All Fila could think to do was to throw herself on this stranger’s mercy, even if every instinct she had told her to cut and run. There was something about him that went beyond his rough mannerisms. Something in his eyes that wasn’t quite right. Still, he had no cause to hurt them and he was her only hope. She had no idea what he was doing out in this freezing night so far from the highway. As far as she could tell he didn’t have a vehicle, but maybe he’d left it back up on the road. He was dressed better than they’d been, in modern cold-weather gear, and he carried a backpack, but the pack wasn’t full. Perhaps he’d set out well-supplied but had eaten through his rations. Where had he been going, though?
“Are you hiking a trail?” It made no sense, but none of this did. Maybe if she could get him talking she could figure out a way to get him on their side.
“No, sister. I’m not hiking a trail.” The man laughed at the idea.
“Do you have a car?”
He shot her a hard look. “I saw your lights. Figured you’d have some grub. A man’s gotta eat. He gets lonely, too.”
He hadn’t answered her question and she didn’t like the look in his eyes, the way he sized her up and down like her Taliban captors had done when considering who she should marry. His gaze was too familiar. It lingered on her body in ways even a western woman would find offensive. She bustled into the kitchen, not knowing what else to do. “What would you like me to cook?”
“Something smells good already. What’ve you got?” He crowded into the kitchen after her, making the space feel too small. She took a bowl from the cupboard, aware of his gaze raking her again, and filled it with the bean soup she’d kept simmering all day. Adding a spoon, she handed it to him.
He took it, moved to the small table and took a chair. “What the hell is a girl like you doing all the way out here with Romeo, anyway?”
“Shoveling snow off the cabin roof.” She kept busy at the stove, turning up the heat under the soup and stirring it.
She shook her head. “Ours is down the road.”
“The one that collapsed. I didn’t think anyone would make it alive out of that.”
She shrugged her shoulders.
“So, if this isn’t your cabin, then you must have broken in. Not very neighborly of you.”
She fought to keep her voice steady. “We know the owner. We will pay him back for the damage.” She set her spoon down. The time had come to try to plead their case. “We can pay you for your help, too. All I want is to get my friend to safety. He’s very sick. You can have whatever you want. Just help me help my friend.”
“Anything I want, huh? I wonder if you really mean that.”
Fila stiffened at his tone, recognizing the implied threat. She was helpless here. So was Ned. If the man meant to do her harm, she didn’t know how to stop him.
“Give me some more of that.” He held out his bowl, forcing her to cross the kitchen to him to take it from his hands. Just as she reached for it, he pulled it back, then laughed at her reaction. “Take it easy, just having fun with you.” He offered it again. Pulled it out of her reach at the last minute. Just as she was ready to give up, he shoved it into her hands. Turning her back on him to fetch the soup, her skin crawled knowing he was watching her. The man didn’t mean to help them, she knew that now. No sane person would play jokes when someone was dying in the other room.
“I think I’ll take you up on your offer,” he said when she placed the filled bowl in front of him. “I think I’ll take whatever I want.” He spoke slowly, emphasizing each word. “Don’t you try to stop me, either, if you know what’s good for you. Your friend there can’t help you. I’ll be surprised if he lasts the night. You can help him all you want in the morning, if he’s still alive. I’ll be long gone. After I’ve had my fill.” His tone told her he meant more than the food she was preparing. “’Course, you may not be in such good shape yourself by then. Guess we’ll see.”
Her hands began to tremble and Fila fought not to drop the stirring spoon she’d taken up again. He was right. There was very little she could do against a grown man who was determined to hurt her. But she had to try. Here the law was on her side, at least. If she could stop this man—if she could conquer him—the law would back her up in a way it would never do in Afghanistan.
In a flash she picked up the pot of steaming soup, whirled around and threw it at him. The man leaped sideways, knocking his chair to the floor. The soup spattered his clothes, the pot bounced off the table, but missed him.
He was on her in an instant, wrenching her arms behind her back and clutching both her wrists in one hand. He tore a tea towel to shreds with his teeth, wrapped a strip around her wrists and bound them tightly. Fila fought back, balling her hands into fists as he tied them—straining hard to make sure there’d be some slack in the ties when she relaxed them later. When he threw her to the floor, her forehead hit the tiles and pain blossomed around her temple. She curled into a ball, bracing for whatever happened next.
“Guess I’ll have to cook for myself.” The man began to clatter around the kitchen and pantry, rummaging through the shelves until he found what he wanted. Fila didn’t fool herself into thinking she was safe. She’d had her chance and she’d blown it. Now there’d be hell to pay.
If he could just inch a little farther to the right. Ned groaned with the exertion. Just like the stranger said, he was as weak as a baby and it hurt to think, let alone to breathe. There was nothing he could do about what was going on in the kitchen. All he could do was arm himself and hope the stranger came close enough at some point for him to do some damage.
He heard Fila’s shriek just as his hand finally closed around a piece of firewood. This wasn’t one of the large split logs that he couldn’t have hefted right now if he tried. It was a section of a branch about a foot and a half long and two inches thick. Heavy as a club. He tucked it under his blankets wishing he had his hunting rifle, or better yet—his pistol. That man was going to hurt Fila. It was only a matter of how much.
He heard a struggle in the kitchen and then something heavy dropped to the floor. He could picture in his mind’s eye what had happened. Fila had concocted some scheme or other. The stranger had foiled it. Had overpowered her and probably tied her hands. That thump had been her body crashing down. From the sounds of things, the man had decided to eat his dinner anyway. That gave Ned a little time. He scanned the room for other weapons, found none. His fingers closed around the length of wood again. Come on, he thought at the stranger. Come close. Let me give you exactly what you deserve.