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Audrey York scanned the grocery's shelves, familiarizing herself with the offerings. While they were more limited than what she was used to, that was actually okay with her.
She wheeled her cart into the next aisle and nearly collided with an older man who was staring at the shelf in front of him with what could only be called frantic confusion.
"Which one is it?" he mumbled. "There are so many." He reached for one kind of cherry pie filling, then another, then back to the original before dropping his hand in defeat.
"Can I help you?"
He jumped as if he hadn't noticed her or the rattling cart containing her groceries. His eyes, which looked on the verge of tears, glanced from her to the shelf then back to her.
"I don't know which one to get. My wife always buys the groceries."
Poor guy. He was clearly out of his comfort zone. She examined the choices. The Glen Grocery might not carry fresh herbs, but it did offer half a dozen types of cherry pie filling.
"What is it for, pie or cobbler?"
"Cobbler. Her cobbler's the best."
Audrey smiled then picked up a can. "Then I'd suggest this one."
He accepted the can as if it were the Holy Grail. "Thank you." He placed it in the cart alongside a package of chicken thighs, a bag of potatoes, another of flour and a loaf of plain white bread.
Audrey watched him as he moved on up the aisle, something about the helplessness in his eyes tearing at her heart. She fought the urge to give him a hand with the remainder of his grocery shopping. Instead, she continued with her own, sticking to necessities to keep her final bill as low as possible. She didn't need the fudge-covered Oreos anyway.
By the time she finished her tour of the rest of the store and headed to the cash register with her purchases, the older man was exiting the front door. As she began piling her items on the conveyor belt, she noticed the checker watching the man with a sad expression on her face. She shook her head and echoed the "poor guy" sentiment Audrey had thought a few minutes before.
"He seemed a little lost," she said to the young woman whose short, choppy magenta hair seemed out of place in quaint little Willow Glen. A quick glance at her name tag revealed her identity as Meg.
"He is," Meg said. "He and his wife were married for more than forty years."
His sadness suddenly made sense. "She died?"
"Yeah, about a month ago. He had family visiting for a while afterward, but now he's alone. I think this is his first trip to the store by himself."
Tears stung Audrey's eyes. She looked toward the ceiling to close off her tear ducts, a trick she'd learned from her mother.
"That'll be $53.76," Meg said, dragging Audrey back to the present.
After paying and placing all her bags in her cart, Audrey headed outside, hoping the bright spring sunshine would burn away the sorrow she'd felt for the older man.
She stuffed the groceries in the trunk of her Jetta, forcing her mind to focus on the endless list of tasks waiting for her when she got home. She liked staying busy even if she had given up a faster-paced life in Nashville for a more soul-nurturing existence in the mountains of East Tennessee.
As she started for the driver's-side door, she noticed the older man again. When he wiped his cheek, it tugged at her emotions. She wanted to help him, but what good could she do? Bringing back his wife wasn't possible, and most people hated pity from others. Not to mention she was still wary about meeting new people, something she'd have to get past if she wanted to make a success of her new life here.
Still, she found herself walking across the parking lot toward him, hoping she'd come up with something to say by the time she reached his side.
"Excuse me," she said as she came within a few feet of him. "I'm sorry to bother you, but I was wondering if you could help me."
The man made one more quick swipe at his right eye before facing her.
"I'm new to Willow Glen, and I was wondering if you could tell me if there is anywhere nearby where I could get some nice picture frames, bigger ones." She held her hands about two feet apart.
"There's a Wal-Mart down in Elizabethton."
She shook her head but kept a smile firmly in place. "I was hoping for something a bit more unique, handcrafted if at all possible." She was a long way from needing the frames for her wildflower photos yet, but it was the first thing that had tumbled out of her mouth. And it proved a nice, neutral topic.
"Well, I've fiddled with a few here and there, though I mainly make furniture now."
"Really? Then it's my lucky day." She extended her hand. "I'm Audrey York. I'm fixing up the old Grayson Mill, turning it into a café."
"Nelson Witt. Nice to meet you." He shook her hand, the calluses on his weathered palm revealing he did indeed work with his hands. "The old mill, huh? That'll probably take a lot of work."
She laughed. "You're right there. I think I've already swept out enough dirt to create a new county." Her mood lifted when she saw a hint of a smile on Mr. Witt's gray-stubbled face. Despite everything that had happened in the past year to sour her outlook, it still felt good and natural to help people, to bring some happiness into their lives.
"Guess I could put together some frames and bring them out there sometime."
"That would be great."
"When would be good for you?"
Audrey detected how he leaped on the opportunity, probably looking for anything to keep his mind off the absence of his other half. "I'm there pretty much all the time except when I'm running errands."
"You staying out there?"
"Yeah. I'm turning the loft into my living area, and the bottom level will house the café."
"I'd say something about wondering if that was safe, but I know you young people think yourselves invincible."
"Considering I've lived in the city and been flying across the continent nearly every week for the past five years, this feels as safe as Mayberry."
"Well, then, when I finish the frames, I'll run them by."
After a couple more minutes of talking, Audrey headed back to her car, her heart lighter. She'd probably had no more than five minutes of conversation with Mr. Witt, but she already really liked him. And if she could help ease a little of his pain, then it was a good day.
Not to mention she yearned for new friends here, craved them. The past year had left a yawning, dark hole in her life, and she couldn't wait to fill it.
Audrey spent the rest of the morning cleaning, burning useless debris and adding to her list of needed supplies while trying not to think about how much those supplies would cost. When she stopped long enough to fix a late lunch of grilled chicken and pasta salad from the grocery's deli, she heard gravel popping on the lane leading back to the gristmill.
