Authors: Lily Harper Hart
“So, how was your day today?” James asked, linking his fingers with Mandy’s as they stepped onto the sidewalk in front of the hotel.
“It was good,” Mandy said. “We got a nice breakfast, and then we walked around and shopped.”
“I saw the bags,” James teased. “We’re going to have to send a shipment of stuff home. It will cost too much to pay extra on the plane. We’ll box it up and call Ally to be on the lookout for it.”
“I can take it back,” Mandy said immediately.
James growled. “You don’t have to take it back. I’m sorry I made the crack about the money.” He lifted their joined hands and brushed his lips against her knuckles. “I won’t ever make fun of your shopping again. I promise. Just stop … doing that.”
“I’m sorry,” Mandy murmured.
“Don’t be sorry,” James said. “You’re supposed to be having fun. Can you please just have some fun?”
Mandy smiled at him. “I am having fun. Speaking of fun, is there a reason you wanted everyone to split up tonight?”
“I love my family,” James said. “That doesn’t mean I don’t want some time alone with my wife.”
“I’m glad,” Mandy said. “I was worried we wouldn’t get any alone time together.”
James glanced down at her. “It’s a job, baby. We’ll still have plenty of time to spend together. The convention wraps up at five every day.”
“I know, but you’re probably tired,” Mandy said. “Don’t you want to … I don’t know … rest?”
“Nope,” James said. “I want to take you to dinner, and then I want to take you for a walk to listen to some music, and then I just want to take you when we get back to our room.”
“Oh, you’re such a sweet talker,” Mandy said, lifting her mouth up so she could give James a soft kiss.
He cupped the back of her head, tilting her face up so he could study it. “I love you more than anything in this world. Is that sweet enough for you?”
“You’re always sweet enough for me.”
James scorched her with a hot kiss, one that promised fun later in the evening. “I’m going to be so sweet you’re going to be begging me later tonight.”
“What will I be begging you for?”
James rested his forehead against Mandy’s for a moment. “Not to stop.”
Mandy grinned. “How did I know you were going to say that?”
“I’m an open book, baby,” James said, pulling away and grabbing her hand again. “Now, where do you want to eat?”
glanced at the encased menu on the wall outside of the restaurant and shrugged before turning back to Grady. “This looks good to me. Are you okay with it?”
“You know me, sugar,” Grady replied. “I’ll eat anything.” He leaned closer, brushing his lips against the sensitive ridge of her ear. “And I think I’m going to have you for dessert tonight.”
Sophie involuntarily shuddered. “You have a dirty mind.”
“Are you complaining?”
“No,” Sophie said. “I happen to love your dirty mind.”
“I love your dirty mind, too,” Grady said, moving his lips up to Sophie’s temple and giving her another soft kiss before moving away. This looks good to me. I want some red beans and rice.”
“I want to try some crawfish,” Sophie said.
“You didn’t last night,” Grady reminded her.
“That’s because I thought they looked like bugs.”
“They kind of are bugs,” Grady said. “They’re mud bugs.”
“Mandy and James seemed to like them,” Sophie pointed out.
“Mandy eats like a man,” Grady said. “Although, they did seem to like them. Let’s get regular meals, and we’ll split a small order of the crawfish. That way, if we don’t like it, we never have to own up to eating it.”
“Do you think James is more of a man than you because he ate the bugs?” Sophie teased.
“I’m just saying I don’t want to admit eating bugs unless I really like them.”
Sophie giggled. “Okay. Let’s eat some bugs.”
Grady wrapped his arm around Sophie’s waist and led her into the restaurant. “I’m glad James suggested we all go out on our own tonight,” he said. “Just you, me, and a romantic city has a certain ring to it.”
“Me, too,” Sophie said. “I love Mandy and Emma, but I’m not sure we’re geared to spend so much time together.”
“Why do you say that? Are the three of you fighting?” Grady asked, worried.
“No. I’m not a morning person, though,” Sophie said. “Mandy really isn’t either. Emma is, but she has a weak stomach. She’s also constantly worried someone is watching her.”
Grady stilled. “What do you mean?”
“Oh, it’s nothing,” Sophie said, waving off his concerns. “We were having breakfast at a little bistro this morning, and some blond kid kept checking Emma out. It made her uncomfortable.”
“Did he do anything?” Grady asked, wrinkling his nose.
“No. He just kept sneaking looks at her. I just think he thought she was hot,” Sophie said.
“I’ve never seen a model hate being looked at as much as Emma,” Grady said.
“I think it all stems from her father,” Sophie said, serious. “He raped and tortured her, and he used her body as a weapon. When Emma grew up and found herself on her own, she found the only thing she had to earn a living with was her body.
