Blurb: A year before a stranger showed up at Alex’s cabin door, friends, DJ and Becca, invite Alex to dinner. Becca isn’t happy that Alex is all alone and tries to change that.
Becca flung her arms around Alex’s neck. “So glad you came. I hope you like pasta.”
He stiffened, uncomfortable. “Thanks for having me.”
“We love having you.” Becca hurried back to the kitchen. “It’ll be out in a minute.”
Dinner with DJ and Becca was a monthly arrangement, and Alex’d learned months ago not to try and shirk the invite. Once a month Becca fretted and fussed and fed him.
“She worries about you, living way out there all alone.” Though DJ managed not to crack a smile, the humor intended wasn’t lost on Alex.
“I appreciate the thought.” He took his normal place at the table. “Don’t want to be a bother, though.”
“Feeding people makes her happy.” DJ disappeared into the kitchen, then reappeared a moment later carrying a platter heaped with meatloaf and mash potatoes. “Let’s eat!”
A knock followed his last word.
Becca set a dish of green beans on the table. “Y’all start eating. I’ll get it.” She ran out of the room before either guy could respond.
DJ shot Alex a look and shrugged. They waited to serve food despite what she’d said.
“Hi! Come on in. We’re just about to eat.” Becca’s voice carried from the front room, almost giddy.
“If it’s okay, sure.” Heels clicked as the female attached to the voice stepped through the entryway.
Alex tensed. Uninterested in small talk, he avoided situations where it was required. Dinner with DJ and Becca had proven a safe place to be present but quiet, most of the time. Trying to hide his tension, he sipped his drink.
Becca pulled out the chair across from Alex. “This is my friend Kelli.”
Soda spewed on his plate. He slapped a hand over his mouth, sputtering and coughing, as he tried to clear his windpipe. The name startled him. For the briefest moment, he thought she’d said Ellie. It’d been two years since he’d lost his wife.
He jumped up from the table, tossing a napkin onto the spill before dashing to the bathroom. His appetite gone, he tried to figure out a graceful exit. After more than five minutes, he breathed in deep and opened the door, resigned to staying through dinner.
DJ stood in the hall, tapping out a message on his phone.
Alex glared at him. “If I’d known—”
DJ put his hands up. “I was just as surprised as you were.” He dropped his voice to a whisper. “She wants the best for you, you know that, right?”
“Same plan as before?”
“Working on it.”
Alex waggled a finger in DJ’s face. “I’m not staying for dessert.”
“But Becca made Gram’s peach cobbler. It’s almost as good, but don’t tell her I said that.”
“Gram or Becca?”
“Just come eat.”
Becca’s tight smile welcomed them back to the table. “Everything okay?”
“Soda down the wrong pipe. I’m better now.” Alex avoided Kelli’s gaze.
Just as Becca inhaled, probably about to launch into introductions a second time, DJ intervened. “I’m starved. Dig in.” He heaped food onto his plate.
The clink of dishes and mumbled thanks filled the awkward quiet while they passed the platter and served food.
“Kelli works at the bank.” Becca separated her mash potatoes from her green beans.
“Thought you looked familiar,” DJ said. “You were working the motor bank window last Friday?”
“I was.” Kelli flinched, stopping short of giving voice to the pain that registered on her face likely caused by a kick under the table. “Alex, Becca tells me you are a computer programmer.”
“Uh huh.” Alex refrained from giving Becca a dirty look. The extra dinner guest was no accident. He’d been set up. Again.
“Where do you work?” Kelli flipped her blonde hair over her shoulder.
“Home.” His one-word answer sounded unfriendly so he added, “Freelance work.”
Dinner conversation limped along, and Alex silently counted the minutes until he could depart without seeming excessively rude.
When someone else knocked, DJ jumped up. “I’ll get it this time.”
“Alex, would you like more?” Becca reached toward the platter.
“I couldn’t, but it was very tasty.” Kelli dropped her hands into her lap.
Minutes passed awkwardly as Becca raised her eyebrows at Kelli, encouraging her to talk. Alex waited for DJ, hoping he didn’t return alone.
DJ stepped into the dining room, a friendly face just behind him. “This is our neighbor, Evan. He noticed that one of your rear tires is low.” He pointed at Kelli.
Evan stuck his hand out toward the extra dinner guest. “Hi. I didn’t want anyone getting stranded anywhere.”
“Oh, thank you. I had no idea.” She wrung her hands, clearly stressed at the prospect of dealing with car issues.
“Maybe Alex can give you a ride home, and you can get the tire fixed tomorrow.” Becca started clearing plates from the table.
Alex clenched his teeth, silent.
Evan pulled a chair up to the table next to Kelli and sat down. In his soft drawl, he offered to help the damsel. “I’m happy to give you a ride.”
“Becca, dear, how about we break out dessert?” DJ carried the platter into the kitchen, and Becca followed.
Alex grabbed the remaining plates. “I’ll help.”
When he walked into the kitchen, Becca winced, anticipating a scolding from him. He just shook his head.
Earnest brown eyes pleaded with him not to be upset. “I don’t want you to be alone.”
“A Kelli, Nellie, or Shelly isn’t going to fix what’s wrong.” His attempt at humor earned him a teacher look.
“Their names were Nella and Michelle.”
DJ wrapped his arms around Becca. “He doesn’t like being set up.”
“You’re not happy, though.” She wiped her eyes.
Alex crossed his arms and leaned back against the counter. “I’m happy you made peach cobbler.”
“Gram gave me her recipe. It tastes exactly like hers.” She opened the oven and pulled out the bubbling cobbler.
Kelli poked her head into the kitchen. “We’re going to go. Evan’s going to take a look at it and see if he can fix it.”
Becca covered her disappointment with a smile. “Oh. Want to take cobbler with you?”
“That’s okay. We’re stopping for coffee and dessert while we’re out.” Kelli lifted her shoulders and grinned. “I can’t thank you enough.”
“You’re welcome.” Becca handed Alex the serving spoon. “Let me see you out.” She followed Kelli out of the kitchen.
DJ pulled vanilla ice cream out of the freezer. “That worked out better than expected.”
Alex filled three bowls with cobbler. “Tell me he didn’t let the air out of her tire.”
“We’d never do such a thing. It really was low.” DJ added ice cream to the bowls. “It just took us a few minutes to see it after he showed up.”
“I’m surprised he came again. Thought he and Nella clicked last time.”
“She moved away.” DJ handed Alex a spoon.
Becca marched up to DJ, hands on her hips. “You called him. Again.”
“Texted, actually. When I went down the hall.” DJ flashed her a please-don’t-be-mad grin and slipped his arms around her waist. “Seems like they hit it off. I’d call that set-up a success.”