No. What Autumn said was true. First she had to find herself. Then maybe someday she could give herself heart and soul to Cab.
Fila was disappointed when Catherine left the bus in the wee hours of the morning to head back to her college. She missed her company. She envied her, too. From her descriptions, Catherine’s life sounded like a heavenly mixture of learning and carefree playtime. She attended classes, studied in her afternoons, then went dancing, or to concerts, or to plays or to dinner. A whirlwind of parties and social occasions.
All that had been taken from Fila when she’d left for Afghanistan. She hadn’t attended school since she was twelve. She knew she must be as ignorant as a child compared to someone like Catherine. Would she someday go to a college or university? She didn’t see how; first she’d have to catch up with all the other students who’d graduated from high school. Traveling across North Dakota, the gray skies outside her window matched the fears and sorrow within her heart. What if this was all for nothing? What if no one in Montana would help her? What if the United States wasn’t her home anymore?
What if Wahid found her?
At a small station in Dickinson, North Dakota, a new bunch of passengers boarded the bus and a man in a tan cowboy hat paused in the aisle next to Fila’s row, stowed his duffel bag on the rack above them, sat down heavily in the empty seat beside her and rested his hat in his lap.
Fila cringed away from the cowboy. It was the first time a man had done such a thing since she stepped onto the AirTrain at JFK airport. She’d always tried to sit near other women, and when she hadn’t, no man had taken the empty seat next to her. Now what should she do?
A quick glance around the bus told her she had no options. There were only a couple of empty seats left, situated next to men who looked less trustworthy than this one. She inched as far away from him as she could get in her seat and clasped her fingers tightly together in her lap. There were still almost five hours to go on this trip. Could she survive that long sitting next to this… man?
“I don’t bite,” he drawled, startling her. He cocked his head and looked at her. “I mean it. I don’t bite. You can relax over there. In about five minutes I’ll be asleep and the only thing you’ll have to worry about is if my snoring keeps you awake.” He smiled at her and it wasn’t the lascivious grin of a man with mischief on his mind. It was a friendly smile, although he looked somewhat strained. Like maybe he hadn’t gotten much sleep recently. Fila relaxed a little bit, but only a little bit.
“I’m heading to Billings,” he added. “After that you’ll be quit of me.”
“That’s where I’m going,” she said, then bit her lip. Why had she suddenly developed this bad habit of blurting out facts no one else had the right to know?
“Usually I drive myself, but my truck’s in the shop, and I couldn’t wait anymore.” His face fell and he smoothed the brim of his hat with a thumb and forefinger. “Nope, need to go home and see things for myself.”
“Your home is in Montana?” Fila asked, surprising herself. When was the last time she’d questioned a man? Her Taliban relatives in Afghanistan wouldn’t stand for it.
He nodded after a moment. “My father is there. So is my fiancée. My ex-fiancée, I guess.” He sighed heavily. Looked her way again. “Name’s Jason. Jason Thayer.” He put out his hand.
She shook it uncertainly, almost paralyzed when she couldn’t remember the proper etiquette for this situation. Did American women shake hands? Of course they did. Right? Yes.
Jason’s hand enveloped hers, warm and dry and strong. He shook her hand and let it go, as easy as that. Fila felt a resurgence of confidence.
“And you are…” Jason prompted.
“Fila.” Surely this close to her goal she could use her name without fear. Or maybe not. Had she just compromised herself?
“What sends you to Montana? Family?” He seemed eager to talk. Perhaps eager to distract himself from thoughts of the woman who was no longer his fiancée.
“I’m going to meet someone who’s been very special to me. Someone who helped me,” she said.
Jason sat back. “Sounds like there’s a story there.”
She allowed herself a small smile. “There is. Unfortunately I can’t share it.” Did his shoulders slump? Had he wanted to know more about her? Somehow the idea of catching a man’s attention thrilled her just a little bit. Scared her, too. Back in the village men ignored her utterly, or if they didn’t, it meant trouble. “I’m not sure if the woman I’m going to see wants me to tell it.”
She searched for something else to say. “Tell me about your fiancée.”
It was the right question to ask. Jason launched into a detailed description of a woman named Rose Bellingham, his high school sweetheart. “We grew up together in Chance Creek. I’ve known her since I was five years old…”
Fila didn’t hear any more past Chance Creek. This man was from Chance Creek. He was going there now. As long as she stuck close to him she’d reach her destination.
“Tell me, have you heard of Aria Cruz?” she interrupted him, all thoughts of keeping her plan secret fleeing from her mind. “Do you know her daughter?”
“Claire? Sure, I know Claire. And Morgan, too.”
Fila began to cry.
“What gives with you and Rose?” Jamie said. He, Cab and Ethan stood beside a corral on the Cruz ranch, blowing on their hands and watching Rob put a gelding through its paces. Jamie usually took first crack at the new horses they acquired, but this one was meant for the rodeo, and the rodeo was Rob’s department.
“We’re friends,” Cab said. He tried hard to suppress a grin. Failed.
Ethan chuckled. “More than friends, maybe?”
“Maybe,” Cab conceded. He wasn’t one to kiss and tell, but this one time he wished he could. What a story he had. Better than any of the tall tales Rob and Jamie had swapped over the years.
“Not that it’s any of my business, but what about Jason?” Jamie said, resting a boot on the lowest rail of the corral.
“Happy to hear that. It’s about time you found yourself a woman.”
“Are you all talking about Cab and Rose?” Rob shouted from atop the gelding. He reined it in to a stop. “Don’t talk about Cab and Rose without me!”