“Welcome to our home,” Holt said to Camila. Ned exchanged a look with Jake, who raised an eyebrow. Ned couldn’t convey in a glance the reason for Holt’s sudden burst of manners, but he knew the cause well enough. His father was going to use Camila to force Fila out of the picture if he didn’t watch out.
“Thank you.” Camila beamed at him.
“Hope you’re hungry.” Lisa walked into the room bearing a huge platter of ham. Fila followed with a basket of biscuits in one hand and a bowl of green beans in the other. She noticed her empty seat down at the far end of the row and made a face. Ned frowned. There wasn’t much he could do about the seating arrangement now. He would have thought she’d be happy to sit next to Camila, though.
For a few minutes there was a flurry of dishes coming in from the kitchen and the passing of food around the table. When Fila finally took her place she unfolded her napkin, draped it across her lap and sat in silence, only moving to help herself to small portions of the food.
Ned sighed. She must still feel uncomfortable among all of the people here, and why wouldn’t she when his father took every chance to hint that she should leave. He was determined that would change—and soon.
“Camila, tell us about yourself. What brings you to Chance Creek?” Holt cut into his slice of ham.
“I’m opening a restaurant right next door to—”
Ned coughed and cut across her words. “It’s on First Street. Around the corner from DelMonaco’s.” He turned to Camila, caught her eye and shook his head slightly, hoping she’d understand not to bring up Fila’s restaurant. So far no one had mentioned it to Holt and he meant to keep it that way until it was a done deal. Holt would have a field day if he knew Ned had financed the place.
“What kind of food? I hope not more of that foreign stuff like that one makes.” Holt jabbed a finger at Fila.
“Holt!” Lisa turned to Camila, her usually kind face pinched in vexation. “Excuse him, please. His mother dropped him on his head several times when he was a baby. Unfortunately she didn’t tell me about it until after we were married.”
Holt stabbed a forkful of ham and chewed it vigorously.
“Well,” Camila began uncertainly. “It’s a Mexican food restaurant. Tacos, burritos—that kind of thing?” The normally outspoken young woman seemed cowed for the first time since Ned had met her. Holt had that effect on people, though.
“I love Mexican food—it’s practically American, isn’t it?” Holt stabbed another bite. All around the table, his children reared back in surprise.
“Since when do you love Mexican food?” Luke asked loudly. Mia nudged him. “What?”
“Since forever.” Holt fixed him with a glare.
“I wish you would tell Mom. I wouldn’t mind some tacos now and then.”
“We’ll have tacos next Sunday, then,” Lisa said easily, but she glanced at Ned and rolled her eyes. Ned knew why—if she’d ever served tacos before, there would have been hell to pay about that south of the border food.
“Oh—I’ll bring tacos if you like!” Camila perked up, then blushed. “I mean—I didn’t mean to invite myself over again. Sorry.”
“Not at all,” Holt said magnanimously. “Come on over next week, too. Bring your tacos. It’ll be a treat.”
Lisa dropped her utensils and coughed so hard into her napkin that everyone looked her way. “That’s a terrific idea,” she choked out. She dabbed at her face, recovered her composure and smiled wickedly. “I’ll make a big old salad to go with them.” Ned laughed out loud. Holt hated salad almost as much as he hated Mexican food.
“I’ll bring that dessert I make,” Morgan put in smoothly. “The one with all the bananas.”
Mia spit out the sip of milk she’d just taken and coughed until Luke pounded her on the back. “Sorry.” She mopped herself up with her napkin. “Breathed in the wrong way.”
Ned bit back the urge to laugh again. He’d forgotten how much his father hated Morgan’s banana dessert. And let her know in no uncertain terms the one time she’d served it to him.
Holt’s expression was getting grimmer and grimmer. From the way Camila was sneaking looks his way he figured she knew something was up, but wasn’t sure what it was.
“I’ll bring Nawabi Kandahari Gosht,” Fila announced loudly and clearly, her voice slipping into an accent in a way he hadn’t heard since her first days in town. It took him a moment to realize she’d gotten all the jokes and was adding her own jab at the old man.
“That all sounds lovely,” Lisa said, smoothly preventing an outburst from Holt. “But today I hope you’ll make do with my plain American fare. When did you arrive in Chance Creek, Camila?”
“Last month. I hope to open my restaurant near the first of February.”
“Do you have family in town?”
“No.” Camila’s good humor slipped again. “It’s just me. I’m staying out at the Flying W. They had a private room to rent. I don’t see the owners much though. They always seem to be busy.”
“The Turners? They’re recovering from a bad year, I’ve heard. That must be lonely for you.” Lisa’s voice was kind.
“It is,” Camila said softly. “So I’m doing my best to meet people. I hope that once I open my restaurant I’ll feel like part of the community.”
“That can take time,” Morgan said, “but it does happen. I moved here from Canada last fall and now it really does feel like home.”
“Thank you,” Camila said. “Thank all of you for including me today. It means a lot to me.”
“You’ll always be welcome here.” Holt’s tone made it clear not everyone was.
Ned gripped his fork harder, knowing what his father was trying to say. Camila was welcome. Fila wasn’t. He couldn’t decide if his father’s earlier explanation was true. Did he really think Fila was too scarred to ever heal from her experience in Afghanistan? Or was this prejudice through and through? Either way, it didn’t matter. He wouldn’t change his mind about Fila.
And he wasn’t going to hide his feelings, either.
He reached over across Camila and covered Fila’s hand with his for a moment. “You’ll always be welcome here, too.”
Fila smiled back at him. Camila’s eyes widened. Ned patted Fila’s hand and let go, turning just in time to see Holt’s thunderous expression.