“Thank you, but I really can’t stay.” Shelley took a step toward the door. She wasn’t exactly sure why she shouldn’t stay, but it just didn’t feel right sharing a meal with this person she hardly knew. The mother of a guy she barely knew who’d invited her to his camp – which kind of made it even more…weird.
Then again, it also seemed impolite to decline. Small town people tended to get offended if you didn’t stay for supper. And she was hungry.
“Nonsense,” her would-be hostess said. “At least let me make you a sandwich for the trip. You’ve got a good drive ahead of you, and I can tell you from experience that the camp kitchen closes at six. I can also tell you that the guy who runs it is a scary fellow if he catches you raiding the food supplies after closing.”
“I take it you’ve had experience with that too.” Shelley laughed, moving back to the counter. “Maybe I will take you up on a plate. I’ve been eating junk food all day, and that roast smells divine. If you’re sure you’re up for company, that is. I don’t want to be a bother.” It didn’t seem polite to eat and run, especially given how difficult it clearly was for Mrs. Riley to get around. She checked her watch. Tabby and Mike should be at the camp by now – had probably been there for a few hours already. Hopefully everything was okay.
“I’m always up for company – we get so little way out here. Come around, dear – we’re not gonna eat standing up at the counter. And flip that closed sign on the door, will you? Then we’ll call the camp and make sure your friend is safe.”
Shelley flipped the sign over and locked the door, then went through the door at the end of the counter and followed her nose through a doorway near the back of the workroom, stepping into a warm, cozy living room with a galley kitchen at the far end where her hostess was opening the oven.
“Here Mrs. Riley. Let me help you with that. It looks heavy.” Dropping her purse on the couch, Shelley rushed over and grabbed a pair of potholders from a hook beside the stove.
The woman chuckled and shooed her off. “You can call me Diane. And I need to keep doing this for myself, or soon enough I won’t be able to. Gotta work these ol’ muscles to keep ‘em!”
Shelley smiled, trying not to worry too much as Diane lifted the roasting pot from the oven to the stove with little effort – no small feat with her back as hunched as it was.
“I see your point, but it’s okay to accept help sometimes. I’m Shelley, by the way. Shelley Franks.”
Diane closed the oven door and put the potholders aside. She wiped her hands on a towel and turned around with a smile.
“It’s nice to meet you, Shelley. Your parents were fans of the author, I take it?”
“Yes they were,” Shelley answered. “Not many people get the connection, but my mom loved reading Mary Shelley. And Frankenstein was my dad’s favorite. So when I was born, choosing a name was easy, or so my mom said.” She took the plate of steaming roast beef, vegetables and a baked potato gratefully. “Why did you make such a big meal for yourself? Isn’t that an awful lot of leftovers?”
“Of course!” Diane filled her own plate and joined Shelley at the good-sized table between the kitchen and living room. “That’s the whole point, dear. Some to share, some to save for another meal or three. If you’re going to go to the trouble of cooking when you live alone like I do, might as well make it worthwhile, I say.”
“Very smart. I should try that,” Shelley commented. “I’ve never liked to cook, so I do it as little as possible. I honestly can’t remember the last time I had a home-cooked meal, so thank you.” She took a bite of roast and mashed potato, all too aware of Diane’s watchful gaze. Luckily it was good. Really, really good, and Shelley closed her eyes for a moment just to savor the flavor.
“Oh wow,” she said, opening her eyes to see a look of pleasure on her hostess’s face. “That is amazing! Where did you learn how to cook?”
Diane laughed. “Oh honey – when I was a girl, that was all we were allowed to do. Cook and clean and keep house. I learned from my mama and grandma just a few houses that-away.” She gestured in the direction of the gas station with one hand.
“Were you born here then? What was it like growing up in such a small town?” Shelley wasn’t sure why she was so fascinated with this woman’s life, but she was. Life out here in the foothills was so foreign to her. She’d driven through small towns before, but the thought that this woman had been living in this same small town all of her life was just…mind-boggling for some reason.
The bell on the front door rang, and Shelley jumped. “I know I locked that,” she said, just before a somewhat familiar voice called out from the front room.
