Authors: Lily Harper Hart
Hardy Brothers Security
Lily Harper Hart
James Hardy entered the main offices of Hardy Brothers Security with a small skip and a big smile, pulling up short when he caught sight of his sister, Ally.
“Hey,” she said, barely glancing up from the magazine she was reading behind his desk.
“Hey,” James replied, confused. “What are you doing here?”
“I came here to see Jake,” she said, referring to her boyfriend – who was also a security business employee.
James scanned the office. “Is he invisible?”
“No,” Ally said, frowning. “The contractor had a question upstairs, and Jake went up to talk to him.”
Since the second floor of Hardy Brothers Security was undergoing renovations so the youngest Hardy brother, Finn, and his pregnant fiancée Emma could move in, the revelation wasn’t much of a surprise to James. The construction was close to being finished, but it was still a pain to deal with. “What now?”
“Oh, it was nothing major,” Ally said. “It was just about which way you wanted the door to the baby’s room to open. I don’t see why it matters, but the question really irritated Jake. He says there’s only one way for a door to open properly, and it shouldn’t even be a question.”
James couldn’t help but agree with that assessment. “I’m sure he has it under control.”
“I wish he had me under his control,” Ally said, blithe. “I’m ready for a romantic dinner, and this stupid door is getting in the way.”
James scowled. “How many times have I asked you to refrain from talking about your sex life with me?” James loved his baby sister, but he liked to pretend she was still running around with ribbons in her hair and a doll in her hands. While he’d come to accept her relationship with Jake, he didn’t like it flaunted in front of him.
“Do you realize what a double standard that is?” Ally asked, lifting her dark eyes so she could focus on her brother. “I have to listen about your non-stop fornication with my best friend every time I turn around. Hell, I’ve practically seen the two of you do it.”
James refused to be ruffled by his sister’s circular logic. “Your best friend also happens to be my wife. There’s a difference.”
“You’ve been married for three months.”
“So, I saw you do it long before you were married,” Ally said.
“You never saw us do it,” James countered.
“Oh, whatever,” James said, Ally sapping the remnants of his good mood quickly. “You drive me crazy.”
“Oh, good, what are we arguing about today?” Jake asked, appearing at the bottom of the stairs that led to the second-floor apartment. He ran a hand through his dark hair, his brown eyes flashing as they bounced between brother and sister. He was used to the Hardy hijinks, so their arguments barely fazed him these days.
“James is mad because I told him about our plans tonight.” Ally was being flippant, mostly because she knew it would drive James to the brink. “I told him that I had to watch him have sex with my best friend, so he just has to suck it up.”
“You did not watch Mandy and I have sex!” James was starting to get angry. His sister always knew exactly which buttons to push.
“I saw you two naked – our own mother saw it, too, mind you – so it was close enough.”
James growled. “I can’t be around you for one more second,” he said. “I guess it’s good that I’ll be leaving town.”
Ally’s eyebrows lifted. “You’re leaving town? Where are you going?”
“We have a convention security job in New Orleans,” James said. “I was just stopping in to talk to Jake about it.”
“Oh, you can’t take him to New Orleans with you,” Ally said. “I can’t live without him. You’ll have to pick someone else to take.”
Jake smiled softly at Ally. “Thank you for that, angel.” He shifted his attention to James. “How long are you going to be gone?”
“About a week,” James said.
“Mandy isn’t going to like that,” Ally said. “You’re still in the honeymoon phase. She’s going to be all sad and despondent. Don’t worry. I’ll cheer her up with alcohol and bar nights.”
James extended his finger. “No, you won’t. She’s not going to be despondent. I’m taking her with me.”
“For a whole week?” Ally was impressed. “She’s always wanted to go to New Orleans. She’s going to love this. Are you surprising her?”
“Yes,” James said. “I just came from the courthouse. Judge MacIntosh agreed to give her the week off. Don’t you dare call and tell her before I have a chance to surprise her.”
“I wouldn’t do that,” Ally said.
“You would,” James countered.
Ally tilted her head, her long brown hair cascading down her shoulder as she considered the statement. “You’re right. I would tell her if I thought she needed to know. Since it would ruin your surprise, though, and her happiness, I have no intention of telling her. When are you leaving?”
“Tomorrow,” James said. “Which brings me to the other reason I’m here.” James pressed his lips together, dreading the scene he knew he was about to create. “I’m taking Finn, Grady, Emma and Sophie, too.”
Ally leaned back in the desk chair, her eyes narrowed to brown slits. “Wait a second … .”
“The job is big enough that it’s going to take three of us,” James said, raising a hand to cut off what was sure to be a righteous diatribe. “The company hiring us is giving us three suites at a great hotel. There’s no reason Finn and Grady have to be alone while we’re there.”
“Why can’t Jake and I go instead?” Ally asked, shifting gears. It was one thing when she thought James wanted to take Jake and leave her behind. It was quite another to find out she was missing out on a free vacation.
“I need Grady,” James said. “There’s a lot of electronic stuff, and he’s the best with it.”
“Well, then leave Finn and Emma behind,” Ally suggested, jutting out her lower lip. “Mandy needs me when she sees New Orleans for the first time. She’s been dreaming about it forever.”
“Ally, I honestly did consider that,” James said.
“So why am I being left out?”
James sighed. “Someone has to stay and run the office. Everyone can’t go.”
“That still doesn’t explain why I’m the one being left out,” Ally said, crossing her arms over her chest.
“I just figured, with a baby coming, this might be Emma and Finn’s last chance for some time alone,” James said.
“They can be alone here,” Ally protested.
