Authors: Lily Harper Hart
“When we get a house of our own in a few years, can we make sure it has a big tub like this?” Emma asked, sinking into the steaming water and maneuvering so she could settle between Finn’s legs before leaning her back against his chest.
Finn wrapped his arms around her and kissed her neck. “Absolutely. I think a big tub is a must. In fact, after hearing James and Grady crow about their hot tubs, I think we should get one of those, too.”
“That sounds fun,” Emma said, snuggling closer to Finn. “This is nice. I’m glad it’s just us tonight.”
Finn rubbed his hands over Emma’s flat stomach. “How is my baby today?”
“Good,” Emma said. “I think he’s getting used to spicy foods. I had a whole plate of it this afternoon, and he didn’t complain once.”
“A whole plate? Why don’t I believe you?”
“Ask Sophie and Mandy. Sophie even commented on it.”
“I’m glad,” Finn said, licking the spot behind her ear. “You need to put some meat on your bones.”
“You don’t seem to mind my meatless bones,” Emma said, giggling as he licked her again.
“I like you however I can get you,” Finn said, rubbing his erection against her rear end. “I’d like you right now, in fact.”
Emma giggled. “I could probably be persuaded to give you what you want,” she said. “I’d rather not do it in the tub, though.”
“How come?” Finn was a little disappointed.
“I have a whole bag of stuff I want to try out with you,” she reminded him.
,” Finn said, sucking her earlobe into his mouth. “We’ve got plenty of time to do both. Now, turn around and climb on. I want to give you a ride.”
what am I supposed to do with this stuff?” Grady asked, reading the bottle of massage oil carefully. “Oh, wait, this says I can lick it and it will taste like strawberries. Can I lick it?”
“You can lick anything you want,” Sophie said. She was spread out on the bed in front of him, her chest flat against the comforter. “I just want a five-minute massage before you do.”
“Are you turning into Mandy? She loves a massage.”
“Just so you know, it’s not good form to mention another woman when you’re about to have sex with your girlfriend,” Sophie said. “Just FYI.”
“Thanks for the tip,” Grady said, drizzling some of the massage oil on Sophie’s back so he could massage it in. He was naked, except for his boxer shorts, and he was ready to get to the main event. Still, a little foreplay never hurt anyone. “Wow, this stuff is warm.”
“It heats up,” Sophie said, positively purring as Grady kneaded her sore muscles. “Oh, that feels good.”
Grady smiled. “Are you okay after today? Do you want to talk about it?”
“I’m fine,” Sophie said. “I think I’m the one who got off light. You didn’t even bother to yell about us going to the haunted house.”
“I don’t think it’s necessary,” Grady said. “It’s not like you guys knew what was going to happen. They seemed like a nice couple. Not everyone in the world is out to get us.”
“No,” Sophie agreed. “It just feels that way sometimes.”
“It does indeed,” Grady said. “How did Emma take things?”
“As well as can be expected.”
“Should I know what that means?”
“Emma is a survivor,” Sophie said. “She’s already survived the worst this world has to offer. Between her hormones and fear, though, she’s all over the place. She held it together. She didn’t freak out when that guy had his hands on her.”
“You know you should have never gone to that house, right?”
“Mandy wanted to see it,” Sophie said. “It was two blocks away. There were plenty of people on the street. It didn’t seem like a big deal. She was so excited.”
“She’s always liked that stuff,” Grady said. “She and Ally would have slumber parties in middle school and watch as many gory flicks as they could get their hands on. It didn’t matter how bad they were.”
“I hope James isn’t being too hard on her,” Sophie said. “She didn’t mean any harm.”
“She never does,” Grady said. “I think James wanted everyone to eat before coming up here because he needed time to collect himself. He doesn’t like flying off the handle, and he always regrets it.”
“Then he should stop doing it,” Sophie said.
“That’s easier said than done. When you love someone, you can’t always help how you react to things.”
“How come you’re not flying off the handle then?”
“Because I know it won’t do any good,” Grady said. “I’ve decided to pick my battles where you’re concerned. James just opts for too many battles.”
“Oh, so you pick your battles, huh?”
“What battle do you want to fight tonight?”
“The battle for your virtue,” Grady replied, laughing. “Now turn around so I can massage your front.”
“Then what’s going to happen?”
“We’ll see where the night takes us.”
you get enough to eat?”
James was sitting in one of the chairs in front of the television and flipping through the channels. Mandy had taken a bath, plucked her eyebrows and filed her fingernails, and he still hadn’t said a word to her. She couldn’t take much more of the silence.
James merely grunted in reply.
“Are you going to ignore me for the rest of the night?”
James didn’t answer as he focused on the television.
“I would rather have you yell at me than just sit there,” Mandy said. “Scream. Throw something. Do … something. Don’t pretend I don’t exist.”
