Authors: Lily Harper Hart
“Where is the boat?”
Mandy’s eyes were so alive James thought he might drown in the excited blue seas. “It’s down there,” he said, pointing. “We still have fifteen minutes before it leaves. Pace yourself.”
Mandy jerked on James’ hand. “I just want to see it.”
James sighed. “We’re apparently going to run to the boat. Take your time when following. She’s going to be a big … .”
“Pain in the ass?” Grady supplied.
Sophie elbowed him in the stomach roughly. “Don’t you rain on her parade.”
“I was going to say bundle of energy,” James said. “This probably won’t be as big of a deal as the shark tour, but this involves munching animals and ghosts, so she might really lose her mind at some point.”
“James!” Mandy yanked viciously on his arm. “We have to find a good seat.”
“I’m coming, baby.”
Sophie watched Mandy drag James down the dock, smiling when Mandy stopped long enough to point out at the water. Whatever she saw, she was using big hand gestures to emphasize it. She was beyond excited. “I’ve never seen her quite like this,” Sophie said. “She’s adorable.”
“She’s manic,” Grady said.
“She’s thrilled,” Sophie countered. “Can’t you just be happy for her?”
“I am happy for her,” Grady said. “Believe it or not, I happen to love her. She’s just a piece of work sometimes. I don’t get her infatuation with sharks and other weird animals.”
“She just likes them,” Emma said, her fingers linked with Finn’s. “Everyone has certain things they like. Don’t ruin Mandy’s night. Why would you want to do that?”
“I don’t want to do it,” Grady said. “I just want to understand.”
“You’re excited for the tour, too,” Sophie said. “I don’t know who you’re trying to kid. I saw you looking at the brochures Mandy had at dinner.”
“I like science,” Grady said. “I like the idea of gas forming out of a swamp and people thinking it’s ghosts. My interest is educational.”
“You’re the handsomest man in the world,” Sophie said. “You’re also a schmuck sometimes.”
“Mandy wants to believe they’re ghosts,” Sophie said. “If you ruin this for her, I’m going to ruin whatever you have planned for later tonight. She’s had a rough twenty-four hours. You leave her be.”
“I’m not going to ruin it for her!”
“Don’t ruin it for James either,” Sophie admonished him. “He’s as excited to share this with Mandy as she is to see it. Just … give them tonight.”
“I have no intention of ruining anything,” Grady said. “Why do you think I do?”
“You can’t help yourself sometimes,” Sophie said. “You like to needle your brother. Just don’t do it tonight. Please.”
“I won’t,” Grady said, softening. “I just … I just like to tease him. I’m not trying to ruin anything.”
“We know,” Finn said. “This is important for them, though. They’ve made up, but James really wants her to know that he’s okay. You have to see that.”
“I see it,” Grady said. “I’ll be on my best behavior. I promise.”
crap,” Grady said, pointing at the green mist as it swirled a few feet away. “That is amazing.”
“It’s a ghost,” Mandy said, jumping up and down next to him. “It’s like
“Is a television going to eat me?”
Sophie smacked Grady lightly. “You leave her alone. You promised.”
“What did he promise?” James asked, moving up next to Mandy and fixing Grady with a curious look.
“He promised not to ruin her night,” Sophie said. “He won’t admit it, but he’s just as excited for this boat trip as she is.”
“I’m in it for the science,” Grady said.
James smirked. “Whatever you have to tell yourself.” He rested his hand against Mandy’s narrow hips and focused his attention on her. “Look there, baby. Over by those trees. It looks like a man.”
“It looks like a man in a confederate uniform with a gun,” Mandy said. “That’s probably a ghost from the Civil War.”
“Probably,” James agreed.
Grady made a face as he studied the clump of trees James was pointing at. “That doesn’t look like … .”
Sophie smacked his arm again, shooting him a warning look.
“I’ll bet he was killed by Abraham Lincoln himself,” Grady said, rolling his eyes.
“Abraham Lincoln wasn’t a soldier,” Mandy said. “Shut your mouth.”
