The dogs were on me the second I stepped inside, leaping, sniffing, and whining in such an excited frenzy that it was like there were five of them instead of two. Suddenly I was back on the training field, but instead of blocking tackles, I was fending off a pair of aggressively friendly Huskies.
Ella raised her voice over the racket they were making. “Fred, Sam, meet Ben. Ben, I’d advise you not to let them touch you with their tongues. You’d understand why if you saw what else they’d licked today.”
I might have cracked a smile at that if I wasn’t so keyed up.
Where the hell is Jack?
Knowing my gruff neighbor, he was probably in the living room, stacking more logs on the fire. I’d made the mistake of telling him I was originally from Hawaii, and now he worried I would freeze to death if the house fell below 80 degrees, regardless of the fact that I also told him I’d lived in the Midwest for a while and was used to the cold.
He’d acted as though this was all brand-new information. Like he had no idea who I was.
I snuck a glance at Ella. She definitely knew who I was. It was obvious from the deer-in-headlights look she gave me in the driveway, though she recovered quickly. Now I just needed to see what she’d do with this knowledge. If she was good people, like Jack claimed, she’d respect my privacy. But part of me, the part that had grown hard and bitter and disillusioned with humanity, was waiting for her to whip out her cellphone and upload my face and location to Twitter for all the world to see, ruining the peace and quiet I’d managed to find here.
I snuck several more glances at her in between dodging the probing noses of her dogs. She moved to the coat rack, stepped out of her boots, and then shoved down her snow pants, revealing lilac-colored leggings with little white reindeer prancing across them in a horizontal pattern. She was tall, maybe 5’9” or 5’10”, with narrow hips and the long, solid legs of a distance runner.
I peeled my gaze away from her and ruffled the fur of the dog trying to dart past my defenses with his plague-tongue. I liked to think that I didn’t have a type, but if I was honest with myself, that was bullshit. Looking back over my years of dating revealed a definitive pattern of tall, athletic women. Women who could hold themselves up if we had sex in a shower or against a wall. Women who could wrap their muscular legs around my torso and use their strength to pull me closer, or flex their toned thighs over and over as they rose and fell above me.
I caught movement out of the corner of my eye and looked up to see this tall, athletic woman pull off her coat. Beneath it, she wore an olive-green, long-sleeved running top. I’d had just enough fashion lessons crammed down my throat over the past decade to recognize how spectacularly the outfit clashed. It looked like she got dressed in the dark.
She glanced down and froze at the sight of herself, eyes wide, lips twitching open in horror. Her head started to turn toward me – likely to check if I’d noticed her fashion faux pas – and I shifted my gaze back to her dogs before she could catch me staring.
I risked another peek a moment later, just in time to watch her pull her shirt down a few inches and rest the hem of it against the fabric of her leggings to double-check that, yes, those colors were truly heinous together. She let it go with a huff, then yanked off her knitted hat. A rat’s nest of flame-colored, sweat-damp hair tumbled loose.
She caught a glimpse of herself in the hall mirror, made a choking noise, and raked the mess into a ponytail. “Of all the frigging days,” she muttered.
The whole debacle was kind of endearing to witness, but I’d learned that people didn’t like to be laughed at when they were embarrassed, so I hid my amusement.
The Huskies had used my momentary distraction to press closer, wiggling their butts so quickly that they almost blurred. One managed to sneak past my guard. A blast of hot, stinking breath hit my nose – the only warning I had before a slimy tongue slipped up the side of my neck.
“Jesus,” I said, straightening back to my full height, out of their reach. I loved dogs, but they could be gross sometimes.
“Beer,” Ella said, turning toward the fridge. “Only beer can help me now.”
In full agreement, I wiped the drool from my skin and followed her into the kitchen. The light was better here, and I caught my first good look at her face as she passed. She had a creamy complexion with olive undertones, strikingly pale blue eyes, and a smattering of freckles across her button nose. She was pretty. Really pretty. Even with matted hair and her cheeks still a little blotchy from the cold.
She opened the door of the fridge and mostly disappeared behind it as she ducked down to inspect its contents. Mostly being the operative word. Her festive butt was the only part of her still visible. I was suddenly aware of just how long it had been since I’d been around an attractive woman. If Jack walked in now, he’d catch me staring.