“Ally, once the baby comes, their lives are going to be very different,” James said. “There’s not going to be a chance for a romantic vacation without a baby. This might be it for them.”
“But … .” Ally’s chocolate eyes were conflicted. She knew she was being unreasonable. It still hurt to be the one left out.
“I promise you can go on the next vacation,” James said. “If I didn’t need Grady, I honestly would leave him and Sophie behind. I can’t wait to see how he convinces her to give up a week of work. I’ll just bet she’s got months’ worth of vacation saved up.”
“Fine,” Ally grumbled.
Jake tried to hide his smile as he regarded her. “Just think, angel. We’ll have the run of the town while they’re gone. We’ll have a whole week of romance without any of your brothers looking over our shoulders.”
“Oh, well, that’s the same as Cajun food and great music.”
James rubbed the back of his neck, debating whether the offer he was about to make her was something he could ultimately live with. Finally, he realized she would guilt him to infinity and back if he didn’t give her something. “No, but you and Jake can enjoy the hot tub for the entire week while we’re gone.”
Ally visibly brightened. “Really?”
James was already regretting his decision. “Go nuts. I’ll just drain it when I get back.”
James pointed at him. “No sex in my bed, or the one in the studio. If you guys have sex in my house, it damn well better be in one of the guest rooms.”
“You’re so bossy,” Ally said.
“I’ll know if you have sex anywhere else,” James warned.
Ally smiled sweetly. “Don’t you have a wife to surprise?”
James sighed. “I do. I can’t wait to see the look on her face.”
James found Mandy studying a partially painted canvas in her studio an hour later. Her angular face was focused as she studied what looked to be a series of green and blue blobs. James had encouraged Mandy to take art classes and pursue her dream, even going so far as to suggest she quit her job as a courthouse clerk and do it full time, but she was still in the dabbling phase.
Her long blonde hair was tied back in a ponytail, and her blue eyes were expressive when they shifted to him. “Hi.”
James couldn’t help but smile as a warm rush of love washed over him. She was dressed down in simple cutoffs and a tank top, and she’d already scrubbed today’s makeup from her face. He’d never seen anything more beautiful. “How is my wife today?” He moved to her side and kissed the sensitive spot behind her ear.
Mandy rolled her eyes. “You’re up to something, aren’t you?”
“Can’t a man kiss his wife without being accused of something?”
Mandy shrugged as she brandished her paintbrush in his direction. “I know you. You’re up to something.”
James grinned. “I might have a surprise for you.”
Mandy groaned. “You know I hate surprises.”
“You’re going to like this one,” James said. “I promise.” He glanced at the canvas again. “I’m probably going to regret asking this, but what is that?”
“I’m supposed to be working on an abstract for my class,” she replied. “It’s not going well. I don’t think I’m good at abstract painting.”
“You’re good at whatever you want to be good at,” James said, wrapping his arms around her narrow waist. “When is this thing due?”
“Not for three weeks.”
“Why are you working on it now?”
Mandy dropped the paint brush on the tray to her left and turned into James’ embrace, kissing him softly in greeting. “I came home early to work on you. It is Friday, after all. I was expecting you to be naked and waiting for me like you usually are. You weren’t here.”
“So, you had nothing better to do?” James teased.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” James said. “I had a few things to shore up at the office. We got a new gig today.”
“It’s the New Orleans one I was telling you about.”
“Oh.” Mandy lowered her eyes, her voice soft. “Does that mean you’re going to be gone for a whole week?”
“It does,” James said. “How do you feel about that?”
Mandy forced a smile onto her face, but the expression didn’t make it all the way up to her eyes. “It’s your job. I’m not happy about being away from you, but it’s not like I have a choice. When do you leave?”
“Tomorrow?” Mandy’s voice was almost a squeak. “So that means … we just have tonight.”
James thought about torturing her a little longer, but he wanted to get to the celebration part of their evening as soon as possible. “Actually, it means we have a whole week together in New Orleans.”
Mandy was confused. “What?”
“I already talked to Judge MacIntosh,” James said. “That’s where I was. Well, I was also at the office explaining to Ally why she couldn’t go. You’ve been cleared for a week of vacation, and we leave first thing tomorrow morning.”
“I … you’re taking me with you?” The hope reflected on Mandy’s face was almost enough to bring James to his knees.
“I wouldn’t take anyone else,” James said, cupping the back of her head. “You’ve always wanted to see New Orleans. I figured now was as good of a time as any.”
“And it’s just going to be the two of us?”
“In our room? Yes. Grady, Finn, Emma and Sophie are coming, too. I figured, while the three of us work, you women could take in the sights and shop.”
“Oh, wow,” Mandy breathed, excitement filling her sea-blue eyes. “I can’t believe you arranged this.”
“I love you, baby,” James said. “I want you to get everything you want. I just happen to want to see the city with you.”
Mandy squealed, delighted, and threw her arms around his neck. “You’re the best husband ever.”
“I certainly hope so,” James said, kissing her cheek.
“I love you,” Mandy said, smothering his mouth with hers.
James leaned into the kiss, groaning when he felt her hips shift against his groin. “I love you.”
Mandy broke the kiss and started moving toward the door. “I have to pack.”
“Hey, what about my celebration? I thought you were going to thank me in the hot tub before we go.” James was disappointed.
“First packing, then playing,” Mandy said. “The good news for you is that I can pack my bathing suit now. I won’t be needing it in the hot tub later.”
James grinned as he followed his blonde, her excitement contagious. “Do you promise?”
“I promise to celebrate with you multiple times tonight,” Mandy said. “Just as soon as we pack.”