Too Much to Handle
"Henry!" The piercing squeal followed by arms flinging around his neck could only be one person. He could think of no one else who would be excited to see him—except maybe someone with a serious plumbing emergency—but even then they wouldn't hug him.
She grinned up at him, eyes a dark green, lips a bright red—a Christmas card in and of herself. Her bright red hair that tinted toward orange waved around her head in crazy swirls.
Color and movement. That had always been Ellen Sims. Long before she'd grown into the woman who stood before him.
"Aren't you excited to see me?" she demanded. The snow in the yard came up to her knees. Knees covered in dark grey tights, not nearly warm enough for a quickly darkening December evening.
"Earth to Henry."
He blinked, looking up from her knees. Her expression was exasperated, but underneath that exasperation was Ellen's usual effortless cheer.
He really hated that she'd grown up, become beautiful, greeted him like no one else in the world did.
The one person he couldn't shut out. And he was the one person she should want to shut out. But she'd never blamed Ken's death on him, unlike her parents.
Ellen was too…exuberant for blame, sadness, pain. Which had made the past few whirlwind visits of hers rather painful.
Because she wasn't Ken's younger sister anymore; she'd outlived Ken by about eight years. She was just a woman, and he was just a man. Connected only by the years of his childhood and adolescence when he'd been her brother's best friend.
And his bank account that occasionally got a little smaller on her behalf, but she didn't exactly know about that.
"You're home," he finally managed to say.
"In more ways than one." She trudged through the tall snow drifts, ignoring the path he'd shoveled this morning, pulling him behind her. And he was incapable of not being pulled.
Ellen was a force to be reckoned with. He'd found the older they got, his inability to fight that force was less about his guilt over Ken and more about just…her.
The way she hugged him these days always made him feel like she was way too reachable. Long after he'd decided everything to do with people was way out of his reach.
Henry forced himself to look away from her orange gloved hand on his arm to where the other orange glove pointed.
The building was an older house that had been renovated into two separate units, side by side. Henry owned the right side, and the left had been blissfully for sale and vacant for over a year. It was brick and aging like many of the houses he worked on as a plumber for MC Restorations in a river-weary Iowa town that fit him like a glove.
At least until Ellen pointed to the Sold sticker on the real-estate sign hanging from the porch next to his.
Ellen released him, clomping up the stairs, then she spread her arms wide, grinning at him. "Surprise, neighbor!"
"Uh…" That was not good. At all.
Ellen did a little twirl. She wasn't surprised Henry was gaping at her. He did that a lot. She liked it though. Liked that she could surprise him, elicit an actual emotion rather than a dead-eyed pat on the head. Disapproval, dismay, frustration. It was all better than her parents giving her whatever she wanted without really caring.
Oh, Henry thought she was crazy, but at least he let her know that. She had always believed that meant he cared, even if it was twined up in Ken's death. Just like her parents' disinterest.
a happy thought, so she tucked it away. "Can you believe it? I'm home for good and living
next door." A plan she'd been working on without telling a soul since she'd noticed that For Sale sign on her last visit.
It had been like a symbolic sign, not just a literal one, and Ellen hadn't been able to ignore it.
Henry looked at his place, and then where she stood on her porch. Shock. Possibly horror. Feelings. Real ones. As gruff and detached Henry seemed to the rest of the world, she knew.
She'd seen him cry. She knew.
And as much as Henry thought he was some sort of guardian or protector because he had the warped sense he was at fault for Ken's death, Ellen liked to take it as an opportunity. From here on out, she was going to guard and protect Henry.
He might not think so, but he needed it. And she needed something…worthwhile to do.
"Do your parents know?" he finally said, wariness engrained into every line on his face, the downward turn of his mouth mostly obscured by beard.
She looked down at his roughened work boots. Even though in the years since she'd graduated from college he'd grudgingly accepted she wasn't a little girl anymore—evidenced by the fact he sometimes looked at her with a little more interest than before—he still had a way to make her feel small.
Though it wasn't pleasant, at least someone treated her as though she were a real enough person to make mistakes, to be wrong, to exist.
"I'll take that as a no."
"Reminder—your parents hate me for good reason."
She took the two steps to the concrete landing next to him. She touched his arm. "It's
a good reason."
The heavy, world-weary exhale he let out was one she knew well. One she'd memorized. Maybe even fantasized about on occasion.
"Not going down this road again."
"Okay, I'll fill in your part. Henry, it's not your fault Ken drove drunk." She adopted a gruff, gravelly voice. "Ellen, I gave him those keys." Back to her own voice. "Henry, you didn't make him drink and drive and—"
He turned abruptly from her, toward his side of the building, walking away. "It's not a joke."
"My brother's dead. I know it's not a joke." But she had lived in the shadow of her parents' sorrow for fourteen years now, all while trying to deal with her own. More than half her life, and she'd learned long ago to find the
seek it. Bad came no matter what. She was after the happy.
Now that she was home for good, she was going to spread some of that happy to Henry—no matter how much he resisted. He of all the people needed some happy. To move beyond one bad decision he'd made right out of high school.
"Aren't you going to come in and look around? Check out my plumbing for me?" she called after him.