“She’s a beautiful girl,” she continued. “She still thinks people only look at her for sex.”
“That’s really awful,” Grady said.
“It’s going to be worse when she starts to show,” Sophie said. “People love to stare at a pregnant woman. They also like to touch their stomachs. Emma is going to really struggle with that.”
“We’ll have to help her,” Grady said. “We’ll stop people from approaching her. We’ll protect the big stomach.”
“We can’t be there every day.”
“We’ll figure something out,” Grady said, serious. “That’s going to be my niece or nephew. Emma is part of our family. We’ll take care of her.”
Sophie smiled, love for him bubbling up. “You’re really loyal.”
“I think we’re both loyal.”
“I really love you,” Sophie said, her voice small.
Grady reached for her, engulfing her in a big hug. “I really love you, too. Now, let’s get a table. I want dinner, and then I want you.”
“Me?” Sophie raised an eyebrow.
“I want you all night, sugar,” Grady said. “It’s just you, me, and my hair.”
Sophie grinned. “I think I can handle that.”
you get sick today?” Finn had his arm around Emma’s slim waist as they walked down Bourbon Street.
“No,” Emma said. “Mandy and Sophie were very diligent about picking places I could get bland food.”
“Did you actually eat?” Finn hated asking the question, but Emma had body image issues. He was always on her about her food intake – as was her doctor.
“They made me,” Emma reassured him. “Mandy made sure I ate eggs, hash browns and toast – even though I told her that was a lot of empty carbs.”
“That’s why Mandy is my favorite sister-in-law.”
“She’s your only sister-in-law.”
“She’s still my favorite,” Finn said. “I was worried you would just eat some fruit.”
“You need to stop worrying about stuff like that,” Emma said. “I’m perfectly capable of feeding myself.”
“I want a fat baby,” Finn reminded her. “You need to eat for that to happen.”
“Our baby is the size of a tadpole right now,” Emma reminded him. “It’s a fat tadpole, though. I promise.”
Finn smiled and gave her a small kiss. “So, what else did you do today?”
“We just walked around and shopped.”
“I didn’t see any bags in our room,” Finn said. “Did you buy anything?”
“No. Mandy and Sophie did, though.”
Finn sighed, exasperated. “I don’t want you worrying about money. We’re fine where money is concerned. We’ll have a new apartment in a few weeks, and we won’t even have to pay rent.”
“I’m not worried about money,” Emma said evasively.
Finn knew that wasn’t true. She was always worried about money. She couldn’t help herself. She’d had to scrape and save, even living in a hovel for years, just to get by. He was trying to wipe away those memories the best way he knew how, but it was a slow process. “I’m buying you something after dinner,” he announced.
“You don’t have to do that,” Emma protested. “I don’t need anything. I have you. That’s all I want.”
Finn groaned as he moved his hand up her back to rub the tension from her shoulders. “Maybe I want you to have more,” he said after a moment.
“Finn … .”
“No, that’s all there is to it,” Finn said. “If you won’t buy something for yourself, then I’m buying you something for every day we’re here. Don’t bother arguing. It’s what’s going to happen.”
“I don’t need things,” Emma said. “You’ve already given me more than I ever imagined.”
Her face was so earnest it grabbed Finn’s heart from afar and squeezed. “Yeah? Well, you’re getting presents, too. Have you seen how much James loves buying gifts for Mandy? Well, I want to buy you gifts, too.”
Finn glanced up at the corner restaurant and studied the menu on the wall for a moment. “This looks good. Let’s eat here. You’re getting something with shrimp tonight, too. You need the protein. We’ll make sure to find something that’s light on the spices.”
“I kind of want to try the crawfish,” Emma said. “I … not a lot of them. Mandy and James really seemed to enjoy them last night, though.”
Finn was surprised. Emma was usually militant with her vegetarianism. He didn’t want to dissuade her, though. “I’ll split some with you. We’ll get something with rice and vegetables, too. Just to be on the safe side.”
“You take such good care of me,” Emma said, running her hand over Finn’s strong chest. “I don’t know how I lived before I had you.”
Finn kissed her. “I wasn’t living before you,” he said. “Now, come on. Let’s get a table. We’ll have some dinner. We’ll listen to some music for an hour or so. Then we’ll go back to the hotel and take another bath.”
“You just like that big tub,” Emma teased.
“I like you naked in that big tub,” Finn corrected. He ushered her into the restaurant ahead of him, pulling up short when his gaze landed on a big table in the middle of the dining room. “Oh, good grief.”
