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Too Much to Handle

Written by Nicole Helm

For fourteen years, Henry Peterson has lived in the shadow of guilt. Ever since his friend Ken's death, he's never let anyone get too close. But when Ellen Simms moves in next door, determined to make peace with the past, suddenly keeping his distance is no longer an option. Ellen is the last woman Henry should want. Not only is she Ken's sister, her parents never forgave him for what happened to their son. Now that she's back in Bluff City, vibrant and quirky and all too irresistible, Henry finally realizes he deserves something good.

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Chapter One

"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.

Unlike himself.

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.

Which was not a happy thought, so she tucked it away. "Can you believe it? I'm home for good and living right 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—I'm twenty-six."

"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'snot 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 happy, 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.

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