Authors: Lily Harper Hart
© 2016 by Lily Harper Hart
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
ames Hardy hummed softly
as he let himself in through the front door of his suburban Southeastern Michigan house. Spring was officially here, and the weather finally reflected it. Temperatures weren’t steamy, but the extended sunshine and longer days were enough to bolster his mood.
James cocked his head to the side and listened for the telltale signs of his wife. He had a surprise for her, and he’d put it off for as long as he could. He thought for sure he would find a better moment over the past few weeks, but now he was out of time.
Mandy Avery-Hardy loved her husband more than anything, but she was adamant about hating surprises. In truth, she loved surprises. She just didn’t like people keeping secrets and then springing them on her. She preferred being in control, and surprises were something she could never control.
There was no answering reply. James knew what that meant. Her car was in the garage, so she was home, but James figured he would find her in her favorite room: her studio.
James let himself out of the main house through the sliding glass door and headed toward the guesthouse, smiling as he entered and spied his wife’s sensible shoes sitting on the floor next to the couch. He followed the trail of clothing to the second floor, his mind becoming increasingly clouded as he registered discarded items. Jacket. Top. Skirt. Thigh-high stockings.
By the time he got to Mandy’s studio James’ mind was muddled with ideas.
Is she painting naked?
James worried he would lose his train of thought – and forget to announce his surprise – if his wife was nude. What he got was so much worse … well, for his concentration factor, that is.
Mandy stood in her short cotton shorts and a tank top, her bra and garters from the day discarded on the floor. Her blond hair was pulled back in a simple ponytail, and she’d washed her face so it was bare of makeup. She looked exactly how James loved her best.
“Hello, wife,” James drawled, his appearance causing Mandy to jolt. “You look … like my appetizer for tonight.”
Mandy smiled, her blue eyes twinkling when they latched onto James’ chocolate orbs. “You scared me. I didn’t hear you come in.”
“You should probably lock the downstairs door when you’re going to leave a trail of clothing up the stairs,” James said, moving close enough so he could rub his fingers over the soft skin at the nape of Mandy’s neck. “My blood was pumping by the time I got to the top.”
“That’s because you’re a sex fiend,” Mandy said, brandishing the paintbrush she held in her hand and giggling as she rolled to the balls of her feet and planted a kiss on James’ mouth. “I got off an hour early because the judge said he didn’t want me worrying about any of next week’s cases when I had a beautiful weekend in front of me. It was … odd.”
Guilt rolled through James. He knew why Judge MacIntosh admonished Mandy from getting ahead on next week’s work. Mandy’s boss knew about the surprise, and he was trying to be tactful and not ruin it for his employee.
As a clerk at the county courthouse, Mandy’s days were filled with the worst horrors society had to offer. She was stoic, but her professional heart belonged to the canvases littered about her art studio. The rest of her heart belonged to James.
“Well, I think it’s nice that the judge wanted to send you home early,” James said, licking his lips as he tugged a restless hand through his hair. “He’s a good boss.”
Mandy narrowed her eyes, the brilliant blue turning into slits as she looked her husband up and down. “You’re hiding something.”
James frowned. “I … why would you say that?”
“Because you’re acting weird and won’t make eye contact,” Mandy replied. “I know you. We’ve been married for almost a full year now. We’re close – like really close – to that milestone. We’ve been together even longer than that. I know your expressions … and you’re hiding something.”
know me, wife,” James conceded, brushing an errant strand of hair away from her face. “In fact, it’s the anniversary that’s on my mind.”
Mandy stilled, surprised. “Really? Did you buy me a gift? Is that what you’re hiding?”
James’ face split into a wide grin. He was known as something of an extravagant gift giver. “Kind of.”
“Where is it?” Mandy asked. “It’s not in your safe. You hid it someplace else.”
The corners of James’ mouth tipped down. “Have you been going through my safe?”
Mandy went from aggressively questioning the man of her dreams to feigning innocence in the blink of an eye. “How can you accuse me of something like that? Where is the love?”
“Right here,” James said, snapping Mandy’s body to his and scorching her with a hot kiss. They were both breathless when they separated. “That was your gift. Are you happy with it?”
“Always,” Mandy said, her face reflecting dreamy satisfaction.
Her smile was real. He’d just told her she wasn’t getting an anniversary gift and yet she didn’t falter. James marveled at the woman he chose to spend his life with for what felt like the millionth time. “Are you saying you would be okay with me not giving you an anniversary gift?”
Mandy shrugged. “You bought me an engagement ring, more jewelry items than I can count, endless flowers, a house, and you’re building me an arboretum,” she said. “All of that pales in comparison to the gift I already have, which is you, so I’m good.”
“You’ll never know how much I love you,” James said, tightening his arms around Mandy and hugging her with everything he had. “Technically you paid for half the house, though. You insisted even though I didn’t want that.”
“I know. Still, you wanted to buy the entire thing. That counts.” Mandy rested her head on his shoulder, delighting in the way their bodies melded together. They fit. Some things are destiny, and Mandy had come to believe that her marriage to the man she loved even when she was too young to have him was one of those things. “I don’t need a gift. I have you.”
“That’s extremely sweet,” James said, pulling back so he could see her face. “I thought after we went overboard at Christmas we should rein things in.” Now he was playing a game, and it was one he looked forward to winning.
“I’m okay with that,” Mandy said. “We could just get a nice dinner and spend an entire weekend in bed. That sounds fun.”
James’ heart rolled. Most women would pitch a fit about their first wedding anniversary being downplayed. “I can’t do it.”
Mandy knit her eyebrows together, confused. “What? Have dinner with me? We can just get cupcakes or something if that makes you more comfortable.”
“Not that,” James said, cupping her chin. “I can’t even mess with you because you’re so earnest. You’re the best woman in the world.”
