The Sheriff Catches a Bride (Page 24)

The Sheriff Catches a Bride (Cowboys of Chance Creek #5)(24)
Author: Cora Seton

Nausea swept over her at the thought of seeing her studio again, but Rose allowed him to help her to her feet and support her as she walked back to the carriage house. She was thankful for his steadying arm as she climbed the steps back to the entrance. He had a word with the officer posted there and led her inside. Back in the spare bedroom, she fought even harder to hold back her tears. As professionally and methodically as she could, she described all the changes Emory had made in each of the rooms, and then listed as many missing canvasses as she could recall. With each one, her voice thickened until she couldn’t speak anymore. When Cab moved to comfort her, she waved him off, bracing herself against the wide desk to keep on her feet. Cab disappeared and came back with a box of tissues. She grabbed one gratefully and mopped her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s just…”

“It’s just someone came into your house and destroyed the things most precious to you. I’m sorry, Rose. I’m so sorry. Your paintings are beautiful.”

His perception surprised her.

“Do you want me to take you back to Ethan and Autumn’s place? I’m not sure you should stay here tonight,” he said.

No, she didn’t want to stay here. Not now. “I guess so. I hate to bother them.”

“It won’t be a bother, you know that. Or you could stay with me if you prefer. I assumed you’d be more comfortable with Autumn.”

Rose nodded. “Thanks,” she said.

He put an arm around her shoulder as he led her out the door. “I wish I could say things will look better in the morning, but I won’t. You’ve sustained a real loss. Let me know if there’s anything I can do.”

He said no more as they walked to his truck and for that she was grateful.

Chapter Seven

When she heard her seatmates complaining about the long train ride from Washington, D.C. to Illinois, Fila smothered a laugh. These soft, safe Americans had no idea how long a journey could be. Her trip with her guards had begun before dawn, a long walk through gray light down a precipitous track from her mountain enclave. Several hours later they had emerged in a village that was large by northwestern Afghanistan standards, but tiny compared to the cities she’d passed through so far in the United States. There they’d boarded a run-down Jeep that hailed back to the Russian occupation. After a bone-rattling journey across the pitted and pockmarked back roads of her country, they pulled into Kabul just as the sun was setting again.

She’d been stored like an old rug in the back room of a run-down apartment overnight, the children and wives of the extended family living there taking turns peeking at her around the curtain that acted as a door.

That was the easy part of her journey.

While the first day of travels involved hardships of the body, the second day involved hardships of the mind and soul. The three men chosen to ferry her to New York City—Wahid, Abdul, and Mehran—expected strict obedience. Why wouldn’t they? When hadn’t she been anything but obedient? For the thousandth time, Fila said a prayer of thanks for her mother’s dire warnings on their flight to Afghanistan. Had her mother had a premonition about her own death? Something had compelled her to prepare Fila for what might come.

“Afghan women survive through a mixture of non-resistance and deep-seated rebellion,” she told Fila. “On the surface they wear a serene mask of compliance. That mask must always be in place. Underneath, they boil with plots and plans. When we get there, you watch. The men run the show, but some women, some very powerful women call the shots. It’s an art form, Fila. All survival is an art form.”

Fila did watch when she got to Afghanistan, and she did see. In her remote village, most younger women were almost slaves to their men and the older women around them, but some of the elder wives were powerful in their own right. They influenced their men through the way they spiced their meals, the way they stitched their clothes, the way they spoke to their children. They berated each other for the shortcomings they actually despised in their spouses, and let slip tidbits of gossip aimed with arrow-accuracy, darts of shame to prick their sons and husbands into righteous—and advantageous—action. Fila quickly learned to hide among the village children—she had no power and never would. She mimicked them down to the utmost nuances of their expressions. Disliked and abused at first, she made a campaign out of turning first one and then another to her side. Tiny gifts, bribes, services—whatever it took to cultivate the friendship and loyalty of each of the girls her age in the village. Another campaign to cultivate her elders. A third to ingratiate herself to the littlest ones.

Sooner than she’d dared to hope, she became indispensable to many of them. Her true goal—a return to the United States—she kept from everyone until so many years went by that when her peers began to talk of that shiny, wealthy, infidel place they all loathed and longed for in equal measure, they forgot they’d ever mistrusted her as one who’d been corrupted by actual contact with American soil.

And when more and more girls found themselves chained to more and more grizzled, greedy older men, and the village women began to mutter among themselves about things going too far and where was it going to end, Fila was well-positioned to hear every scrap of gossip about failed—and successful—escape attempts. Once she knew it was possible to flee an arranged marriage, Fila created her new campaign: to get out of Afghanistan altogether.

Rose was quiet on the way to the Cruz ranch. Cab didn’t blame her. He’d like to strangle Emory for destroying her paintings. What kind of person did that?

“Has Emory always been so intrusive into your place?” he forced himself to ask in a calm voice.

“Pretty much. Although this is by far the worst he’s done.”

“And you stay because…”

“Cheap rent, he’s my parents’ friend, and my fiancé’s father, although Jason never wanted me to move in. Once I was there, though, it was impossible to move out.”

“Why?”

“My parents would freak. They’re good friends with him and they told me it would hurt his feelings if I left.”

“That’s not much of a reason to stay.”

She shot him a look. “I was raised to care about the effect I had on other people.”

He mulled this over. “If that’s true, then your parents must care about your feelings.”

“Sure,” she said irritably. “Of course they do.”