“Do you see the abuse I take?”
Sophie wasn’t moved by Grady’s feigned plight. “Leave her alone.”
“Yes, leave her alone,” James said, wrapping his arms around Mandy’s waist as he pulled her close. “Are you having fun, baby?”
“This is so much fun!”
“Good,” James said, kissing her temple. “Let’s move to the other side of the boat so Grady’s bad attitude doesn’t suck the fun out of the atmosphere. Maybe we’ll be able to see some alligators.”
Once they were gone, Sophie was livid. “What is wrong with you?”
“That’s not a ghost,” Grady protested, pointing at the swirling mist. “It’s … gas.”
“So what?” Sophie challenged.
Grady had the grace to look abashed. “I’m sorry.”
“Tell them, not me,” Sophie said.
“Yeah, Grady,” Finn teased. “Go apologize to your sister-in-law for ruining her ghost tour.”
“Suck it,” Grady growled, but he directed his body toward the other side of the boat. “I’m going to apologize, but only because I want Mandy to be happy. I hope you know that.”
Sophie watched him shuffle across the deck. Once he was gone, Finn touched her shoulder. “You know, he really wasn’t being that bad.”
“I know,” Sophie said. “I just want to rein him in before he gets to the point where he really does ruin their night. He doesn’t understand how much he irks James sometimes.”
“Oh, he understands it,” Finn said. “He just enjoys doing it.”
“Not tonight,” Sophie said. “Mandy needs this. He can be a good sport. It won’t kill him. If he’s a good sport right now, I’ll be a good sport tonight.”
“What does that mean?” Finn asked.
“It means that I’m going to give him the night of his life if he lets Mandy have some fun,” Sophie said. She started to follow Grady and then pulled up short. “Don’t you dare tell him I told you that.”
“Your secret is safe with me.”
we’re good, right?”
Grady’s face was so earnest Mandy had to fight the urge to laugh. “We’re good.”
“I really didn’t want to ruin this night for you,” Grady said. “I just … I was messing around.”
“We’re fine, Grady,” Mandy said. “I know your personality. You did walk me down the aisle when I married your brother, after all.”
“I know,” Grady said. “That meant a lot to me. I love you like you’re my sister. Heck, some of the time, I love you more than my sister.”
“Don’t ever tell Ally that,” James said. “She’ll totally freak out.”
“I won’t,” Grady said. “I just don’t want to ruin this for you.”
“You haven’t,” Mandy said. “I’m happy. Nothing could ruin this night for me.”
“Good,” Grady said. He pointed toward the tour guide. “I think Patty wants to show us something.”
“I think she looks like Peppermint Patty,” Mandy said, studying the woman for a moment. “I like her.”
“That’s because she’s just as excited about ghosts as you are,” Grady said.
“You have a point.”
“Okay, we’re going to move a little closer to shore,” Patty said. “It’s perfectly safe, but this little cove up here usually has a huge nest of alligators in it.”
“Do they attack the boat?” The woman who asked the question was young – and nervous. Her boyfriend gripped her hand reassuringly.
“They don’t attack the boat,” Patty said. “You’re perfectly safe.”
“What if we were in the water?” Finn asked curiously. “Would they attack a person?”
Patty tilted her head to the side, considering. “I would be lying if I said alligators never attacked humans,” she said. “In general, they just want to be left alone. When they do attack, it’s usually because someone has encroached on their territory.
“The good news is, as long as we’re in the boat, we’re perfectly safe,” she continued. “They don’t attack boats. In fact, they’re more interested in attacking other animals than people.”
Mandy furrowed her brow. “That’s a bummer.”
James grinned. “I’m sure if you jumped in the water they would eat you, baby. They’re still terrifying.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” Mandy said, her tone dry. “I want to see them. I definitely don’t want to swim with them.”
James studied her for a moment. “You know, there are places where you can swim with sharks. Would you want to do that?”
Mandy immediately started shaking her head. “Absolutely not.”
“I think they’re the kind of sharks that don’t eat people,” Grady suggested helpfully.
