“All right,” she said softly.
“I’ll sleep here tonight.”
He squashed the urge to whoop with the victory. He doubted he’d get any sleep himself between the pain in his leg and the knowledge she was so close, but it was worth it to have her near. He could listen to her breathing and smell the scent of her soap. He could dream, too, of a time when her fear was gone. When they could meet as man and woman without the past standing between them.
He struggled to the washroom again, then settled himself on the bed as comfortably as he could. Fila fluttered around him, doing all she could to help until he waved her away. “There should be a flashlight under your side of the bed. We try to keep them stocked.”
“I found it,” she said a moment later. She disappeared into the bathroom and came out some minutes later in a pair of yoga pants and a fleecy top. He was glad to see she had something warm to sleep in, although he’d vastly prefer it if nothing lay between them. He’d keep her real warm, then.
As Fila climbed carefully between the covers next to him on the opposite side from his hurt leg, the movement of the bed jostled him and set it to aching again. But when her shoulder rubbed up against his, the shock of the contact banished all thoughts of pain from his head. She quickly scooted away, making sure to leave several inches between them.
“It’s all right to come closer,” he said, although he knew she wouldn’t. “I don’t bite.”
“You might.” She peeped up at him from underneath the covers when he turned his head. Only her eyes were visible, but he was pretty sure she was smiling under there.
He smiled back. “You’re right; I might. If I could reach you. But I can’t. And it’s cold. Come over here.”
To his surprise, she did as she was told. Inching closer to him, she turned on her side and curled against him. He could smell the citrus scent of her shampoo, and feel her fingers wrapped around his bicep. Her soft, warm presence against him was heavenly, and his body began to react to it in predictable ways.
Ned shifted uncomfortably.
Fila peeped up at him again. “Go to sleep.”
Ned chuckled. That wasn’t likely. Not with a beautiful young woman so close at hand, yet so unattainable. A long pause ensued, broken only by their breathing. Ned began to feel that this night might be more uncomfortable than he thought, when Fila finally broke the silence.
“What are your plans, Ned? Everyone always asks me about mine.”
His plans? They’d changed since she’d entered his life. Before then he’d figured he’d make his way through the world alone, since his relationships with women had always been short and unsatisfactory. Now he knew he’d never be happy without Fila by his side. “My dreams are simple. I want to run my family’s ranch. I want to find a wife. I want to raise a family, maybe.”
“What kind of wife?” She buried her face against his arm.
“A beautiful one who’ll cook bolani for me morning, noon and night.”
She stilled. Moved away from him. “I can’t be anyone’s wife, Ned.”
“Why not?” He wanted to scoot across the bed after her, but he couldn’t—not with this damn leg.
“Because I’m not… whole. I’m no good.”
Ned let out a huff of air. “Fila, I’ve been told I’m no good practically all my life. I’ve decided not to believe it anymore. Maybe you should try it.”
She stiffened. “You’re good!”
“You’re about the only one who thinks so. Everyone else thinks I’m a mess.”
“They don’t know you.”
“And you do?”
She nodded her head vigorously.
“Well, I think I know you as well as you do me, and I say you’re good, too. You’re a little mixed up, a little overwhelmed with coming home, but that’s all. You’d do just fine if you relaxed a little.”
“You mean if I opened a restaurant so I could earn lots of money.”
Ned was taken aback by the censure in her voice. “I don’t know about earning lots of money—the restaurant business is tricky—but enough so you have some choices. Fila, I think you should find out what you like to do best and pursue it. Maybe that’s running a restaurant, maybe it isn’t. You’re scared now, but you won’t always be. You’re strong. Strong women don’t stay down for long.”
“What if I don’t get better?”
“You have to. I need you.” Time to lay it all out for her. “I’m not going to push you, but someday I’m going to ask you to marry me. You’d better be prepared to say yes.”
She turned away from him, and he thought he’d angered her, but she scooted closer until her backside pressed against him. “I’m not ever getting married.”
“We’ll see about that.”
The next morning passed as slow as molasses for Ned. He’d slept fitfully through the night, waking several times to listen to Fila’s quiet breathing. He was touched that she trusted him enough to sleep so soundly. He wished that he could do the same. He was worried about the roof, though. Worried about Fila, too. What if she fell when she was shoveling? What if she hurt herself?
He’d never forgive himself then.
When Fila got up, she slid shyly out of bed, disappeared into the bathroom to change and brought a plate of breakfast to him some minutes later, but declined to sit and eat with him. Instead, she ate quickly in the kitchen and dressed in her warm outer gear in preparation to climb back on the roof. He listened to her chipping away at the ice up there for the rest of the morning, trying hard to be grateful that all was going so well, but as time passed at a glacial pace he found it hard not to slide into grim thoughts. What would happen when they returned to the ranch? Would Fila’s newfound confidence stick? Would Holt throw them out?
He wasn’t prepared to think about that last question.
Fila took one look at him when she came in at lunchtime and went right back out to the living room to gather two or three hunting magazines and place them in his lap.
“What am I supposed to do with these?” Ned’s voice was gruffer than he meant it to be.
“Look at the pictures. It’s better than nothing.”
He set them aside. “Don’t you need a break? You could read to me.”
She nodded. “But I can’t stay too long. I’m not even close to done with this half of the roof.”