Shelby: You’ve Got a Friend
Shelby Evans spotted the fire truck at her house and knew instinctively this was not going to be a good Monday.
Maybe she’d been a little distracted on her walk in the park, but she didn’t think she’d been gone that long. But it was such a beautiful September day and she had taken her journal, run into a couple of acquaintances, stopped for a bagel . . .
Clutching Penelope, her seven-pound Shih-poo, Shelby stepped over the neighbor kid’s bicycle on her front walk. Penelope barked at the intrusion of the monstrous truck parked in her driveway and the men winding up the heavy hose.
Nick Majors touched Shelby’s arm, catching her by surprise. She swiveled around to face him.
“What’s going on?”
“Your neighbor reported smoke coming from your house.”
“It’s contained in your dining room. Not too much damage—smoke damage mostly. The fire had just started when we got here.”
She reached for the door and pushed it open. Thick smoke lingered inside the house, causing her to cough. “If this is ‘not too much,’ I’d hate to see what real damage looks like.”
“What are you doing in here?” A firefighter dressed in a cumbersome uniform, a fire extinguisher on his back, gave her a forbidding look.
Nick stood behind her. “It’s all right, Captain. She lives here.”
Thankfully, Nick was a volunteer fireman and could plead her case. She’d be upset if she couldn’t at least see the damage for herself.
Holding a dainty handkerchief loosely over Penelope’s nose, Shelby held the dog close and looked around her dining room area. Water on her floor and dining room table. Wet walls. Though it could have been much worse, the scene overwhelmed her.
She spotted wet broken pieces of wood on the floor and cupped them in her hands. “This was the clock you made me.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll make you another one for Christmas,” Nick said.
The pieces spilled from her hands and she choked back her emotions. Burying her face in Penelope’s soft, clean fur, Shelby stepped back outside, away from the acrid smell, and took in long deep breaths.
Classes for Social Graces were scheduled to start in two weeks. In this very place. With an apartment-like setup, Shelby lived in the upstairs of her Victorian home and used the downstairs for the school. It had been the perfect arrangement.
Shelby had invested most of her money into the house to make it functional for her purposes, so she had little to use toward renting another place while this one was repaired. Her sewing business provided enough, but offered little extra. Social Graces, the place where she taught young girls how to become ladies, was more of a calling than a moneymaker.
She’d have to call her insurance company, then contact someone to clean up the mess.
“We’ll figure it all out,” Nick said.
Shelby nodded. Just having him near sent a rush of relief through her. He was right. They’d figure it out. And God would help her get through this, one step at a time. The tension eased from her shoulders.
The captain came out of the house, talked to Shelby again about what would happen next, and left.
“I have to wash my truck, and then we could stop at the coffee shop to talk things over. You need to get away from this place, the smoke and all, so you can think. Want to go?”
“Aren’t you on duty?”
“I came when the pager went off, but they had enough responders when I got here. Since things are quieting down, Captain just told me I could go.”
One of the other firemen called him over. Shelby watched them as they talked. She didn’t like the growing frown on Nick’s face or the way he stomped back toward her.
“They found out where the fire started.”
“Oh?” She had the distinct feeling she didn’t want to hear this.
“You left the glue gun on in the dining room, Shelby. How many times have I told you when you’re finished to turn it off and unplug it?”
A flicker of irritation gained momentum—especially when she noticed several people looking their way. “I’m sorry, Mr. Safety, but not all of us qualify for the Smokey-the-Bear Award.”
“How can you defend yourself when we’re talking life and death here?”
“I’m not defending myself. I’m just saying we don’t all think of things the way you do. I messed up. So sue me.”
His gaze pinned her in place. “I don’t believe this.” He rubbed a hand across the back of his neck.
Shelby knew it was her fault, but he didn’t have to point it out so everyone could hear. “Look, Nick, I appreciate your concern, but you’re not a superhero. Deal with it.” She whirled around and attempted to walk away, but he grabbed her arm.
“Listen, we’re both a little tense right now. Let’s go to the coffee shop and talk about the repairs.”
Shelby lifted her chin. “I need to change my exercise clothes and put Penelope upstairs away from the smoke.” Her anger was really with herself, but when backed in a corner, she couldn’t help taking it out on Nick.
“To be safe, you’d better take Penelope to a neighbor’s house, at least for today. Then you can get some fans and dehumidifiers in there to help with the smell.”
Shelby sighed. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
Once she had changed her clothes and taken Penelope to a neighbor’s house, she rejoined Nick. They climbed into his old black Chevy truck and drove past the quaint storefronts that lined Main Street. Shoppers strolled from the candy shop to the clothing boutique. Any other time she would have stopped at Sweet Surrender to soothe her pain with chocolate, but even that failed to tempt her. What was she going to do? This catastrophe would derail all her plans.
Nick swerved into the do-it-yourself car wash. “Be right back.”