“Then those aren’t the type of sharks I’m interested in,” Mandy said. “I would like to go to South Africa to see those flying Great Whites, though.”
“Flying?” Grady was confused.
,” James said. “It’s a regular feature on
. There’s a place in South Africa where they jump out of the water and fly. She loves it when they show that episode.”
“So you’re terrified of sharks that will eat you, but you’re only interested in sharks that will eat you,” Grady said. “Am I understanding this?”
smart,” Mandy teased.
“What are we talking about?” Finn, his arm around Emma’s waist, joined the party. “Are you two fighting or getting along?”
“We’re getting along,” Grady said. “I’m just massively confused about Mandy’s shark fetish.”
“She likes the big ones,” Emma supplied.
“I do like the big ones,” Mandy said, cocking her eyebrow in James’ direction suggestively. “They make me happy.”
Grady made an exasperated sound in the back of his throat. “You’re testing my limits here.”
“You’re such a girl,” James said, punching his arm playfully. “You’re … .”
Emma jerked forward as someone barreled into her from behind. The man, who was young and had an unfamiliar face, brandished a knife. Before anyone could react, he cut Emma’s purse string from her shoulder and grabbed it. As he was trying to move away, Finn grabbed his arm.
The man reared back, slamming his shoulder into Mandy, who was halfway hanging over the edge of the boat due to her zest to see alligators. In his haste to escape, he shoved all of his weight into her slight frame. The force was enough to lift her and dump her over the side of the boat, and into the alligator-infested waters below.
Finn’s eyes were wide, and he made a move to follow the man – who was already heading toward the opposite railing. The man didn’t hesitate. He jumped from the boat, and into the busy waters below. Finn leaned over the railing, and when he found the man wading through shallow water so he could make it to the shore, Finn considered jumping in after him. An anguished cry stopped him in his tracks.
“Mandy!” James was beside himself as he leaned over the edge of the boat.
Mandy slipped underneath the water momentarily and then resurfaced. “I … I can’t feel the bottom.”
“Hold still, baby,” James instructed. “Don’t move your legs.”
“I’ll sink if I do that.”
“I … I’m coming in after you.” James made a move like he was going to vault over the railing, but Grady stopped him. “That puts two of you in danger,” he said.
“We have to get her out of the water,” James said. “There are alligators in there. A lot of them.”
“I know,” Grady said. “We have to think of a better plan.”
“Omigod!” Patty’s voice was like nails on a chalkboard. “She’s going to be eaten alive.”
James moved to jump over the railing again.
“Stop that,” Grady instructed. “Stop that right now. Lean over the edge. Finn and I will hold your legs. Finn!”
Finn rushed to his family, opting to let the purse snatcher run into the swamp rather than risk Mandy’s life. “What?”
“Help me,” Grady grunted, grabbing a hold of James’ legs as his brother leaned over the railing. “For the love of all that is holy, don’t drop him.”
Finn grabbed the other leg and did as instructed. “I’ve got him.”
“Something just brushed against my leg,” Mandy said, her voice wavering. “I … get me out of here.”
“Reach up, baby,” James instructed.
Mandy stretched her hand, her fingertips brushing against James’ outstretched digits. “I can’t reach.”
“Let me go,” James instructed. “I’ll jump in and lift her up.”
“That’s a terrible idea,” Finn said, helping Grady lower James farther down. “Don’t be stupid. Try again, Mandy.”
Mandy’s eyes were swimming with tears. “I’m not sure I can.”
“I have faith in you, baby,” James said. “Reach for me. Reach!”
Mandy lifted herself out of the water one more time, and when her palm smacked against James’, he tugged hard. “I’ve got you, baby. Don’t let go.”
“Pull him back,” Finn instructed.
Grady and Finn struggled, Mandy and James’ body weight working against them. Sophie and Emma instinctively joined in, grabbing James’ jeans to help with the task. Twenty seconds later, James toppled over the side – pulling Mandy with him. He wrapped his arms around her, tugging her onto his lap as he smothered her with unspoken adoration.