Emma followed his gaze, breaking into a smile when she saw his brothers and their significant others gathered around it. “I guess great minds think alike.”
believe we all ended up at the same restaurant,” Emma said, giggling as everyone climbed into the hotel elevator together a few hours later.
“Yeah. It was exactly how I saw my evening going,” James deadpanned.
“Don’t worry,” Mandy said, slipping her hand into the back pocket of his jeans. “I’ll fix your night when we get to the room.”
“Oh, you’re going to be doing a lot of fixing,” James said.
The elevator door dinged as it opened, and the three couples exited in a line and moved down the hallway. There were four suites on the top floor, and they had three of them. Emma and Finn peeled off first, sharing a series of soft kisses and murmured promises as Finn shoved the card in the reader and pushed open the door.
Emma gasped when she looked into the room, the color draining from her face. Farther down the hallway, everyone else stilled.
“What’s wrong?” Grady asked, turning back.
“Call the police,” Finn said grimly, gripping Emma’s hand. “Someone broke into our room.”
“So, you don’t think anything was taken?” Officer Dale Grimes had his notebook out, and an unreadable look on his face as he questioned Finn and Emma about a half hour later.
The hotel staff had been mortified when informed of the break-in, and they were busily cleaning up the room once Grimes gave them the go ahead after studying the scene.
Finn ran a hand over the back of his short-cropped hair. “As far as I can tell, everything is here,” he said. “We didn’t really have anything to steal.”
Grimes scanned the room. “So why would someone break into your room and toss the place?”
Finn shrugged. “I have no idea. The only thing of value we have with us is Emma’s engagement ring, and she’s wearing that.”
“No watches or anything? No cash?”
“Well, maybe someone saw you on the street and thought you had money,” Grimes suggested. “Has anyone approached you since you’ve been here?”
“No,” Finn said, rubbing Emma’s back in an attempt to keep her calm. “It’s been a normal two days.”
Grimes shifted his attention to the rest of the Hardy party. “What about you guys? Were your rooms broken into?”
James shook his head. “We checked while we were waiting for you. As far as I can tell, no one even tried to get into our rooms.”
“And we had more to take,” Grady supplied. “Mandy and Sophie have been shopping up a storm. We didn’t really have anything valuable in either room, but there was still more of a selection.”
“Can I ask what you’re doing in New Orleans?” Grimes asked.
“My brothers and I are running security for the computer convention,” James said. “We brought the women for a vacation.”
“The women have names,” Mandy reminded him.
James ignored her. “They’ve been sightseeing while we’ve been working. This is only our second night. We’ve been out to dinner twice, but no one has paid us any attention. We’re trained to spot that, and we would have noticed.”
“And no one approached you?”
“Well, there was that guy at breakfast this morning,” Emma hedged.
Finn narrowed his eyes. “What guy?”
Grimes turned to Emma expectantly.
“Well, there was just this guy sitting a few tables over this morning,” she said. “He was staring at me.”
“To be fair, I don’t think it was him,” Sophie said. “He was young, and I think he was just staring because he thought Emma was pretty.”
“What did he look like?” Grimes asked.
Sophie described him to the best of her recollection. When she was done, she shot a sympathetic look in Emma’s direction. “I honestly think he saw a pretty girl and wanted to look at her.”
“He didn’t follow us or anything,” Mandy added. “He also had two friends who joined him when we were leaving. I have to agree with Sophie. He just seemed to think Emma was pretty.”
Emma worried her bottom lip with her teeth. “They’re probably right. I just … I don’t like it when people stare at me.”
Grimes nodded. “I’m going to agree with your friends. This guy doesn’t sound like much of a threat. I’ll make sure the description gets into the report, though. For now, just be extra vigilant.”
“We will,” James said. “Thank you.”
Once the police officer was gone, James focused his attention on Finn and Emma. “Do you guys want to switch rooms?”
Finn shook his head. “We’ll be fine. Nothing was taken. For all we know, it was some maid or bellboy just looking for a few extra bucks.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure,” Finn said, keeping Emma close as he stood up. “We’re going to take a bath, and then we’re going to go to sleep.”
“That sounds like a good idea for all of us,” James said. “Get up early tomorrow. I want us all to have breakfast together before we have to go to the convention center. We’re going to have a new set of ground rules tomorrow.”
so bossy,” Mandy grumbled the next morning, moving her glass of tomato juice back and forth on the table as she pouted.
James shot her a dark look. “I’m not trying to be bossy. I’m trying to be practical.”
“We’re not idiots,” Mandy argued. “We know how to take care of ourselves.”
“I didn’t say you didn’t.”
“That’s pretty much what you said.”