“Any oatmeal stout left?” I asked.
She made a pained noise in response, and, without straightening, handed me one over the top of the door.
I frowned and moved to take it.
Jack rejoined us then, stopping beside me to clap a hand on my shoulder. “Don’t mind Ella. Her sense of humor takes a little while to get used to. She likes to say things that are only funny if you were part of her conversation from twenty minutes before. Or a week ago.” He gave me a long-suffering look and lowered his voice. “I miss a lot of the ones I think I’m meant to get.”
“Ah, gotcha,” I said. But I didn’t really.
Needing something to do to keep my gaze from being drawn back to Ella’s reindeer-covered ass, I uncapped my beer and took a healthy swig, savoring its depth and complexity. This was by far the best homebrew I’d ever had.
Jack leaned in and mock-whispered, “She called on the way over and asked about the oatmeal stout. I told her I’d save the last two for her.”
Her pained groan suddenly made sense.
“Oh, uh, sorry, Ella. I already took a sip,” I told her.
She closed the fridge, the last of the oatmeal stout in hand, and turned toward us, revealing the full glory of her outfit to Jack for the first time.
He spluttered and took an exaggerated step back, hand over his heart. “Holy Hannah! Were you suddenly struck colorblind?”
“I’ll have you know that this is the new style, Jack,” she said. “Matchy-matchy is out. Clashy-clashy is in.”
Jack looked to me, as if for help, and I just shrugged, starting to both understand and appreciate Ella’s particular brand of humor. It seemed like the kind that left other people feeling slightly off-kilter but stopped well short of being mean-spirited or turning them into the butt of her jokes.
She turned to me. “It’s okay about the beer, Ben. I can share like any other well-adjusted adult.”
Jack opened his mouth. I could tell by his expression that something smart-assed was about to come out of it.
So could Ella. “Shut it,” she told him.
He chuckled in response and wisely kept his unspoken comment to himself.
One of the dogs moved in then, to press against Ella’s leg and look up at her with large, inquisitive eyes.
She leaned down to pet him. “Ready to take a nap?”
The dog sighed heavily, looking past ready.
She turned and led us into the living room.
I liked Jack’s place. It was simple, straight forward, a lot like the man himself. The kitchen was small and tidy. A center island with barstools tucked beneath it doubled as the dining area. The living room was dominated by a fireplace made of river rock instead of the traditional brick, with rustic, comfortable armchairs and a couch spread out around it. Down the hallway were a bedroom, a home office, and a bathroom. Upstairs, two more bedrooms sat tucked under the rafters. I doubted the man even owned a television.
My gaze strayed back to Ella, following the swish of her fiery ponytail as she walked. I’d only known her for a few minutes, but I already felt something for her. Sometimes, you meet people, and you just know that there’s potential there, be it for unforgettable sex, or intense, burning dislike and antagonization. While Ella was attractive, my intuition told me I could be friends with her. Good friends. That indefinable thing, that “click” was just…there.
I couldn’t remember the last friend I’d made outside of football-related circles. As a kid, I’d hit it off with almost everyone I met. I was a good read of people. I was easy-going, quick to trust, and even quicker to forgive. Now I wasn’t good with strangers. It was the lack of trust I’d developed. Or so I told myself. Because that’s what I hoped it was.
Deep down, I was afraid it was something else. I didn’t doubt that I had some level of brain injury, regardless of that “inconclusive” MRI I had after Zach died. I’d had concussions. I’d run head and shoulder first into dudes my size or bigger for nearly two decades and had them hit me in return.
Just like my brother.
How extensive the damage to my brain was, I had no idea, because I hadn’t subjected myself to the more in-depth tests needed to search for signs of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. Would that degenerative brain disease lead me to suffer a life-ending seizure, like Zach? Or slip-slide my way into irrational, uncontrollable anger, paranoia, and violent outbursts, like some of the retired pros I’d met had? Or would I be one of the lucky asymptomatic few?
There was no way to tell. Yet.