She was gasping, her heart hammering as James engulfed her with his love. “I’ve got you,” James said. “You’re okay. I’ve got you. We’re okay.”
is she?” Grady asked, glancing up as James moved into the living area of the suite.
“She’s taking a shower,” James said. “She’s … shaky.”
“How are you?” Sophie asked, concerned.
“Well, I took my wife on a haunted bayou ride because she thought she was going to have the time of her life,” James said. “Instead, she was almost eaten by alligators. I’m great.”
“James, I know you’re upset,” Finn said, admonishing him. “It’s not Sophie’s fault.”
James tugged on the ends of his hair, frustrated. “I know. I’m sorry. I just … she could have died.”
“She’s okay,” Grady said. “She’s in the shower. She’ll be out in a few minutes, and you’ll be able to touch her again. We need to talk about a few things before that happens. I’m not sure how much she can take tonight.”
“I’ve ruined all of this for her,” James said. “She liked looking at them from afar. Now her fantasies are ruined.”
“You don’t know that,” Emma said. “In a few days, this might be one of those stories she’ll tell for the rest of her life. It might just make her more excited.”
“I hope so,” James said. “I just … I felt so helpless.”
“We got her out,” Finn said. “Heck, the tour even refunded your money because they were so worried about a lawsuit.”
“It wasn’t their fault,” James said. “Emma’s purse is gone. Whoever these people are who think she has something inside of it, they’re going to search it and find nothing. They’re to blame.”
“I have no idea what they’re looking for,” Emma said. “I swear. I don’t have anything in it.”
“We believe you,” James said. “Somehow, people believe you have something of value. There has to be a reason why.”
“We’ve all been together since we got here,” Finn said. “This started after that first night. So whatever happened, it happened then.”
“Let’s retrace our steps,” James said, settling in one of the chairs. “What did we do when we got here? I want every little detail from the moment we got off the plane.”
“We collected our luggage,” Sophie said. “There was nothing out of the ordinary.”
“Then we stopped in that shop,” Grady supplied. “Sophie bought a map.”
“Was there anything off about the map?” James asked.
Sophie dug inside of her purse and then handed the laminated map to him. “It’s just a map.”
James scanned it for a few moments and then handed it back. “It’s just a map,” he reiterated. “What else?”
“We took a shuttle to the hotel,” Finn said. “It was just the six of us.”
“The bellboy unloaded our bags and took them inside,” Sophie said. “Did anyone find anything that didn’t belong in their luggage?”
Everyone shook his or her heads.
“We checked into our rooms and then spent a few hours alone,” Finn said. “I think everyone knows what everyone was doing. Then we all went out to dinner together.”
“Okay, did anything weird happen at dinner?” James asked.
“No,” Grady said. “No one but the waitress talked to us. After that, we went out to the street.”
“I had an upset stomach,” Emma said.
“That’s right,” James said, searching his memory. “Grady and I went to get you a malt. Finn stayed with you.”
“Sophie and Mandy shopped,” Grady said. “They were right in front of us, though. Emma didn’t move. She sat right there. Once Mandy and Sophie were done, they came back to us.”
“Did anyone buy anything funky?” James asked.
“They bought touristy stuff,” Grady said. “There was nothing out of the ordinary.”
“I don’t understand,” James said, rubbing his forehead. “Emma just sat there. Why would someone possibly think she has anything of interest?”
“I have no idea,” Finn said. “I don’t like it, though.”
“I don’t like it either,” James said. “My wife was almost eaten alive tonight.”
Grady opened his mouth to counter the argument, and then wisely snapped it shut.
“She’s fine,” Sophie said. “She’s probably going to have nightmares, but she’s okay. We’re all okay.”
James nodded stiffly. “Everyone needs to think hard about what happened that first day,” he said. “Go back to your rooms, lock yourselves in, and we’ll tackle this again tomorrow morning.”
“What are you going to do?” Grady asked, gathering Sophie close to him. “Are you going to be okay?”