“Want some help?”
“No, thanks. I can handle it.”
Shelby sighed. Why couldn’t he get his truck washed at an automatic wash like normal people? She watched as he pulled some rags from the back of the truck and set to work sloshing soap around the vehicle. His arms looked strong, capable. She supposed Nick’s determination to do things himself was what kept him so fit. He grabbed a brush and scrubbed the hubcaps. She decided “fit” looked nice on him.
After the rinse, polish, and dry, he rejoined her in the truck.
The remaining water sloshed off the wheel guards as Nick nosed the truck carefully onto the street and into traffic. The coffee shop was about a five-minute drive away.
As they stepped inside the shop, a wreath of grapevines and violets shifted on the front door. Nick grunted at it, but Shelby ignored him. One problem at a time. That was all she could handle today.
Bold coffee smells greeted them. Adjusting the ruffled border of her periwinkle sweater, Shelby dipped into her small pocketbook and pulled out her debit card.
Nick motioned it away. “This one is on me.”
Natalie Mansfield waved at them from behind the counter. “Be there in a sec.”
“Thanks.” Shelby fingered the small notepad in her hand while they waited.
“Hey, Shelby. Peppermint tea, or are you going to break down and have coffee today?” Natalie gave a big smile, but it faded quickly as she looked at Shelby. “What’s wrong?”
When Shelby hesitated, Nick jumped in and explained what had happened.
“Oh, Shelby, no. I’m so sorry, sweetie. Let me get your—tea, is it?”
“I’ll bring it out.” Natalie took Nick’s order while Shelby found a table for them.
Once seated, Shelby took a quick glance at her friend in the navy T-shirt, work boots, and long jeans. With dark hair that shagged a little long in back and drooped lazily over his ears, she couldn’t deny Nick was handsome in a rugged sort of way. Strong jaw, inset dark eyes. But the stubble? What made a man want to leave little bits of hair on his face? It was like dark confetti strewn about that no one bothered to clean up. Once a mountain man, always a mountain man. How would he ever find a woman, looking like that?
“So have you played your Christmas music yet? It is September, you know.” Nick pulled out a chair and sat down.
Shelby smiled. “Maybe once or twice.”
“How about you? Decorated any trees lately?” They both knew they were avoiding discussion of the inevitable.
“Not yet. But soon. Very soon.” He winked.
“Would you stop talking Christmas already? It’s not even Halloween yet, for crying out loud,” Natalie said, easing a cup of tea to Shelby and a plain coffee toward Nick.
Nick laughed. “I can’t exactly fault a woman for enjoying Christmas. After all, that is my line of work.”
Natalie shook her head. “All right, you two, let’s get down to business. What are you going to do about your classes, Shelby? Don’t they start in a couple of weeks?”
“Yeah. I thought I would ask Rose if I could hold the classes at her house until the repairs are finished.”
“Good,” Natalie said. “Now, what about the repairs? Any idea who to hire?”
Shelby turned to Nick. “You mentioned you know someone?”
Just then several customers walked through the door and headed toward the counter.
“Uh-oh, gotta get back to work. Let me know if you need anything, Shelby.”
“Okay. Thanks, Nat.”
“Griffen Parker is back in town. He’s a good contractor and a great guy. I think he knows a little about fire restoration, too. We could see if he’s available,” Nick said.
“Didn’t he do the work on Carson’s cabins?”
“Yeah. Want me to call him for you?”
“That would be great. Thanks, Nick.”
He shrugged and took another drink of his coffee. “I’d better get back over to your house and see if there’s anything I can do to help.”
She had to admire the way he took charge of things for her at a time when she could hardly think straight. “Yeah, I need to talk to Rose. Call me the minute you hear from Griffen.”
“Will do. You ready to go?”
“Yeah.” She said good-bye to Natalie and followed Nick out the door.
“Thanks for your help, Nick. I’m sorry you always have to come to my rescue.”
“Why are you sorry? I want you to count on me.”
“But I can’t expect you to always fix things for me. You have your own life.”
“That’s what friends do, Shelby. Period. I want you to come to me for anything you need.”
Shelby saw the disappointment on Nick’s face, so she said nothing further. Besides, as much as she hated to admit it, she did need him.
* * *
Those flowered wreaths had been springing up all over town for months. Nick grunted. Losing the mill was one thing, but now Smitten was on its way to being the laughingstock of the state.
Rolling down the roadway, Nick’s truck chugged and groaned. Its big tires crunched and stirred up gravel dust behind the taillights. With a crank of the handle, he rolled up his window from the chill. He needed to finish his cup of hot coffee to get his mind off of what those women were trying to do to the town. He let out a sigh. He knew they meant well, but this was his town. He’d lived there all his life, and he couldn’t stand by and just let them turn it into a “girly” town, could he?
