After a decade, their methods worked to the extent that Fila blended in with every other blue-veiled woman in the village. She spoke Pashto fluently and cooked, cleaned and sewed like all the rest of them. But she remembered America, she remembered friends and pop music and iPods and all the rest of it. So now—surrounded by noisy American passengers—she could process the cues she saw around her in the AirTrain.
As her guards approached down the center aisle and looked at each seated woman in turn, she knew what happened next hinged on her ability to channel her American youth into the present moment.
She listened to Carla’s music and watched the approaching men out of the corner of her eye. Catching the beat, she began to nod her head.
“You like it, don’t you?” Carla said. Her voice was dim beyond the music flowing from the earbuds, but Fila caught her meaning.
“Yes, very much,” she said with a wide grin. She allowed the beat to take hold of her and she nodded her head with a more exaggerated motion. She recalled watching music videos as a girl, dancing with her American friends and trying to copy the moves of her onscreen idols. She snapped her fingers along to the beat, and shimmied her shoulders a little.
“It’s terrific, isn’t it?” Carla asked.
That’s when Wahid leaned over their seats and caught her eye.
Fila didn’t skip a beat. The chorus came on and she started to sing along, pitching her voice much louder than the submissive murmur she’d adopted back in the village. Carla, laughing, joined in and together they sang, bobbed, and shimmied to the music. Wahid’s gaze slid along the seats.
Ten seconds later he was gone.
Fila fought back the nausea that swept over her in waves. Saved by music. Saved by laughter.
She was home.
The one flaw in Rose’s plan was a lack of electricity. She needed somewhere to plug in her power saw and Carl Whitfield’s woods didn’t come with an outlet. She couldn’t work at Emory’s place, either, for obvious reasons, so she took a chance and headed for the Cruz ranch, phoning Autumn from her truck. As she’d expected, Autumn welcomed her right over, and when she pulled up in front of the Big House, she met her on the front porch.
“Tell me about this project of yours,” Autumn said, craning her neck to see the lumber in the back of Rose’s truck.
“It’s a secret. It’s really important you don’t tell anyone else.”
“A secret, huh? Sounds exciting.”
“It is,” Rose confessed. “I need a place to paint, somewhere accessible only to me. I’ve thought it through and decided to build it from scratch.”
Autumn raised her eyebrows. “Why don’t you paint at home? I thought you had a studio in the carriage house.”
“It’s a long story, and it probably wouldn’t make sense if I told you,” Rose said, knowing you had to live with Emory to understand what he was capable of. “I appreciate you letting me cut some boards here.”
“Where will you build the studio?”
Rose bit her lip and shook her head.
Autumn’s eyes widened. “I wouldn’t tell anyone.”
“Really? Not even Ethan?”
Autumn had the grace to look abashed. “I guess you’re right, you’d better not tell me. Is it somewhere safe?”
Rose thought of Cab ensconced in Carl’s house right next to the woods. “Yes, I think so.”
“Okay, but you know how this town is. It won’t stay secret for long.”
Autumn was probably right, but she hoped it would stay secret for a few months, long enough for her to reconfigure her life. By then she’d have a new plan and maybe she wouldn’t need to be secretive anymore.
“I don’t know why you aren’t in art school, anyway,” Autumn said. “And why aren’t you exhibiting the work you’ve already done? You could definitely sell more paintings. I love the one of yours we have in the living room.”
Rose liked it, too. It was one of her best; a fall landscape, all oranges and browns, with a herd of cattle in the distance.
“You’re the only one who wonders that,” Rose told her. “My parents think it’s a waste of money and Jason thinks it’s downright ridiculous.”
Autumn pressed her lips together. “Your family should support your dream, but if they don’t you have to support it on your own.”
“I guess that’s what I’m trying to do. I don’t have the money for art school, but I do have enough to build a cabin art studio. At least I’ll get to paint in peace.”
“That’s a good first step. You’d better build fast, though. It’s going to snow any day now.”
“I’ll get started right now,” Rose said. She hugged Autumn. “Thanks—you have no idea how much this means to me.”
“Just invite me over someday when you get sick of being alone,” Autumn said. “Sometimes I need to get away, too.”
“I will,” Rose said. “First, I need to cut a bunch of boards. Do you have an outside power outlet? I have a battery operated drill, but my saw needs power.”
“No problem,” Autumn said. “Why don’t you come inside for a minute first, though, and I’ll make you a cup of cocoa. That will keep you warm while you work.” She led the way inside the house. When they entered the great room, however, Rose wished she’d stayed outside. She’d mistakenly thought no one would be around at this time in the day, but Ethan, Jamie, Rob and Cab had just entered through the back door, and were taking seats around the dining room table. Her heart zinged when she saw Cab, but then it sank. Four men to get interested in her project. Four men to try to supervise her and tell her what to do.
Was there any such thing as a battery operated power saw? If only she could hide in the woods while she built her tiny cabin.
Rose hesitated in the entryway, but didn’t see how she could escape notice. Sure enough, Autumn said to Ethan, “Rose is going to saw up some boards outside after we have a cup of cocoa. You don’t mind, do you?”
“Fire away,” Ethan said affably. “I’ll come and help you set up.”
“That’s all right, I don’t need any help,” Rose said, following Autumn into the kitchen.
“It’s no trouble at all.”
Rose clamped her mouth shut to block the words fighting to pour out. She didn’t want help. She wanted the space to do something on her own, for once. Her way. Was that so hard to understand?