“I’m going to hold my wife,” James said. “I’m going to hold her as tightly as I can. Other than that, I’m just going to try and get some sleep.”
Grady rested his hand on James’ shoulder. “She’s okay, man. She’s safe. Don’t let this wreck you.”
“If Sophie had been the one tossed into the water, would you let it wreck you?”
Grady didn’t know how to answer, so Sophie did it for him. “Just love her,” she said. “You’ve been through worse.”
James chuckled hoarsely. “That’s the truly awful thing about all of this,” he said. “My wife was almost eaten by alligators, and it’s not even the worst thing that has happened to us this year.”
Sophie graced him with a tight smile. “That’s what great love is all about,” she said, gripping his wrist. “You have a great love. Love her. It’s all going to be all right.”
they gone?” Mandy emerged from the bathroom, her face red from extended time under the scalding water.
“They’re back in their rooms,” James said, studying her for a moment. “How are you?”
“Clean,” Mandy said, tightening the robe around her waist.
James patted his lap. “Come to me, baby.”
Mandy was silent as she made the trip. James wrapped his arms around her, cuddling her close to his chest once she was settled. “You’ve scared the shit out of me so many times I’ve lost count,” he said. “When I knew Troy had you, I thought I would never be more scared than that moment. I still collected myself and went after you.”
“You saved me.”
“I had to,” James said. “I already knew then that I couldn’t live without you.”
“We’d only been together a few times at that point,” Mandy said.
“It didn’t matter,” James said. “I knew you were it for me. I knew you were my everything. Then, after the explosion, I thought for sure I was going to lose you. I struggled like you wouldn’t believe.”
“I think we both struggled together,” Mandy said, brushing her lips against his strong jaw. “We were both terrified after the explosion.”
“I thought that was the worst thing that could ever happen to us,” James said, resting his cheek against her temple. “Then you offered to sacrifice yourself to save me the day before our wedding.”
“James … .”
“Shh. I know that you and Grady had a plan,” he said. “I didn’t know it then. I saw you standing there. You were offering to die in my place. It hurt more than anything. I was helpless. You were there. I couldn’t touch you. I couldn’t jump in front of you.
“When I heard the gunshot, I was hoping I would die so you could live,” he continued. “Then I realized I was fine. My first thought was that you were going to die in my arms after all. You didn’t, though.”
“I could never leave you,” Mandy said, her voice soft. “I will never leave you.”
“No, you won’t,” James agreed. “Tonight was something entirely different. I saw you flying over that railing and I was just … stunned. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to jump in after you.”
“That would have been a mistake,” Mandy said. “You couldn’t have touched the bottom either. If you hadn’t done things the way you did, we both would have been in terrible danger.”
“Do you want to know what’s funny?”
“I would have rather died with you than lose you,” James said. “I have no idea how this happened. I’ve spent the better part of my life living for myself. Now? Now I live for you. I live because of you.
“I was alive before we got together,” James said, his voice breaking. “I wasn’t living, though. You’re my whole heart and soul, baby.”
Mandy pressed her face into the hollow between his chin and neck. “I feel the same way. I’m sorry you were so scared.”
“I’m sorry you were almost eaten alive.”
Mandy barked out a coarse laugh. “I still love sharks and eating machines. You don’t have to worry about that. It’s going to be okay. I just need a good night’s sleep.”
“Good,” James said, scooping her up in his arms. “We both need it. Take this robe off. I want to feel you on top of me all night.”
Mandy arched an eyebrow. “You want to have sex now?”
“Love is not sex,” James said. “I want to feel you. We’ll discuss sex in the morning.”
Mandy lifted her hand, running her index finger down his cheek. “I love you so much it just buries me sometimes.”
James clutched her body close. “We’re in the same boat there, baby. Let’s go to sleep. I need to hold you, and you need to be held.”
“I don’t give a shit about tomorrow right now,” he said. “We’ve got tonight. We’re alive. We’re together. We’ll deal with tomorrow … tomorrow.”
“I love you.”
“Right back at you, baby. Right back at you.”