Ella sank into the armchair on the far side of the room. The dog trailing her jumped into her lap like an overgrown puppy and paced in a circle as he tried to find the right spot to lay down. As a consequence, he nailed her on the side of the face with his tail.
She shot a hand up to deflect it on the next pass. “Come on, Fred.”
He made two more circles before wedging his butt between her and the arm of the chair, his paws over her lap. He set his muzzle down on them with a heavy sigh and closed his eyes.
She dug the fingers of her free hand into the thick fur on the back of his neck. “I know, bud. Long day.”
Jack folded himself down onto the far side of the couch. The other dog, Sam, scampered up from the fireplace and spread out beside him, leaving me with the remaining oversized armchair.
I hesitated to take it, unsure if I was staying. I’d managed to pull my gloves and coat off after walking through the door, no thanks to the dogs, but my boots, which I’d cleaned the snow from before coming inside, were still firmly tied to my feet in case I had to make a hasty getaway. Not that I expected I’d need to – Jack seemed like a pretty good judge of character – but I’d learned over the years that it was better to be prepared to run than it was to get caught out on Instagram by someone looking for their fifteen minutes of fame at your expense.
“You had Willow today?” Jack asked Ella.
She nodded. “Jane and Dave spent the morning finishing up her Christmas shopping and then went home to wrap. The plan was to have some low-key craft time with her at my house, but then she got into the candy canes, and I had to take her sledding to burn off the energy.”
Jack arched a brow. “It work?”
“Willow is your niece?” I asked, trying to sift through all the names that Jack had mentioned.
“Yup.” She pointed to the mantle of the fireplace. “She’s the little girl in the far right picture.”
I stepped over for a closer look. In the photograph, a small girl with almost as much hair as I had ran through a field of wildflowers. It was shot in the late afternoon, with the sun slanting low, rendering the light that surrounded her a soft, hazy gold. It would have been adorable if not for the manic expression on her face that made it seem less like a peaceful frolic and more like she was sprinting toward the person holding the camera like she planned to tackle them.
“She looks like a handful,” I said.
Jack and Ella laughed in response.
“You have no idea,” Ella said.
Sounds like Micah.
Grief punched through me at the thought of my nephew. I locked the emotion down and buried it deep before it could show on my face. More pictures spread out along the mantle, and I took my time looking at them, needing a distraction right now.
Next to Willow’s portrait was one of Jack and his wife Renee, who I recognized from the much larger photo hanging just down the hall. Beside the picture of the couple sat one of them and their grown children. Next to that was one of Jack and a man that looked about a decade older than him, their arms around each other’s shoulders.
My gaze finally settled on a large frame absolutely crammed full of people – a much more visually diverse group of people than I ever expected to see after moving to this part of Maine. I leaned in and picked out Willow and Ella from the crowd.
“Are all these people your family members?” I asked, turning toward Ella.
She nodded. “The middle-aged couple on the left are my parents. The man beside them is my oldest brother, Jacob, with his wife and sons. The woman beside them is my oldest sister, Megan, with her wife, Stacey, on her right. The woman beside them is my sister Jane. Her husband, Dave, is the one holding Willow. Then there’s me, my younger brother Charlie, and the baby in the family, Anabel.”
Jack’s landline rang – another thing I didn’t think he owned was a cellphone. He pushed himself up from the couch, carefully, so as not to upset Sam, and went to answer it. I overheard him say hello before he disappeared down the hall, leaving Ella and me alone with the dogs again.
“Are you all adopted?” I asked.
She was the only white sibling in the picture. She could have been biological, but I didn’t think so. Her parents, also white, were both short and had dark hair. She looked nothing like them.
“We are,” Ella said. “Mom and Dad wanted a big family but struggled with infertility. It’s pretty common to look outside the US to adopt. Jacob is from Somalia, Megan is from China, Jane is from India, Charlie is from Afghanistan, Anabel is from South Korea, and I’m from what’s now Montenegro.”
I frowned, thinking back to my world history classes as I tried to place her age. “You weren’t adopted during the Bosnian War, were you?”
“I was a baby, so I don’t remember any of it. Thankfully.”
“And your birth parents?”
She shook her head. “I don’t know. I haven’t looked for them.”