“I … okay.” Mandy had no idea what her husband was getting at, but she knew him well enough to realize he would get to it in his own time. “Do you want to sit down? Are you feeling okay?”
“I’m feeling great,” James said. “Actually, I’m dying to get you out of those shorts, but I have something to give you first.”
“I thought you were going to wait to give me my present when I was out of the shorts,” Mandy teased. “It’s going to be uncomfortable for you to do it if the shorts are on. Of course, you’re very gifted. If anyone can figure out a way to do it, it’s you.”
“You’re cute, wife,” James said, grinning as he pressed his hand against the small of her back. “I have an actual gift for you, though.”
Mandy arched an eyebrow. “Now? The anniversary is still two weeks away.”
“Yes, but when it came to scheduling, I could only fit what I wanted to give you into this upcoming week,” James said, opting to tell her the truth and wait for the freakout when she realized he’d given her absolutely no time to plan. “Reach into my back pocket.”
Since Mandy’s face was pressed against James’ broad chest she easily slipped her hands around his waist and dug in his pocket, giving his rear end a good squeeze as she returned with an envelope.
“Your anniversary gift,” James replied. “I’ve been meaning to tell you for two weeks, but then I got worried you would be angry because I planned something without your input and … well … now I’m on a timetable.”
“I’m almost afraid to look,” Mandy said, staring at the envelope.
“You have to look,” James said. “I’m hoping it will make you happy – right after you yell at me about how you hate surprises.”
Mandy snorted as she opened the envelope, her eyes widening as she pulled out the plane tickets and studied them. “Seriously?” Her voice was barely a whisper.
“Seriously,” James confirmed. “It was at the top of our vacation list. You said you really wanted to go.”
“I do,” Mandy said, her eyes widening. “It’s just … James, these tickets say we’re leaving tomorrow. What am I supposed to do about work?”
James internally cringed. This was the part he’d been dreading. “Judge MacIntosh already knows,” he said. “I called him two weeks ago and he was fine giving you the time off. That’s why he didn’t want you getting a jump on work for next week. You’re going to have a temporary replacement there starting Monday and that person will do the work.”
Mandy’s mouth dropped open as James took an inadvertent step back.
Here it comes.
He braced himself.
“I can’t believe you called my boss to arrange time off for me,” Mandy said, chewing on her bottom lip. “We’ve talked about this. You’re not supposed to overstep your bounds when it comes to my place of business.”
James hated Mandy’s job at the courthouse. He despised the criminals she had to interact with … and the horrific details she had to listen to … and especially the smarmy lawyers who hit on her whenever they got the chance. She was leaving the job in September to focus on her art full time. She’d already promised him that. Still, she wanted to leave on her own terms, and even though he didn’t like it, James understood it.
“Well, I was in a rough spot, wife,” James said, choosing his words carefully. “I wanted to surprise you.”
“I hate surprises,” Mandy grumbled.
James fought the mad urge to laugh at her adorably pouty face. “I know you do,” James said. “Every single time I’ve surprised you things have turned out terribly. I mean, well, except for the house, the proposal, the trip to New Orleans, the roses, the jewelry, the trip to Kansas, all of those disgusting kisses and … um … the rampant sex.”
Mandy didn’t want to laugh, and yet she couldn’t help herself. “What exactly did the judge say when you told him you wanted to take me away for a week?”
“He said he thought it was a good idea,” James answered. “He said he thinks after everything you’ve been through over the past couple of months that eight days of just you and me is probably the best thing for you.”
Mandy shifted her eyes to the window as she considered the statement. James wasn’t sure bringing up her terrible ordeal was the right way to go, but he refused to lie to her. Almost two months before Mandy delivered her nephew under harrowing circumstances. His mother, Emma Pritchard, went into labor at the exact wrong time. Her father, a notorious child molester and murderer, planned on killing Emma and Mandy before stealing the baby, Avery James Hardy. Mandy fought him off, killing him in the process, and then grappled with unbelievable guilt in the aftermath.
Before she was even fully on her feet another crisis arose, one that had her framed for a murder she didn’t commit and facing the possibility of life in prison. She’d been dealing with the double whammy by talking to a therapist, which James encouraged. He also wanted to give her new memories to focus on so the bad ones could take a backseat.
“I need you to tell me what you’re thinking,” James said finally, his heart clenching as he studied Mandy’s profile. “If you don’t want to go, you don’t have to go. I just thought having some time alone would be good for both of us. We haven’t had a vacation to ourselves since our honeymoon.”
James owned and operated Hardy Brothers Security, a security firm in Macomb County, and two jobs sent the couple to New Orleans and Kansas over recent months. Members of his family were along on both trips, though, and he wanted a vacation where all he had to worry about was making his blonde smile.
“Well, I’m thinking that I really want to go, but if I agree it sends a bad message,” Mandy said, shifting her eyes to James. “I don’t want to reward you for bad behavior.”
The weight on James’ shoulders lessened as he realized he’d already won. Well, to be fair, they’d both already won. “So how long do you want to pretend to consider it before we start packing? We fly out really early tomorrow morning.”
“I think you’re going to have to convince me in there,” Mandy said, pointing at the adjacent bedroom. “You’d better wow me, too.”
James grabbed Mandy’s waist as she sashayed toward the bedroom. “I’m going to wow you like you wouldn’t believe.”
“Oh, I know,” Mandy said. “Then we can order pizza and pack.”
“So … are you happy?”
Mandy’s eyes twinkled as she glanced over her shoulder. “We’re going to London, baby. Why wouldn’t I be happy?”
“Well, then we definitely need to start this vacation right,” James said, tickling Mandy’s ribs as he herded her toward the bed. “Get ready for adventure, wife, because I’m promising you the trip of a lifetime.”