everything was okay and he nodded yes.
“Just a headache. Let’s watch TV.”
He clicked through the channels until he found a nature show, then leaned back against the back of the couch and shut his eyes. Fila, just coming in from the kitchen, frowned. She tentatively laid her hand on his forehead. He didn’t have a fever.
“That feels good.”
Fila stilled at his words, but didn’t withdraw her hand. Instead, she lightly smoothed his hair back from his forehead, the way she had done to small children in the village when she was helping the healer. Ned sighed contentedly and after a moment she did it again. She liked the feel of his smooth forehead and thick hair against her fingers. When Ned murmured appreciatively, she shifted her stance and began to rub his temples. A little boy in the village—Sabir—used to get horrible headaches. One of the other women told her he’d seen his parents killed in a raid by a hostile clan. After that, she’d felt a kinship to him, and tried to be the one to soothe him when his headaches came.
She didn’t realize she’d been humming as well as ministering to Ned until he opened one eye. “What’s that tune?”
Fila dropped her hands and stepped back, and he groaned. “Don’t stop. You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want.”
She resumed what she was doing and searched for a way to translate the song’s name. Gave up. “It’s a lullaby,” she explained. “Allaho sha Allaho.”
Ned grunted and closed his eyes again. She kept rubbing and after a time started humming again, just under her breath. Long after Ned’s breathing evened out, she kept at it. Touching him, even in this gentle way, stirred something within her that was close to longing. She’d never gotten the chance to inspect him so closely—the way his brows etched two strong blond lines across his forehead, the rise of his skin over his cheekbones, his square jaw. After a time, she stepped away from him, aware that if she kept going she was bound to wake him again and he seemed to need his sleep. She wondered what had happened this afternoon to cause his headache. She hoped he’d be better soon.
Making her way on quiet feet, she sat down carefully next to him on the couch and watched the program for a few minutes before turning to gaze at him again. Still fast asleep, Ned looked younger than he usually did. More gentle.
She knew how gentle he could be when he was awake, though, so that was no revelation. What was a revelation was how masculine he still was. She placed her hand next to his where it lay on the couch cushion and marveled at how much longer his fingers were—how his wrist was nearly twice as thick as hers. He was a powerful man.
A good man.
She turned back to the show for a few more minutes, but realized she had no idea what it was about. A man was stalking a cheetah but every time he got close, the predator raced away. After a third shot of the cheetah dashing across a savannah, Fila edged closer to Ned. He didn’t wake, so she moved closer still, until her arm brushed his.
He shifted then and she froze as he lifted his arm around her shoulders and pulled her in. He didn’t open his eyes and his breathing didn’t shift either. If she tried to break loose, she’d awaken him for sure. Fila didn’t know what to do.
As the minutes ticked past, she decided she didn’t need to do anything. She leaned against his chest and was rewarded when his arm encircled her more snugly. His embrace wasn’t tight enough to set her alarm bells off—on the contrary, she felt safe with Ned. She leaned her head against his shoulder, closed her eyes.
And eventually fell asleep.
His arm had been asleep for hours and Ned was wondering if was possible to do permanent damage to a limb this way when Fila finally stirred and woke. He wasn’t complaining, though. When he’d woken an hour or two after conking out on the couch to find Fila dozing in his arms, he’d felt like Christmas had come early. She was tucked against his shoulder, her dark hair coming loose from its usual braid and tickling his nose. He had debated whether to find a blanket to cover her up, but in the end decided to stay right where he was for as long as this lasted. He’d alternately dozed and woken all night, but it was worth it. If Fila trusted him enough to snuggle with him, they were making progress fast.
She sat up and stretched, the motion pulling her shirt tight against her breasts. Ned felt a stirring he needed to control—pronto. With an effort he did.
“Is it morning?”
“It’s early. You should go up to bed and get some more sleep.”
“What about you?”
For one golden second he thought she was asking him to go with her. Then his sleep-deprived brain made an effort and worked out her true meaning. “No sense my going back to bed when I have to get back up in a half-hour.”
He took her hand. “There’s nothing for you to be sorry for. I was right where I wanted to be.”
A beautiful blush stole across her skin and Ned couldn’t help himself. He leaned forward and kissed her. Just a light brush of his lips over her cheek, but enough to make that color inch higher.
“What?” He liked seeing her like this, all sleep-tousled and rosy.
“You shouldn’t do that.” But she didn’t seem unhappy that he had.
“I think I should.” He did it again. “Come here. Might as well make the best of that half-hour.” He leaned forward and grabbed a throw blanket off the back of one of the easy chairs, tugged her back against his chest and covered both of them. “Go to sleep.”