“I’ve lived in Houston, Texas for the last eight years. Before that I grew up in Mexico City. I have always been surrounded by hustle and bustle. Then I came here and”—she waved an expressive hand again—“nothing. I live out on the Flying W and I open my door and see”—she shrugged—“nothing! Where is everyone?”
Rose laughed. “I can see how Chance Creek would be a bit of a shock after Houston and Mexico City. You’ll get used to it, though. There’s plenty to see and do here. The trick is making good friends.”
Camila flashed Ned a big smile. “Then I hope I’m well on my way to making a good start.”
“How about this one?” Autumn pulled a long wool skirt in muted earth tones out of Fila’s closet. “You could pair it with this sweater.” She held up a cream-colored cashmere one. A small, sparrowlike woman normally, now her pregnant belly was large enough to make her clumsy. Fila appreciated that she’d come to help.
“Okay.” Fila brushed out her hair and prepared to rebraid it.
“You could leave your hair down,” Autumn suggested. She’d been the one to take in Fila after she arrived in Chance Creek and she knew without Fila having to explain anything that she dreaded her meal with Ned at the restaurant, but she was doing her best to soothe Fila and help her find the courage to go through with it.
“Why don’t you tell Ned how you feel?” she’d asked when she’d first come over. Fila had just shaken her head and Autumn didn’t push her to explain. Ned had been so kind. He had given her a home, fed her—supported her. Surely she could make it through one dinner in return.
Fila regarded her reflection in the mirror. She knew to anyone in Chance Creek a hairstyle was just a hairstyle, but where she’d spent the last ten years it meant so much more. It was hard enough to sit out in public and eat with a man. Hard enough to walk from truck to restaurant without wrapping herself in a burka. Hard enough to expose herself in a way that still felt dangerous, even after all these months.
But to wear her hair spread over her shoulders like a common—
Fila turned away. “I prefer it up.”
“Okay.” Autumn hung the clothes on the handle of the closet. “I brought something for you, though. I think it will go perfectly with your outfit.” She pulled a small, square box out of her pocket and handed it to Fila. “Open it up!”
Fila did, to find a simple, but elegant pendant inside. Autumn was right; it would go with her outfit beautifully, and there was nothing flashy about it. Nothing that made Fila feel in danger.
“Thank you,” she said to Autumn.
“Get changed. I want to see it on.”
Ten minutes later Fila surveyed herself in the mirror again. She knew she looked old-fashioned with her pinned up hair and pretty, but proper outfit. She wore a pair of plain cowboy boots with her skirt, so she’d fit in at DelMonaco’s. As Autumn had told her with a smile, “You can wear any outfit with a pair of boots and you’ll be just fine.”
Autumn checked the time. “I better go. Ned will be here soon and he won’t appreciate me intruding into your time with him.”
When Fila turned to her in surprise, Autumn just shook her head. “You can’t tell me you haven’t noticed—that man is sweet on you. I’d bet my last dollar on it.”
Fila walked her to the door, too surprised to even say good-bye. Ned? Sweet on her?
She bit back a smile.
Ned knew Fila had been reluctant to come to DelMonaco’s with him, but first he meant to wine and dine her, and then he’d take her to see her surprise. The others would meet them at her restaurant at seven-thirty. He couldn’t wait to see Fila’s face when she saw what they had done. She seemed nervous now, glancing around the busy dining room and fiddling with the napkin in her lap. She was always a little jittery in crowds. He figured she’d settle in once their meals came. He’d ordered them both steaks, baked potatoes and salad with the house dressing, and he’d encouraged her to try one of the dinner rolls that Sarah-Jane, their waitress, had left on the table.
Fila pulled off a chunk of the roll and nibbled at it nervously, her gaze skidding around the room from one table to another of boisterous eaters. Ned had never realized how loud it got in DelMonaco’s—Chance Creek’s most popular restaurant. Fila was as tightly strung as a deer waiting to bound away to safety. When Fila had first arrived in town, all everyone could talk about was how brave she’d been to escape her captors. Then when she’d been pursued, she’d shown great courage again, trying to trade her own life for the safety of all the others who were there at the shootout.
After the danger was past, though, Fila seemed to collapse in on herself. Then Federal agents had arrived and demanded to question her about her time in Afghanistan, the men who had followed her to Montana and what her ties to them might still be. The questioning had lasted for several days. The Fila who emerged after it was a pale shadow of the woman she’d previously been. Autumn had explained it to him at one of the Cruz’s Thursday poker and pool nights.
“She thought she was coming home—that she’d be safe the minute she touched down on American soil. That’s what kept her together through her travels. But first those Taliban men hunted her down and showed her she wasn’t safe—even here. And then those Federal agents rounded her up and questioned her like she was an enemy. They had to do it, of course,” Autumn hurried on. “For all they knew the Taliban had planted her here for a reason, but it’s…broken her, Ned. She’s just…lost.”
His fingers twitched at the memory—wanting to ball themselves into fists—but he made himself relax them and return his attention to Fila. “Quite a crowd, isn’t it?”
“Lots of business. People love to eat out.” He was building up to his purpose for bringing her here, but now that they were at the restaurant, he wasn’t sure how to proceed. At home Fila seemed like she was making progress every day. She had a quiet confidence when she worked in her kitchen. Here she had shrunk into herself in a way that made him nervous for her. He decided not to push it now. “It was a pleasant day today.”
Fila’s eyebrows shot up. The temperature had hardly climbed out of the single digits and the wind hadn’t let up all day.
“For January,” Ned amended. He searched for another topic of conversation. “That stuff you made yesterday was really good. That meat dish.”