“Are you going to?”
Why the fuck did I ask her that? I just met the woman, and here I was digging into some deeply personal shit.
She opened her mouth to respond.
I held up a hand to forestall her. “Don’t feel like you have to answer that. I hate it when people I don’t know pry into my life, so I’m sorry.”
She waved me off. “It’s okay. I’m used to it. Our family is different than most, especially around here, so I understand being curious. Plus, it’s kind of fair play in this case, right? I probably know more about you and your family history than I have a right to -” She fell silent for a second, then glanced down the hallway, brow furrowing. “Does Jack know who you are?”
I followed her gaze. Jack’s voice was distant, like he’d retreated into the bedroom. I doubted he could hear us, but I still lowered my voice, just in case. “I don’t think so.”
She followed suit. “I thought he might not. He doesn’t own a TV, after all, and still gets his news from the local paper. The sports section of which is pretty shit. Then again, the rogue shampoo ad might have snuck into it, and he does know who you are and is just trying to make you feel like a normal person.”
“That would be pretty decent of him,” I said.
“Jack is pretty decent.”
Are you? I wanted to press, but didn’t.
“Do you…” She chewed on her bottom lip in a way that suddenly made it hard to focus on anything else. “Do you mind me asking what you’re doing here?”
I let out a deep breath and stared down at my beer. That was a loaded question. One I’d anticipated before coming out here. One I’d made up a million answers to. But right now, I just couldn’t bring myself to lie. Jack trusted her. She seemed nice enough. Maybe I could risk telling her a little bit of the truth.
I lifted my gaze. “I needed to get away from it all.”
There. Simple. To the point. It wasn’t a lie, but it could be interpreted in a hundred different ways.
She took a sip of her beer before answering. “Good job then? This is probably the most far-flung place to get away to and still remain in the continental US.”
That was exactly why I’d picked this place. “Thanks.”
“I’m guessing you want to keep a low profile while you’re here?”
“I’ll keep my mouth shut,” she said. I actually believed her. Especially when she followed it up with, “I’d suggest getting comfortable being a hermit for the next few months. At least until the snow clears. If you plan to stay that long. We get a little gossip-crazy up here in the winter. It wouldn’t even take anyone recognizing you to set off a firestorm. As soon as a local busybody got a look at your profile and put handsome-man and new-in-town together, you’d be inundated. I can run errands for you if need be. Or interference.”
“Thank you for the offer,” I said. “I get most everything I need delivered, and, so far, I’ve lucked out with not having to sign for anything I wasn’t already prepared to.” Oh, the horrible disguises I’d donned. “But I’ll let you know if I get stuck.”
“Is your address listed under a different name?” she asked.
She opened her mouth to continue, but fell silent at the sound of Jack’s voice, drawing closer. He said goodbye to the person on the other end of the line when he reached the kitchen and set the phone down on the island before rejoining us.
“You two getting to know each other?” he asked, carefully retaking his seat around the prone form of Sam. The dog didn’t so much as stir.
“Yup,” Ella said. “We were just about to start braiding each other’s hair before you interrupted us.”
Jack nodded. “Good. You should go check out her cabin, Ben. Looks like something out of a magazine. She could have your whole house done up in your style within a week if you unleashed her on it.”
Ella raised her free hand and indicated her wild hair and eye-melting outfit. “Yes, I’m quite stylish.”
I grinned. “Jack may be jumping the gun. Half of the rooms don’t even have sheetrock up in them yet.”
Her eyes widened. “Oh, wow. I heard Mabel Reynolds was something of a hoarder before she passed away. Did you have to gut the place?”
“Not really.” I pushed off from the mantle and made my way to the free chair, my mind made up to stay. “There was definitely a lot of stuff, but it was more like a lifetime of accumulation than mania-driven collecting. I’m surprised her kids didn’t want any of it. A lot of the furniture is antique.”
“Nah,” Jack said. “Nancy’s house is already filled to the brim, and Dale is getting ready to retire soon and head down to Florida. Last time I talked to him, he was trying to downsize.”
“I still feel guilty for keeping some of the pieces,” I said.