She stepped out onto the small porch attached to the front of the mill. Eventually, it would be the attractive entrance to her café, but now only a cheap folding lawn chair and an upturned five-gallon bucket she used for a table occupied the space. She shaded her eyes against the sun and saw Mr. Witt stepping out of his truck.
"That was fast." She smiled wide, happy to see this potential friend so soon.
Mr. Witt shrugged. "They don't take long to make. Thought I'd whip together some samples, see if you like them," he said as he lowered the tailgate of his pickup.
When she saw the size of the wooden crate he pulled toward the back of the truck, she hurried to help him. "Here, I'll get this side. I'mnot much for watching other people do my work." She added the last, hoping to forestall any argument that he was still capable of carrying a heavy box. She figured he'd had enough reminding today that things weren't as they'd always been.
Audrey backed her way toward the mill, Mr. Witt following. Once inside, she guided the crate onto the bench stretching along the length of one wall.
"I haven't been in here in years," Mr. Witt said as he scanned the interior. "I remember coming here with my daddy when I was a boy."
"Oh, yeah. Even though you could get cornmeal in the stores, he always liked what came from the mill better. I remember sitting on the creek bank, just watching the wheel turn round and round."
"That's one of the things on my extensive to-do list," Audrey said. "I want to get the wheel operational again. I think it'll add to the atmosphere."
Mr. Witt looked around at the mill's silent gears and aging wood. "Hard to imagine this place as a restaurant."
"I admit, it's got a long way to go. But as it happens, you're my first dining guest." She extended her arm to point out the small table in the corner, covered with a white cloth and with a vase of daffodils. Her attempt to add a little cheer to the place. "I was about to have lunch, and I've got plenty to share."
"I don't want you to go to all that trouble."
"It's no trouble. I have to eat anyway, and it's the least I can do for you bringing these frames all the way over here." Plus, if Mrs. Witt had always done the grocery shopping, chances were she'd also done the cooking. That led Audrey to believe Mr. Witt might not have been eating properly since his family's departure. Something about him brought out her protective instincts.
"It's not too far," he said as he took a seat. "I just live a couple miles down the road from your lane."
Audrey slid onto the chair opposite him. "Oh, so we're practically neighbors."
Mr. Witt shared tales of his youth in Willow Glen as they ate their lunch, making Audrey laugh with the accounts of some of his mischievous antics.
"I think by the time I got out of school, the teachers were ready to throw a party."
"I can't imagine why. Doesn't everyone bring snakes to show-and-tell and put scarecrows in their teachers' cars?"
Mr. Witt chuckled at the remembered scenes. "But, Lordy, I got payback when I had my own son."
"Wild one, huh?"
"Whoo-ee. Put me to shame. But he turned out all right, so I guess no harm came of his escapades."
"You only have the one?"
"Yeah, just one son. Betty " Sadness drifted across his face at the name. "Betty and I had two children. Brady's the oldest. He runs the construction company now, even opened a new office where he lives down in Kingsport. Our daughter, Sophie, owns a bridal shop in Asheville, North Carolina. She's got two little girls who I've been known to spoil from time to time."
"I bet you do." Audrey smiled, glad the topic of his grandchildren had pushed away the incredible ache it was painful to witness.
"Does your son have children?"
"Goodness, no. That boy doesn't slow down long enough to date a gal for more than a month at a time. Say, maybe I should fix the two of you up. You're a pretty girl, hardworking."
Audrey wadded her napkin into a ball and tossed it onto her empty plate. She tried to push away an ache of her own by changing the subject. "I think my only dates are going to be with a broom and a paintbrush for the foreseeable future."
"All work and no play " he teased.
"Opens my café and adds to my dwindling bank account sooner." She took a drink of her water.
"He's a good-looking boy." The hopeful tone in his voice nearly made Audrey chuckle.
"Must take after his father." She patted his hand. "Let's take a look at those frames." And steer clear of the topic of dating. She didn't have the time or the inclination.
Yes, she got lonely and missed being held. But Darren, the man she'd thought she'd marry, had shown her that might never be possible.
Not when any interesting, or interested, man found out who she was.
Brady Witt hung up the phone in his office, trying not to worry that he couldn't reach his dad. He'd made attempts all day with no luck. Maybe his dad was out in his shop. Though with the way Nelson had been acting when Brady left, he couldn't imagine it. With his wife's death, the life had seemed to go out of Nelson Witt, too.
Brady looked up to see his business partner and best friend, Craig Williams, standing in the doorway.
"Yeah, just can't get in touch with Dad."
"He could've gone into town."
"Maybe, but I've been calling all day. If he hit every business in Willow Glen, it might take him a couple of hours. And that's if he spent an hour hanging out with the other old coots at Cora's Coffee Shop."
Craig ambled in and sank into one of the chairs opposite Brady's desk. "Why don't you take some time off? Go spend it with your dad."
"I just did that."
Craig shook his head. "You were dealing with the funeral and the aftermath. I'm thinking you go up and keep him busy, take him fishing, get him in a new routine that won't remind him of your mom so much."
Brady leaned back in his chair and sighed. "I don't think he's interested in fishing or anything else for that matter."
"Your parents were so close. That's why you should go. Left to themselves, sometimes older people don't last long if they lose their spouse. I saw it happen to my grandma."
The thought of losing his father so soon after his mom sent a sharp pain through Brady's chest. But how did you force someone to learn to live again?
"Just a couple of weeks," Craig said. "We've got things under control here. And if you still feel like you can't do anything after that, then you come back and let time do its thing."
Brady glanced at the calendar. "I've got to finish the bid on the Lakeview project."
"I can finish it up, get Kelly to help me. Be good experience for her. Plus, it's not like you're headed to the wilds of Tibet."