He stopped, as she'd known he would. He turned around and trudged back to her side of the building. Dread. Defeat.
When he stepped onto her porch, she entwined her arm with his and looked up at him imploringly. "Be happy I'm home."
"If you're happy, I'm happy."
A lie, but she was determined to make it a truth.
Henry wasn't much for lingering around MC unless it was expressly required for meetings. He'd been with the restoration company for four years, and it was by far the best job he'd ever had. Any job that wasn't unclogging toilets on a regular basis was a pretty sweet deal for a plumber.
Unfortunately, the tight-knit group he worked with were forever hounding him to be more a part of the non-business side of things. He dealt with this by being scarce. Or hiding behind the business manager Kyle's steadfast standoffishness.
Unfortunately, Kyle had gone and fallen in love. Which meant Henry was the only enigma left. If he had a dollar for every time Kelly or Susan had tried to pry more information out of him, he'd be a wealthy enough man to live out his dreams of hermitism.
He froze. He was hallucinating because of the shock of Ellen showing up yesterday. The shock she was going to be living right next to him. Sharing a
with him. The only positive in the situation being Ellen never stuck with anything for long.
Henry swallowed and turned to face Ellen. She was standing in the lobby of MC, coat hung over her arm, her body clad in some green, tight…thing that made every curve very…
"What are you doing here?" he demanded, probably too harshly.
"Oh, Henry, there you are." Leah, MC's electrician, appeared from the kitchen, an I've-got-your-ass-on-a-platter grin stretched across her face. "This
lady was looking for you."
"Thanks," he said curtly.
"Aren't you going to introduce us?" Leah's amusement set his teeth on edge.
"Rude," Ellen said, stepping forward, arm outstretched, big smile stretched across her face. "Hi, I'm Ellen. An old friend of Henry's."
"Old friend, huh? You don't look very old."
"Bye, Leah." He took Ellen's elbow, propelling her toward the door. "I was just heading out anyway."
"Oh, good, I need a ride." She looked over her shoulder. "Bye, Leah, nice to meet you. I'm sure I'll see—"
Henry pulled the door closed behind them before she could finish. Which earned him a nose-scrunched glare.
"Are you embarrassed of me or something?"
"I did not invite you here."
Her mouth curved downward. Not really frowning, more like wilting. Damn it all to hell.
"I looked up where MC was and thought you could drive me home instead of having me hike around in the ice and snow, but heaven forbid—"
"Why don't you have a car?"
"I needed new brakes."
"I—" Henry raked his hands through his hair. Why oh why did she have to be so…here? "You can't drop by my place of work."
"Well, I'd say you can't be a jerk to your oldest friend, but you're doing a fine job of
"Henry," she said, mocking his grave tone.
He'd never understood it, for years upon years, how her making fun of him always made him want to laugh. Usually being a standoffish dick wasn't exactly something he found humorous, but something about the way Ellen called him out on it made it funny.
What the hell was that about?
"What are you afraid of? Your friends will think you have the pervy hots for me?"
He didn't feel like laughing anymore. Pervy hots. Yeah, that about covered it. Because it was perverted to even remotely notice the attractiveness of someone he'd known since she'd been a squalling bundle of baby limbs, even if that memory was a little fuzzy.
Ellen gave him a sideways glance, the curve of her mouth unmistakably pleased.
"I don't have the pervy hots for you," he lied through his teeth.
"Okay, just the regular hots?" She grinned up at him, all cheery and good fun, any hurt forgotten or at least put aside for now. "It really wouldn't have to be pervy, not that I mind a
"This is my truck. Hop in."
"That's not an answer."
"You're off-limits, Ellen."
"That's not much of an answer, either."
Christ. He really needed her to get bored with Bluff City quicker than she usually did. "Get in, please."
"Yes, sir." She gave him a little salute and he did not watch her clamber up into the truck even though the, yes, perverted part of him really, really wanted to.
She was seven years younger than him, he'd known her when she'd carried around a Barbie twenty-four-seven. He had been instrumental in the tragic death of her brother.
Why on God's green earth had she always insisted on being part of his life? Stopping by when she was home, calling him when it had been "too long" since they'd caught up. Emails. Texts. Why did it have to get so much harder as time passed? Maybe if he told her about the money he routinely gave her parents so they could fund whatever whim she pursued she wouldn't be so keen on being friends.
Or maybe she'd take it as easily and philosophically as she took everything else.
Ellen watched the snow buried buildings pass as Henry drove from MC Restorations to their townhouse. She kept her expression blank and pleasant, but inside she was giddy happy dancing.
Henry had the hots for her, and he couldn't even adequately lie about it.
was progress. She ignored the niggling voice in her head that tried to tell her it was complicated. She refused to accept that. It didn't have to be complicated.
She thought he was hot. He thought she was hot. They knew each other. Quite well, really, given how little time she spent in Bluff City. She'd be good for him.
She'd really like to be good for someone.
He pulled his truck into the little drive next to his side of their building. Oh, he'd probably hate it if she called it theirs, but it was. Theirs.
"Going to invite me in to dinner?" she asked as they got out of his truck.
When he only scowled, she flashed a wide smile. "Haven't had a chance to go grocery shopping yet. Don't want me to starve, do you?"