Jack gave me a funny look. “Well, feel better knowing that you covered the cost of them when you overpaid for the house.”
I groaned response. This was an old argument between us. “Jack, it’s a four-thousand-square-foot home on a hundred-acre lot. They were asking way too little for it.”
A hundred and fifty thousand had seemed like an offensively low price to me, even with the amount of work it needed. I would have felt like a criminal if I’d paid that for it.
“I didn’t realize it was so big,” Ella said.
I nodded. “Six bedrooms. Three sitting rooms. A library.”
Jack snorted. “And only one functioning toilet.”
I tipped my beer toward him. “Fair point, but I’m working on that.”
“How far have you gotten with the reno?” Ella asked.
“I’m a little behind schedule,” I said. “I had to have the foundation fixed before I could move in, so that set fire to my original timetable.”
Jack turned to her. “You should have seen the equipment they brought up the hill for that. Semis hauling massive steel beams. Bucket loaders.” He paused for dramatic effect. “A crane.”
Ella choked on her beer. “They got a crane up here?”
“I hope I never have to go through that again,” I said, rubbing a hand over my face. “Once that nightmare was over, I had to get the barn squared away. That’s where I’m storing most of the renovation supplies, so I needed it to be temperature controlled. The basement is done, the kitchen is getting there, and the study is right behind it. I got all of the fireplaces cleaned and working before the first snowfall. Some of the electric had to be rerun to replace the remaining knob and tube wiring, and the plumber isn’t in for a few more days, hence the lack of drywall. Or more than one functioning toilet. While I’m waiting, I’ve been stripping the hardwood floors, which are in pretty good shape, considering they’re a few hundred years old.”
Ella frowned. “I feel like we have different definitions of what amounts to a gut job.”
I chuckled. “Okay, now that I’m saying all of this out loud, I guess it does sound like one.”
Her frown deepened. “How long ago did you move in?”
“Damn, that’s -” she glanced at Jack, then seemed to reconsider how to finish the sentence, likely because her original thought had something to do with who I was and how long I’d already managed to hide out here. “That’s a really respectable amount of work to get done in that time,” she said.
“Thanks. My dad owns a contracting company back in Hawaii. I spent every summer until I moved off the island doing this stuff. It’s basically second nature at this point.”
“Hey, now,” Jack said. “Don’t sell yourself short. That’s still a hell of a lot of work, even for someone who knows what they’re doing.” He turned to Ella. “Ben’s got a great work ethic. Reminds me a lot of you, kiddo.”
“Jack said you’re an artist?” I asked, latching onto the chance to move the subject of conversation away from myself.
“More of a graphic designer at this point,” she said. “I’m the owner and sole employee of Ella Jones Paperie, which I sell through several outlets, including my own website.”
“I was wondering how an artist could make a living this far out in the boonies.” Too late I realized how that might sound insulting. “No offense.”
She grinned. “None taken. This is legit the boonies. To answer the question, you have to get creative. And good at bookkeeping and market research and understanding state and federal tax law. When I first started, I was selling one-of-a-kind paintings and barely scraping by. Two years ago, I switched to prints, which did a little better, and then a little over a year ago, I adjusted my products and my target audience, and now most of my revenue comes from greeting cards, calendars, and wedding invitations. I use soy ink and recycled, compostable paper that I source locally, so I’m a hit with the eco-friendly crowd.”
“You’d like her work,” Jack told me. “Quaint, quirky little forest scenes filled with critters. Most of them are sweet, but some are pretty twisted. My favorite card she did is this Christmas one from last year, with an adorable little squirrel dressed in a holiday sweater staring out of a picturesque winter woodland. You’d expect it to say something cute, but instead the words “I swear to God, if you leave me alone for even a second at our family gathering this year, I will poison your fucking eggnog” was spread out around him in flowery script.”
I chuckled and turned back to Ella. “That’s pretty good. I bet you sold those by the boat-load.”
She looked away from me, her cheeks coloring. “I did. Thanks.” I sobered, fixating on that flush, thinking back to a few minutes ago when she’d made an offhand comment about town busybodies. She’d called me handsome, hadn’t she?
Copyright © 2019 by Navessa Allen
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.