His thoughts turned to Shelby and the way she had looked at her house. Her eyes, dark pools shadowed with fear beneath thick fringy lashes, the tinge of pink that stained her cheeks. In one protective moment, he wanted to scoop her dainty form into his arms and hold her close.
He shook his head. You’re thinking nonsense, dude.
Passing the church, he spotted the violet wreath on the front doors. His sour mood zipped back into place. Seemed to him the church should stay neutral on such matters. Regardless of what the pastor said about the wreath standing for faith in the town’s survival, the fact that little Mia came up with the idea told him it was a nod for the women and their ridiculous idea to make Smitten a romance capital. If he’d wanted to live in a love capital, he’d have moved to the Poconos.
Women. The big ones and the little ones were all the same. He should thank his lucky stars he didn’t have any around his house. He took a careful swig from his paper cup, then let out the kind of sigh that came with thinking ahead.
Frank Sinatra’s voice called from his cell phone, and Nick clicked his finger on his Bluetooth. “Hello?”
“This is Catherine Givens.”
His body sprang to attention. He hadn’t talked to his mother-in-law since the day of the divorce. She hadn’t been exactly civil at the time.
“Hi, Mrs. Givens.” The words felt strange as they slipped off his tongue. He had called her Catherine once upon a time.
A cold pause hovered between them, causing a thread of fear to wind through him. “Is Willow all right?”
His twelve-year-old daughter barely talked to him when he called her each week, and she acknowledged his gifts with forced thanks. Still, he loved her deeply. Unfortunately, there were more than miles between them.
“Willow is fine. It’s Camilla.”
He could only imagine what his ex-wife had gotten herself into now. She and her high society friends always seemed to stir up something.
“What about her?” He braced himself. When things like this came up, it usually cost him money.
“She’s dead.” The way she said that, as though Camilla had the nerve to intrude upon her organized plans, sent a momentary wave of compassion through him for his ex-wife. He didn’t know what to say. Though there had been no love lost between them in the last few years, she was at one time his wife and would always be the mother of his child.
Nick eased his truck to the side of the road so the vehicles behind him could pass.
“Did you hear me?”
“I heard,” he said, his tongue thick, throat dry. Say what you would about Camilla, he’d never imagined her . . . dead. “What happened?” he whispered.
“A yachting accident.”
He took a minute to digest the news. Then another thought crashed into his head like a tree downed in a storm. “Where’s Willow?”
“She’s with me.”
He bristled. “I’ll come get her.”
“Yes, I supposed you would. Of course, Charles and I would be happy to have her stay here, but we travel so much and she would . . .”
Get in the way. Like mother, like daughter. “I’m her father. She should be here.”
Just as he suspected, no argument. The sooner he got Willow, the better. Poor thing. She hardly knew him, and now she had lost her mother. He’d make it up to her somehow. He had to.
He took down the particulars on the funeral and made arrangements to take Willow home with him afterwards. He clicked off his cell phone and realized his hands were shaking.
* * *
“Are you all right, honey? I’ve been out of town and just heard the news.” Shelby’s next-door neighbor stood at the front door.
Shelby opened the door. “Come on in.”
Rose Garner, Natalie’s aunt, stepped inside. Her silver hair, threaded with black strands, was pulled back into a flawless knot at the nape of her long neck. Her complexion, fresh and glowing, made her look twenty years younger than her age of sixty-two. A soft white blouse and trim dark pants gave her tall, lithe body an elegant appearance that matched her gentle nature.
Shelby took her into the dining room and showed her the damage.
“My, my.” She turned to Shelby. “I’m just so thankful you’re all right.”
“I’m thankful that none of my sewing projects was ruined. Several of the outfits have deadlines, and that would have really put me behind.”
“Would you like to go upstairs?”
“No, thank you, sweetie. I can’t stay. I just wanted to make sure you were all right.” They stepped back outside. “By the way, what are you going to do about your classes?”
“Well, I wanted to talk to you about that—”
“Yes, of course you may hold your classes at my house,” Rose said with a smile.
“You’re such a blessing. Just like your niece.” Shelby smiled, thinking how Natalie and Rose shared the same spirit. “Thank you, Rose.”
“The blessing is mine.” Rose gave Shelby a hug. “While I’m thinking of it, do you still want my help when you get to the dining etiquette section?”
“Absolutely,” Shelby said.
“Wonderful. Have you found someone to do the repairs?”
“Nick contacted Griffen Parker for me, and he’s agreed to do the job.”
“Nick is quite the gentleman.”
Shelby thought that an interesting comment. Nick was a great friend, no doubt about it, but “gentleman”? Somehow an ax-wielding, whiskered mountain man did not conjure up a gentleman in her mind.
“Well, I’d better get going. We’ll talk later about the classes. Bring over whatever you need anytime. I’ll get my dining room ready.”
Shelby waved good-bye and stepped back inside, wondering where to begin.