“Love the sound of your voice,” he drawled once in a moment of clarity. He moved his hand, touched hers and smiled. “Love the feel of you.” He drifted off once more.
As morning shifted to afternoon, and then the afternoon waned into night, Fila’s worry shifted to outright fear. Ned had begun to cough in great spasms that rocked his body and made him writhe in pain. This wasn’t about his leg anymore; he must have caught the flu while they were back at Chance Creek and now it had settled into his lungs. With the onset of evening, Ned’s breathing grew labored. Was pneumonia setting in? What should she do now?
She ransacked the kitchen cupboards and prepared a ginger tea with cayenne pepper, but Ned just spluttered and spit it out when she tried to spoon it into his mouth. He couldn’t seem to swallow anything anymore. She’d seen people die of pneumonia in the village, coughing and gasping for air—giving up at the last. Ned wasn’t going to go like that. Not if she could help it.
A sound outside had her whirling around to peer through the window into the gathering gloom. The wind had picked up again and the trees tossed and turned against the darkening sky. The sound hadn’t come from them, though. It had been sharp and loud.
Like a dog’s bark.
Could it be wolves? The thought made her shiver. They were safe enough in the house—she’d blocked up the window she had broken soon after she’d made it back with Ned, but if she had to hike out for help she didn’t like the idea that wild beasts roamed these woods. Thank God they hadn’t run into any while walking here.
The sound came again, two short barks that sounded like any dog back in the Afghan village. She pressed her face against the glass, saw movement near the back shed, but couldn’t make anything out in the gathering gloom.
What would a dog be doing so far away from anyone else? Was someone else staying in one of the hunting cabins farther down this road?
No, that didn’t make sense. The snow on the road in hadn’t been marked by new tire treads. Maybe she was overwrought. Hearing things.
The barking came again. A shape bounded into the yard and Fila jerked back, then pressed her forehead against the glass again to see better.
Definitely not a wolf! The dog’s coat was a tannish-yellow, like she’d imagined Buck’s in The Call of the Wild. And the animal was little—just a puppy. Fila straightened and nearly laughed at the absurdity of such a creature frolicking in the snow outside. It raced right up to the house, scrabbled up the steps to the back porch and stood under the window she looked out from, leaping up and wagging its tail furiously.
Where had it come from? A puppy this small couldn’t have run eighteen miles from the highway through all that snow. She watched out the window to see if a person would follow it. Maybe the dog’s owner would have a phone!
She rushed to the back door, slid back the deadbolt and pushed it open. The puppy bounded straight for her, its delight in discovering her all too evident. She bent down to catch it in her arms and laughed aloud when it washed her face with its tongue.
“Who are you, little one?” The puppy wriggled in her arms. After one last, long look into the night, Fila backed into the kitchen and shut and locked the door behind her. Maybe the puppy had gotten away from its owners and somehow made its way here. She remembered seeing dog food and dog dishes in the pantry when she’d searched it earlier. She scooped some into a bowl for the puppy and filled a dish with water, too. Judging by the way the dog attacked it, he was hungry.
Worry niggled at Fila as she watched him eat. Something didn’t add up here. Where was this dog’s owner? Why didn’t the animal look worse for wear if it had come so far on its own? Was there someone out there in the night? Someone to help her get Ned to safety? If so, what were they doing on this lonely road so far from any town?
Clamping down on her fears, she prepared another bowl of soup for Ned and brought it into the living room, carrying the oil lamp with her to dispel the darkness in the room. She set the lantern on the floor, reached down and touched Ned’s forehead.
Still much too warm.
“Your friend doesn’t look so good to me.”
Fila straightened up and screamed.
Ned shuddered awake again, feeling like he was clawing through layers of cotton to get to open air. Every breath seared his lungs and he wondered if the fire had leaped from the stove and sent its smoke straight down his throat. Fila was talking in a strange, high-pitched voice. Someone else was here. Someone he couldn’t turn his head far enough to see. Something small and furry scurried around the room in tight circles—some kind of animal. It bounded closer. A puppy. He groaned aloud when it ran right over his legs.
“We need help. We need to get him to a doctor. Will you help us?” Fila was nearly begging.
“Depends on what’s in it for me.” The voice was low. Male. Surly. Ned’s instincts flared—he didn’t like the sound of that voice at all. It wasn’t his father or one of his brothers. Wasn’t Fitzgerald or his son, either. Who the hell was in the house with them?
“What can it possibly depend on? He’s very sick. We have to get him help right now.” The puppy ran past again, thankfully avoiding his legs this time. It circled the man, sat down and whined.
“I can see that. I also see a very pretty girl who’s all alone twenty miles from nowhere. I haven’t had a pretty girl at hand for a long time. A very long time.”
Ned grunted with exertion as he tried to raise his head. An instant later a man’s face appeared above him. Sharp, wild-eyed. Hungry looking.
Ned struggled, trying to sit up. He needed to get a handle on this situation. Needed to help Fila, who faced the man bravely, although her fear was plain to see.
“Better stay still, friend.” The stranger looked him over. “You’re weak as a baby. You put up a fight and you’ll just get hurt.”
“Leave her… alone.” The words were barely a whisper—a testament to how ill he’d become. Ned closed his eyes. This couldn’t be happening to him, not now. He was supposed to be protecting Fila. Supposed to help her overcome her fears. The puppy trotted over to him again. Licked his face.
“Dell likes you,” the man said and moved away again. “But then Dell likes everyone.”
“Will you help us?” Fila pressed.
“Don’t get your panties in a knot, sister. I’m hungry. First you can feed me. Then I bet we can come to some arrangement.”