“You cook just as well as the people here do.”
Fila smiled a little and his heart rose—she’d been so tense since they’d left the cabin. “But I don’t do steaks.”
“No. Not yet, anyhow. I bet you’ll get the hang of it someday. If you want to.” He was relieved when Sarah-Jane, their waitress, delivered their salads. He felt like he was making a mess of things. Somehow back at home when he’d been planning what to say, it had all made sense. At least in his mind. Fila needed something to occupy her time. She needed to feel like she had something to offer the town, and she needed to earn an income so she wouldn’t feel at the mercy of everyone else. All of these things would increase her confidence and help her heal. “Still, I like your cooking because it’s different, you know? You can’t get anything like it in Chance Creek.”
“In fact, I’ve had an idea—a way you can earn the money you need.” This was it. Make or break time. Would Fila see the possibilities? Would she be overwhelmed with gratitude for the opportunity he was presenting her?
She froze in the act of lifting a forkful of salad to her mouth. Placed it down again carefully and folded her hands in her lap. She didn’t look grateful. She looked terrified. “A way to earn money?” she echoed quietly.
Ned took a breath. Here’s where he put his cards on the table. Where he showed how much he cared about her and the lengths to which he’d go to make her happy. This was the first step in the journey towards making her his wife, no matter what his father said. “Yeah. I know you’ve been worried about it, but I’ve got it all figured out.”
She stared at him.
“You can open your own restaurant!”
Fila fought the urge to be sick. Open a restaurant? That was Ned’s solution to her problems? She clutched the edge of the table to keep the room from spinning. She’d barely managed to make it here. Her heart had been in her mouth since they left the cabin. And he thought she should open a restaurant?
“Well? What do you think?”
Ned was obviously thrilled with the idea. Fila searched for the right words to explain why that was impossible. Why it was unthinkable.
“A restaurant?” she managed to say. She felt like her throat would close up any minute. Her palms were sweating and a fine tremble had started in her limbs. Did he not understand how hard it had been to climb in his truck and drive the five miles to town? Didn’t he know she shook whenever she felt the large Montana sky above her? That coming to a public place—among a crowd of strangers—left her so filled with panic that she wanted to run and hide?
Had he no sense of the fact that the only reason she had made it this far was that he had asked her to—and she couldn’t repay his kindness with disrespect? She had no idea how she would get through the rest of this meal, let alone open a restaurant and face the public every day of her life.
It was so far from possible as to be a joke.
Except Ned wasn’t joking.
“A small restaurant,” he explained. “Nothing overwhelming. You’d hire someone else to run the front end—to serve the customers and take their payments. You’d be in the kitchen, where you like to be. It would be great! I bet you’d make a killing, too. You’d have all the money you wanted.”
He sat back, satisfied.
He couldn’t have hurt her more if he’d taken out a pistol and shot her in the chest. “That takes money.” She seized on an easy way out. She had no money—not yet. Maybe not ever. Autumn was helping her search to see if her parents had left anything behind when they died, but after a decade, Fila figured it was all gone.
“Don’t worry about that—I’ll handle everything.” Ned looked pleased as punch. And why not? He thought he’d figured everything out.
She shook her head. “I will not take money from you.”
“You’ve taken free rent—why wouldn’t you accept a loan?”
Fila recoiled like he’d slapped her. She knew she was a burden on everyone. It pressed upon her every minute of every day. She knew she owed people more money than she could hope to pay off, but how could she work if she could barely leave the house? It was impossible. She didn’t want to be a burden, but venturing out into public life, trying to start a business? She had no idea how to even begin to do that.
Plus she had the education of a twelve-year-old. She might be twenty-two, but she’d gone to Afghanistan in the middle of seventh grade and hadn’t attended a day of classes since. She had no skills. She couldn’t keep records or order supplies. She knew nothing about running a restaurant.
Sarah-Jane delivered their plates. “You two want anything else?”
Fila watched the young woman toss her head confidently. Sarah-Jane had no problem walking up to complete strangers and taking their orders, talking and laughing with them, presenting them with a bill. She could never do that. Just thinking about it made her want to hide.
“We’re fine,” Ned told her. He reached out and touched Fila’s hand. She fought the urge to snatch it back. “It’s a done deal, no need to argue. I won’t take no for an answer.”
He turned his attention to his meal and Fila gazed at her steak and potato miserably. He wouldn’t take no for an answer. And how could she say no when she owed him so much? Until she could support herself—until she could pay everyone back—she would remain a burden forever.
She didn’t think she could force a forkful of steak down her throat, but she made herself think of all the children in Afghanistan who would go to bed hungry tonight and took a bite. The handsome cowboy across the table deserved better than the reaction he was getting from her.
“How’s your steak?” Ned asked brightly.
She forced herself to swallow. “Very good,” she said and took a sip of water. Unshed tears stung her eyes. She wanted to go home. Wanted to go to bed and bury her face in the covers. Wanted to cry herself to sleep.
“It’s not as good as your cooking. You’re going to be a star.”
By the time Ned led Fila out of DelMonaco’s he was beginning to think he might have made a mistake. Fila hadn’t eaten much of her dinner and as the meal went on, she seemed to shrink into herself more and more. A rowdy guest at another table had knocked a water glass to the ground and Fila nearly jolted out of her chair at the unexpected noise. Ned figured he might have over-estimated her readiness for rejoining public life. He recalled now that she’d even been overwhelmed by the poker and pool nights at Autumn’s place. Even surrounded by friends, the loud voices and boisterous laughter seemed to press on her. Normally she slipped away before they were half over. At the last one, however, she’d managed to stay until it was done. That was weeks ago, though—before the houseful of paying guests had descended on Ethan and Autumn and she, Hannah and Mia had been forced to abandon the rooms they’d been renting and come to live on the Double-Bar-K.