Understanding his secret made the rest of his behavior easy to decipher. And since she didn’t expect Ned to read, she didn’t inadvertently put him into embarrassing situations.
So he relaxed and showed his true nature. Which turned out to be kind of wonderful.
If she could help him in any way in return, she’d certainly do so. “I will read it,” she said, serving him another piece of bolani.
Ned tore a chunk off and dipped it into the yogurt sauce. “Thanks.”
Ned parked his truck near the corner of First Street and Main, and hurried to the door of a storefront whose windows were covered up with butcher paper. He let himself in and shut the cold out behind him, blowing on his hands. Warm air washed over him, along with voices from the back of the building. He looked around in satisfaction at the newly refurbished interior.
“Well, what do you think?” Jake said, pushing a broom around the tables and chairs that filled the front half of the small establishment. “They look good, don’t they?”
Ned knew he was referring to the tables, which Jake had built himself. Their natural wooden surfaces were beautiful, as were the booths he’d fashioned to fit along the length of one interior wall. Jake had surprised Ned when he volunteered to help, and he knew he had Morgan—Rob’s wife—to thank for that. All he’d done was mention to her in passing what he meant to do for Fila and she got everyone else on board. Rob had helped Jake with the tables. Hannah, Jake’s wife, and Mia, who was currently living with Luke, had discovered a set of chairs at an estate sale and figured out how to reupholster them. Mia enlisted her friend Rose from the Cruz ranch to help pick a palette of warm colors for the walls, upholstery and other decorative elements. They had debated long and hard about how to theme the restaurant. It was obvious that Fila loved the food of the country her parents came from, but her time in captivity had left deep scars—something she didn’t need to be reminded of each day when she came to work.
Rose, an artist, had suggested they use colors and abstract shapes to give the restaurant an exotic feel, while not using specific details that might call to mind unhappy times. She used earthy reds, yellows and oranges to make the space feel warm, upbeat and inviting. They decided that Fila would add her own touches over time to make the restaurant truly her own.
Rob had installed large chalkboard panels behind the counter where Fila could put up a menu and specials. Rose had created a beautiful chalk border for it, swirling dancing designs around its edges. The restaurant was meant to be a casual eatery, where guests placed their orders and paid at the counter, then found seats for themselves.
Ned had cleaned, serviced and polished every kitchen appliance to a shine. He’d built shelves to hold Fila’s ingredients and placed racks and hooks in every conceivable space to make the storage of pots, pans and utensils as convenient as possible.
Rob had also installed the speaker system, linked to an iPod dock he’d set up in the kitchen. He’d found a site that featured contemporary pop music and was legal for restaurants to play for their customers. The cost was minimal and it would add to the atmosphere. When someone suggested a world music station, Ned had shaken his head. Pop music was important to Fila. She’d missed a decade of it during the years she was abroad and now she was making up for lost time.
Morgan had offered to help design Fila’s promotional materials once Fila was ready for them. She’d already designed a logo for the restaurant, which Jake had carved onto a large wooden sign. The rest would have to wait until Fila had made her menu choices.
Activity ceased in the restaurant as one by one the workers noticed Ned’s return.
“What do you think? Is everything ready?” Morgan asked him, coming out of the kitchen. Mia followed her, her long, dark ponytail swinging.
Ned looked around at the cheerful room with its tables and chairs, the shining counter and display cases that separated the restaurant from the back rooms, the large chalkboard waiting for a menu and the gleaming kitchen through the swinging doors just waiting for its cook.
“I think it’s perfect,” Ned declared. “She’s going to love it.”
A sharp rap on the door had all of them turning to face it.
“Wonder who that is?” Jake said.
Ned crossed to open it and found a woman he’d never seen before on the other side. His first impression was that she reminded him of Fila. Slim and a good eight inches shorter than him, she had long, dark hair, expressive eyes and a south of the border skin tone. Unlike Fila, her hair flowed unbound in wild waves around her shoulders, and her lips were painted a dramatic red.
“Hola!” Her voice reverberated off the small restaurant’s walls as she pressed past Ned and came inside. Nothing shy about her at all, he noted. She wore skinny jeans, high heels and a sweater that hugged every curve, emphasizing her womanliness without coloring her cheap. Her smile was wide as she took in the bright décor and the shine of the display cabinets and countertop. “It looks wonderful! You’ve done a great job!” The woman had just a trace of an accent, which made them all lean forward to catch her words. “I’m Camila Torres. I’m next door.” She waved her hand at the windowless side wall. When no one spoke she elaborated. “I’ve leased the storefront next door. I’m opening a restaurant, too!”
“You’re opening a restaurant?” Ned said. The muscles in his neck tightened. Competition for Fila? That was the last thing she needed.
“Si! Yes! Mexican, with a twist. I add a little of this and a little of that—sometimes I serve traditional dishes. Sometimes I make up something new.” She cocked her head and smiled. “And which of you is Fila?”
“None of us.” Jake moved forward and offered his hand to shake. “I’m Jake Matheson. This is my brother, Ned. My wife Hannah and sister-in-law Morgan. My friends Mia and Rose. We’re all helping prepare the place as a surprise for another of our friends.”
“For Fila?” Camila flashed a bright smile. “I can’t wait to meet her. She is a her, isn’t she?”
“Yes, she is.” Hannah came forward to greet her. “Her specialty is Afghan cuisine.”
Camila sucked in a breath, her whole face lighting up in surprise. “Afghan food, here in Chance Creek! Then I’m not exiled to the far wastes of civilization, after all!”
There was a moment of silence at this surprising declaration. Camila laughed, long and loud at their expressions.