“I don’t want to scream,” James said. “I promised I would never throw anything again. I have no interest in scaring you. I know you exist. That’s why I’m so mad.”
“I … I’m sorry,” Mandy said. “I had no idea things would go the way they did.”
“Isn’t my apology good enough for you?”
“What do you want?”
“I want you to go to bed,” James said. “I’ll … sleep out here on the couch.”
Hot tears flooded Mandy’s eyes, and she fought to tamp them down. “Oh. You’re going to sleep out here?” Her voice cracked, and she hated herself for it.
“I think it would be better,” James said, refusing to look at her. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Okay,” Mandy said.
James pressed his eyes shut as he listened to her shuffle away. He hadn’t seen the tears, but he’d heard them in her voice. He knew torturing her was not the answer, but he was terrified of picking a fight with her in a hotel. He just needed a few minutes to regroup. Once he could put things into perspective, he would feel better.
After a half hour of watching Sports Center, he flipped off the television and stood up. A glance at the couch told him that there was no way he would get any sleep if he tried to settle there. In the eighteen months they’d been together, they’d only spent two nights apart. One was because she was upset. The other was because he was upset. He’d vowed not to spend another night away from her because of his pride.
James swallowed hard and then pulled himself together. They were going to have this out, and they were going to have it out now.
James was quiet when he entered the bedroom. Everything was dark, and he couldn’t see her in the bed, but he heard an errant sniffle and it almost broke him. He shed his clothes and climbed in next to her, causing her to jump in surprise. She hadn’t heard him when he walked into the room.
“I thought … .”
“I’m not sleeping away from you,” he said. “I can’t do it, so I’m not going to do it. We’re going to have a calm and rational talk, and then this is going to be over with. Do you think you can handle that?”
She didn’t answer, but James could make out the dim outline of her jaw as she nodded.
“I know you didn’t think anything bad could possibly happen when you went to the house,” James said. “I know you didn’t mean for anything to happen. The fact of the matter is, though, I asked you to stay with your tour group. I asked you to stay together.”
“I didn’t mean to get separated,” Mandy said. “I just … I don’t even know how it happened. Sophie and Emma were right behind me.”
“I know how it happened,” James said. “You got excited. When you get excited, you lose all ability to think. You should have waited for me. I would have taken you to the haunted house.”
“It was just supposed to be a quick trip,” Mandy said. “We’d been fine all afternoon. Nothing had happened. I thought we were fine.”
“And if you had to do it all over again, knowing what you know now, would you?”
James ran his hand through his hair, sighing. “I’m not angry with you because I like to be angry with you,” he said. “I know Grady makes a joke out of it, and I know we like to have minor spats just so we can make up. That’s not what’s going on here, though.
“I love you,” he continued. “I love you with my mind, my body, and my soul. I love you with every part of me. I need you to be more careful, even if you’re only doing it for me and not yourself.”
“I was trying to be careful,” Mandy said. “I … I didn’t want to leave the tour. Emma couldn’t take it any longer. She gets tired more easily, and it’s hot out. Even if she says she’s okay, you can always tell when she’s flagging.
“I’m not going to say I shouldn’t have left the tour under those circumstances,” she said. “What I am going to say is that instead of going on the streetcars – and especially going to the haunted house – I should have called a cab and gotten us out of there right away.”
“That would have been the smartest course of action,” James agreed, leaning back on the pillows and scooting lower so his body was touching hers. “You’re not the only one to blame, though. I brought you here. I should have waited until I could make this a trip between just you and me. I haven’t had enough time to spend with you.”
“Don’t apologize for giving me something I’ve always wanted,” Mandy said. “I’m the one to blame.”
“I’m not going to blame either of us,” James said, his hands moving around her waist so he could pull her to him. “What we’re going to do is go to sleep. Tomorrow is a new day. I’m sure my temper will have fizzled out by the morning. Can we just … I don’t know … call a ceasefire for the rest of the night?”
Mandy nodded mutely.
James tugged her on top of him, settling her hips against his and her head on his chest. “Get some sleep, baby. Everything will be okay in the morning.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure that I just want to hold you and forget about the past few hours,” he said. “That has to be enough for right now.”
“Okay,” Mandy said, her voice small.
James pressed his eyes shut, relaxing when he felt her hand come to rest over his heart.
“You still love me, right? When you were talking about loving me earlier, that wasn’t in the past tense, was it?”
“I’ll love you until I breathe my last breath,” he said. “And then, when I die, I’ll love you for all of eternity. Now go to sleep, you complete and total pain in my ass.”
“I love you, too.”
“Go to sleep, Mandy.”
Mandy woke to James’ busy hands roaming her body.
“Good morning,” she murmured.
“Good morning.” He shifted her, tossing her on her back so he could climb on top of her.
“What time is it?”