“Mandy, do you want me to handcuff you to the bed? I will. I’ll pay someone to come up and hydrate you all afternoon, and then I’ll let you loose tonight when I’m done this afternoon and can watch you myself,” James said, not even bothering to hide his anger.
Mandy narrowed her blue eyes. “Don’t you even think about it.”
James made a face as he tried to collect himself. “I’m not asking you to hang around the hotel and hide all day,” he said. “I’m asking you to take anything of value out of your purses and lock your credit cards up in the hotel safe. I’m also asking the three of you to stick close together today. I don’t think I’m asking for too much.”
“The problem is, you’re not asking,” Mandy countered. “You’re ordering us around. If you ask, I’ll do what you want.”
James glanced at her. “Baby, will you please do what I’ve asked?”
He furrowed his brow. “Are you lying to me?”
“No,” Mandy said, frustration bubbling up. “Don’t talk down to me.”
Grady pinched the bridge of his nose from across the table and groaned. “Do not devolve into one of your patented fights. They’re funny when we’re home, but it’s not so funny now.”
“We’re not doing that,” James said.
“You are,” Grady replied. “You two get off on the fighting because you like to work up to a big crescendo and then make up like sexual deviants. We can’t do that today.”
James ran his tongue over his teeth. “Fine. You’re right.”
Grady arched an eyebrow.
“Mandy, I’m not trying to boss you around,” James said. “I’m trying to keep you safe. If something bad happens to you … I’ll be a sad and pathetic man who throws himself off a bridge.”
Mandy patted his hand. “I know. I’ll be careful. I promise. I just don’t like it when you get all bossy.”
“That’s not what you said last night,” James said.
“That was different.” Mandy straightened her shoulders primly. “And it’s my turn tonight.”
Despite himself, James couldn’t help the grin from spreading across his face. “You are a huge pain in the ass.”
Mandy leaned over and pressed her forehead against his. “Right back at you.”
James cupped her head and gave her a kiss. “It’s a good thing I love you.”
“Oh, good, we’re back to being gross,” Grady said, turning his attention to Sophie. “Not that I want to start a fight with you, sugar, but I want you to be careful.”
Sophie nodded, unruffled. “I’m always careful. I’m Peter Marconi’s foster daughter. I don’t know how to be anything but careful.”
“I know,” Grady said, rubbing her shoulder. “Just be really careful today, okay?”
“You’ve got it.”
Grady’s smile was smug when he turned it on James. “And that’s how you handle a strong woman. You speak to her nicely and encourage her to be strong on her own terms.”
“I want to be just like you when I grow up,” James said. “I just want manly hair.”
Grady scowled. “Quit picking on my hair, man.”
“He’s not cutting his hair,” Sophie said. “It’s beautiful, and I like to tug on it when … we’re talking.”
Mandy snorted. “I like to tug on things when James and I are talking, too.”
“You are a sick, sick woman,” Grady chided. “How dare you take something so beautiful and make it dirty.”
“Oh, you’re such a prima donna,” Mandy shot back.
“Okay, let’s not fight,” James said. “I think the heat, humidity and too much time together is getting to all of us. No matter what, we’re all splitting up for dinner tonight. Mandy and Grady can’t take much more time together.”
“I love you, baby, but you and Grady work at a disadvantage sometimes,” James said. “You spent a lot of time together as kids, and you know exactly how to piss each other off.
“On the flip side, when you’re upset, sometimes he’s the only one who can fix it,” he continued. “He’s done it a few times. It’s not a bad thing. You guys just irritate each other when you want to – and you both clearly want to today.”
“Fine,” Mandy said.
“Fine,” Grady agreed, crossing his arms over his chest.
James fixed Finn with a weary look. “Are you okay with them running around all day?”
“As long as they’re in a group,” Finn said. “You seem to forget, three months ago, they fought off a bunch of armed thugs on their own. Mandy, Sophie, and Ally kept Emma safe in a tense situation. I have faith Mandy and Sophie can do the same today.”
“See, that’s how you placate women,” Sophie said, poking Grady in the ribs.
“You’re lucky I love you,” Grady said.
“Yes, everyone loves each other,” James said. “Here’s the deal: we should be done at the convention center early today. I want everyone to be back at the hotel by three. Then we’re all going to separate and spend some much needed time apart.
“Are we agreed?”
“Agreed,” everyone but Mandy said in unison.
James glanced at her expectantly. “Baby?”
“I agree,” Mandy said. “I still get to be the boss tonight.”
“Baby, you can be the boss every night if you promise never to die on me,” James said, his expression serious. “I can take a lot. I cannot take that.”
Mandy’s face softened. “I promise to live forever.”
James grinned. “Now give me a kiss so I have something to remember all afternoon.”