“Mom! Did you see a short woman with long black hair come through town awhile back? Her cousin said she was coming out to the camp by herself and asked me…”
A man came through the living room and Shelley recognized him right away. His lips perked up in a grin when he saw her.
“…to find her. And I just did. I see you two have met.” He gave his mother a peck on the cheek and a squeeze around her shoulders before he got a plate and helped himself to dinner.
“Dillon!” Diane clasped her hand over her heart. “I’m so glad you’re here. We’d planned to call the camp and make sure Shelley’s cousin got there okay before she headed up there herself, but got a little sidetracked with dinner.”
“I guess we can assume the answer is yes,” Shelley said, returning his smile. His whole demeanor was different from what it had been at the bar – more relaxed and at ease. She wondered if it was his mom, or just the environment.
“I’m sorry they sent you to find me, though. I can’t be late, because I didn’t actually tell Tabitha what time I’d be there.”
Dillon shrugged, finishing the bite of food he’d been chewing. “They got to the camp pretty early today. Tabitha was just worried your car broke down or something. She wanted to call highway patrol, but I convinced her to let me drive down here and see if you’d made it this far, at least.”
Shelley rolled her eyes. “She can be rather dramatic at times. How’s she getting along with Mike?” Tabby wasn’t always the easiest person to deal with – she tended to be a steamroller and if you didn’t roll with her, you got rolled over.
Dillon picked up the handset of a phone hanging on the wall. It was one of the older landline styles, and there was even a rotary dial on the base.
“I think she’ll be fine once she knows you’re safe.” He dialed a number and waited. From across the table, Shelley could hear ringing on the other end of the line before a garbled male voice came on.
“Hey Mike,” Dillon said. “Yeah, she’s here. I found her with Mom, actually. Can you put—” Dillon yanked the phone away from his ear and winced. “You talk to her,” he said, passing the handset and its long cord across the table. “You might want ear plugs, though.”
Shelley grinned, holding the phone away from her ear as her cousin rambled on about how worried she’d been. Which they both knew wasn’t strictly true. She may have been somewhat concerned, sure. But Tabby was excellent at acting and she rarely missed an opportunity to make herself look good.
“Slow down, Tab. I’m fine, I just stopped to get my bearings and ended up running into Dillon’s mom. Totally random.”
“Everything happens for a reason, honey,” Dillon’s mom stage-whispered. Shelley smiled and nodded.
“Oh good. I was so worried,” Tabby said, her voice so low Shelley could barely hear. “When you didn’t show up, I thought maybe you weren’t coming…” A long, low rumble outside the post office provided the perfect ominous backdrop to her tone. Of course it would threaten to rain just when she was getting ready to leave.
“You worry too much,” Shelley said. “How’s the camp? Are you and Mike having fun?”
“Sort of.” Tabby sighed. “I mean, mostly. I’ve never actually talked to one guy for this long before. It’s weird. I might actually run out of things to say – and I never do that.”
“I really doubt you have to worry about that.” Shelley laughed as the thunder rolled again. It sounded closer. “Hey look – it’s thundering here, so I should let you go so we can get on the road, okay? But we can talk about it as soon as I—” Lightening cracked hard somewhere outside at the same time Shelley heard Tabby screech on the other end of the line. “Tabby? Tabitha – are you okay?”
Dillon took the phone from her and held it up to his ear. “Hello? Anyone there?” He hung it up and turned back to Shelley, his brow furrowed.
“I don’t like our odds of making it up that road tonight – especially if the camp lost power. That’s normally the second thing to go after the phones. Your friend will be fine with Mike tonight, but I think we should stay here in town. We can head up early tomorrow morning.”
Shelley nodded. “There’s no way to let Tabby know? She’ll be anxious enough with the storm – she hates them. But if I don’t show up, and she’s expecting us…”
“Mike will know I wouldn’t drive up in this. He’ll tell her not to look for us until morning.” He put a hand on Shelley’s shoulder and squeezed lightly, the warmth contagious. “She’ll be okay. Mike will take good care of her.”
“It’s settled then.” Diane got up from the table, a wide grin on her face. “I’ll get some heavier blankets out for you two. The spare rooms haven’t been heated in awhile, but that should keep you both warm until the registers catch up.”
Thanks for reading! Check back next week for Chapter 6!
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