“It’s still early,” James said. “I just … I wanted a little time with you before I have to leave for the convention center. I usually don’t like to wake you up, and I’m sorry.”
“I’m not,” Mandy said, running her fingers through his hair. “I’m the one who is sorry.”
“I know you are,” he said. “I just … we’re not going to dwell on it.” He pressed his mouth to hers, sucking her lower lip and running his tongue over it. He reached for the hem of the T-shirt she was wearing and pulled away long enough to strip it from her body. She was naked beneath, and he was relieved because he needed to feel her flesh pressed tightly against his. “I love you, wife. No matter what – no matter how angry I am – never doubt that.”
“I love you, too.” Mandy’s eyes were glassy, and James was worried she was about to start crying.
“None of that,” he said, kissing her again. “I’m not angry.”
He moved his head lower, sucking her nipple into his mouth and running his tongue over the hardened nub. She moaned at the tactile sensation, and after giving her other nipple the same attention, he kissed down her abdomen. He spread her legs so he could position himself between them, and then he buried his face in her moist center.
Mandy cried out when his tongue slipped inside of her warm core, flicking her clitoris before moving lower. He licked her up and down, enjoying the way her body reacted to his ministrations, and then he attacked her with gusto.
Mandy’s hand tangled in his hair as he loved her with his tongue. He held her thighs in place as she writhed, not letting go until she orgasmed. He licked his way back up her abdomen, claiming her mouth brutally as he rubbed himself against her. “I love you,” he whispered before thrusting inside of her ready warmth.
Mandy grunted at his entrance, and James wrapped his arms around her waist and held her to him as he rocked back on his knees – drawing her into a crouching position on top of him.
Once she was comfortable, Mandy started to raise herself up and down on his length, her mouth never leaving his as they made love. Sometimes the sex between them was fervent and needy. Sometimes it was sweaty and hot. And sometimes, like now, it was sweet and tactile. James wanted to feel every inch of her. He wanted her to know that he loved her, even without the words. He wanted things to be back to normal.
Mandy gasped when she felt his fingers brush against her already throbbing nerve bundle. “Oh.” Her thighs were tense as she climbed up him and then fell back down. Over and over. “I love you,” she murmured. “I … .”
“Shh,” James said, grazing his teeth against her throat. “I know. It’s okay. Everything is okay.”
James’ strong back melted under her hands. Their hands and bodies were a frenzy of movement that mingled with their moans. A few minutes later, they came together. James cradled her as he lowered her back to the bed, not pulling out even as he rested his weight on her small frame. He knew this was one of her favorite times, the moments right after when they could just hold each other.
“I really do love you,” Mandy said.
“You’ll never be able to grasp how much I love you, baby.”
it looks like the crisis has passed,” Grady said, studying Mandy and James for signs of a long night. “Did you yell and scream or just go for the make-up sex outright?”
James was holding Mandy’s hand on top of the table, shooting her occasional flirty looks between bouts of morning conversation. That didn’t stop him from gracing Grady with a dirty look. “We did not yell and scream.”
“Were you up all night doing it?” Grady had no problem being crude, especially when he knew it would drive his brother up the wall. That was part of his repertoire with his older brother. They weren’t just family. They were best friends, too.
“Not that it’s any of your business, but we had a long talk and then went to sleep right away,” James replied.
“Oh, so you just did it this morning, huh?”
“I’m going to punch you,” James said.
Sophie pinched Grady’s arm. “Now is not the time to be you.”
“Sorry, sugar,” he said. “I’m just feeling rested and relaxed. That naturally means I want to bug my brother. I can’t help myself.”
“Try,” Sophie said.
“What time do we have to be to the convention center?” Finn asked, sipping from his cup of coffee as he watched Emma devour a whole plate of eggs and hash browns without slowing down. It seemed she wasn’t lying about acquiring an appetite.
“We have thirty minutes before the car will be here to pick us up,” James said. “We have enough time to have a leisurely breakfast and talk about a few things.”
“Uh-oh,” Sophie said. “You’re not going to yell at Mandy now, are you?”
“No,” James said. “Mandy and I are fine. We talked. We worked things out. No one yelled. No one screamed. No one threw anything.” He leaned over and gave her a reassuring kiss on the cheek. “Everything is fine.”
“Who are you and what have you done with my brother?” Finn quipped.
“I’m trying to grow,” James said.
“I thought you liked to fight and then make up?” Grady prodded.
“I like little fights,” James said. “I don’t like big fights. I don’t like tears. And, believe it or not, I don’t like purposely hurting my wife. Can you please just … not be you right now?”
“Wow. How did I get to be the unpopular one this morning?”
“It must be your gift,” James said.
“I think you’re popular,” Sophie said. “I’m the president of your fan club.”
Grady rubbed his nose against hers. “You’re lucky I only want one person in my fan club.”
“Oh, gross,” James said.
“Why isn’t it gross when you do it with Mandy?” Grady challenged.
“Because it’s me.” James turned his attention to the rest of the table, essentially shutting Grady down before he could start another irritating conversation. “While Mandy was getting ready, I made a few calls. I’ve managed to find an activity for you ladies today that will make you happy, and keep you safe.”
“I can’t wait to hear this,” Finn said.
“There’s a day spa three blocks over,” James said. “I’ve hired a car. I’ve already given the people there my credit card. You’ll be chauffeured there for the day. You can do whatever you want. Massages. Waxes. Boiling your feet in hot water. I’ve given them the go-ahead for everything.”
Mandy’s expression brightened. “Really?”
James glanced at her. “Let’s just say, I’m not convinced you can really stay in the hotel all day. I love you. I know you’re sorry. You’re still you. I happen to love you, but sometimes you’re … .” James broke off, glaring as Grady mimed twirling his finger in his ear.
“Thank you,” Mandy said. “I don’t know what to say.”
“You don’t have to say anything,” James said. “I want you to have a nice day. I’ve even arranged for a top-notch lunch to be brought in for you. I just … you’re not to go anywhere besides the spa and the car. Please … just … give me one day of peace. That’s all I ask.”
“I promise,” Mandy said, grabbing his chin so she could plant a sultry kiss on his lips. “You’re the best husband ever.”
“I know,” James said. “Tonight, I have another surprise for you. It’s the one I was telling you about yesterday. It’s for everyone, but it was planned with your interests at heart.”
“And that is?”
“I’m going to tell you, but only because I want you to have something to look forward to,” James said. “This is a reminder, if you do something that pisses me off, I’m taking the surprise away.”
Mandy balked. “Okay.”
“I don’t know who I’m kidding,” James said, rubbing his chin ruefully. “There’s no way I won’t give you the surprise. I’m looking forward to it as much as you probably are.”
“You still haven’t told me what it is.”
James smiled. “We’re going on a haunted bayou ride,” he said. “I got a special tour. There will only be a handful of other people. We get to go out on a boat, and apparently the swamp gas looks like ghosts.”
“Really?” Mandy practically jumped out of her seat. “How did you know I wanted to do that?”
“Because I’ve met you,” James said. “Oh, and you told me. Apparently we’re also going to see a bunch of alligators, or crocodiles, or whatever they have down here. I know it’s not sharks, but it’s still creatures that like to eat people in water.”
“It’s alligators,” Mandy said. “You really are the best husband in the world.”
“Were you lying when you told me that before?”
“No, I meant it,” Mandy said. “You’ve just jumped to the highest rung ever on the husband ladder, though.”
James grinned. “It’s going to be fun,” he said. “So, here’s the deal: we’re going to the convention center. You’re going to the spa. The car will bring you back here. We’ll meet you at six for dinner. The boat leaves at eight. That gives us enough time for a nice meal.”
“If we had time, I would take you right back upstairs and repeat this morning all over again,” Mandy said, jumping to her feet and throwing her arms around James’ neck.
He accepted the hug, smoothing her hair down so he could see her excited face. “You can do that tonight. I figure the alligators will get your motor running. We can finally put those cuffs to some use.”
“I love you,” Mandy said.
“Right back at you.”
Mandy gave him a quick kiss and then turned to leave the restaurant.
“Where are you going?” James asked, concerned.
“I’m just grabbing some of the brochures from the lobby so we can take them to the spa,” Mandy said. “I want to see what the boats are offering.”
“Okay,” James said. “Hurry your cute little ass back here, though. I’m expecting a few more platitudes before I go.” Once she was gone, James glanced at his brothers. “What?”
“So, you were furious with her last night, and this morning you’re lovey-dovey again,” Grady said. “You’re dropping hundreds of dollars to send them to a spa, and you’re rewarding her with a haunted bayou ride. You really are the world’s biggest softie.”
“She’s sorry,” James said.
“She was sorry at dinner last night,” Grady pointed out. “You still refused to even look at her.”
“I needed time to calm down,” James said. “I wasn’t angry because she’s excitable and passionate about life. I was angry because I can’t bear to think of life without her. She doesn’t need to feel bad about what happened. It’s over. It’s done with. It’s time to move on.”
“Admit it. You just can’t stay mad at her.”
James shifted his gaze to the door of the restaurant, where a fluttery Mandy was returning with a handful of brochures and a wide smile on her face. “I admit it. I can’t stay mad at her. I love her too much.”
“You two really should be studied for some psych journal,” Grady said. “Every time I think I have you figured out, you turn everything around and confuse me.”
“Welcome to being in love,” James said. “It’s messy. It’s worth it, though. Now let my wife slather me with some love and eat your breakfast. The best husband ever wants to kiss his beautiful wife.”
“Now it’s my turn to be grossed out,” Grady said.