Deadly Conflicts (Hardy Brothers Security Book 21) (6 page)

“It didn’t crush me,” James argued. “It just … I was worried about her.”

“I think you were worried about her,” Mandy agreed. “I also think it crushed you a little bit. It’s okay. I’m sure in hindsight Ally knows it was the wrong decision. You can’t help what your heart wants sometimes.”

“Oh, yeah?” James ran his hand down the back of Mandy’s head. “Did you ever think I was the wrong choice for you? Did your head and heart ever argue?”

Mandy’s head bob was enough to cause James’ stomach to flip. “My head told me that you could never love me like I loved you because I wasn’t … I don’t know … exotic enough,” she admitted. “My heart told me it didn’t matter because I had to try.”

“Exotic?” James was annoyed. He hated it when she put herself down. “How can you think you’re not exotic? You get turned on by sharks and dressed up like a filthy librarian last night. That’s exotic, baby.”

Mandy grinned. “I know you love me now and my head and heart agree,” she said. “Ally’s head and heart probably didn’t agree back then, but she didn’t know how to read the signs. She said she was young and confused. I hope you don’t take it to heart that she chose Vince over you. She loves you.”

“Ally and I have survived our fair share of growing pains,” James said. “I don’t hold anything against her. I’m just glad she has Jake around, because he won’t put up with that douche for five seconds.”

“I think you’re just happy because you know you’ll have an ally should things get ugly between you and Vince,” Mandy said. “Either way, though, I’m on your side.”

“Oh, wife, you’re always on my side,” James said, smacking a loud kiss against her lips. “Now, come on. I’ll stuff your face with food before I set you loose on the craft show. You know I can’t spend the day carrying items around for you, right?”

“Oh, I know,” Mandy replied, nodding her head. “I figure I’ll just let them stack up in one place and when you get a chance you can come over and collect them for me. You don’t have to follow me around today. You can just make the occasional trip to check on me.”

James sighed. “Love is a funny thing, baby,” he said. “A little over two years ago that sentence would’ve caused me to run in the opposite direction. Now it doesn’t even make me blink.”

“Love
is
a funny thing,” Mandy agreed. “It’s also a dirty thing. Did I tell you about the funky wetsuit I found yesterday? Did you know they make a naughty aquatic animal trainer outfit?”

James barked out a delighted laugh. “And that right there is why I will always love you more than anything.”

“Right back at you.”

6
Six


S
o
… James almost punched your ex-boyfriend and I’m dying to hear the real back story on it.”

Ally glanced up from her green tea, the afternoon sun high in the sky as Mandy and Ally took refuge under an umbrella, and widened her eyes. “What?”

The women sat close to one of the drink kiosks, nursing green tea as the men worked about fifty feet away. Since the job came out of nowhere – and they had nothing better to do – Mandy and Ally opted to hang out at the festival all day. It was a mixed bag. They could spend a stolen few minutes with James and Jake when the opportunity arose, but they also had to watch women fawn over and throw themselves at the men on more than one occasion as well.

“James saw Vince?” Ally didn’t appear thrilled with the revelation. “How did that go?”

“Well, James kept his hands to himself – but just barely,” Mandy replied. “There was something extremely unpleasant about the interaction.”

“I don’t doubt that,” Ally said, playing with the ring of condensation her cup left on the tabletop. “Did you ask James about it?”

Mandy nodded. “He said that you chose Vince over him and he always knew that Vince was a loser. He didn’t really want to talk about it, though.”

“I did choose Vince over him,” Ally admitted, rolling her neck until it cracked and staring up at the umbrella canopy. “I thought I really cared about Vince, but it was one of those relationships that didn’t last very long. It burned bright but fast.”

“I worried that would happen with your brother,” Mandy said. “I thought he would walk away within a few weeks. Then it stretched out to a few months and I was convinced he would take off. I don’t know when I realized it was forever but … somehow the pain in my chest lessened over time. I stopped worrying he would leave and embraced the fact that he would stay.”

“I think you worried James would leave because you loved him,” Ally said. “I never worried Vince would leave because I was young and delusional. There’s a difference.”

“Did you love him?”

Ally was surprised by the question but immediately started shaking her head. “No. I thought I could’ve loved him at one point, but … no. I didn’t know what real love was until I met Jake. What I felt for Vince was … like puppy love more than anything else. It wasn’t real. It was a façade.”

“It was real to James,” Mandy said. “He won’t admit it, but you choosing Vince still irritates him.”

Ally wrinkled her nose. “What did he say? We’ve never really talked about what happened.”

“What did happen?”

“We got into a huge fight and I told him I never wanted to see him again,” Ally answered honestly. “Then Vince and I had two more weeks together before he split. I ran crying to James five minutes after I realized what happened.”

Mandy smirked at the admission. “Did he make you beg for forgiveness?”

“No. He just hugged me and bought me Olive Garden.”

The response made Mandy smile even broader. “He’s a good man,” she said. “I can’t believe I ever thought he would leave me.”

“He did leave you,” Ally pointed out, referring to the night James and Mandy got together for the first time – and he proceeded to sneak out in the middle of the night rather than face her the next morning. “He thought he was that guy and then it turned out he was a different guy. That’s okay. He realized his mistake and came back.”

“How do you think your life would’ve been different if Vince realized his mistake and came back?” Mandy asked, genuinely curious.

Ally shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said finally, tilting her head to the side. “I wouldn’t want it to be different from what it is now but … I just don’t know.”

“Well, it doesn’t matter,” Mandy said. “We have the lives we want. That’s the most important thing.”

“It is the most important thing,” Ally agreed. “Let’s finish our tea and shop. Then we can surprise the guys with lunch later. I think everyone is coming down for the fireworks tonight.”

“That sounds like a plan.”

W
HEN SOMEONE
came
up behind James and hugged him from behind, he was surprised. He hurriedly took a step forward because he would recognize Mandy’s hands – her very embrace – anywhere. The woman hugging him was clearly not his wife. It took him a moment to realize it was his sister.

“What in the hell are you doing?”

Ally knit her eyebrows together, annoyed. “And a happy Saturday to you, too.”

James scowled. “I’m sorry,” he said. “You took me by surprise. I know how Mandy’s body feels against mine and I thought … .”

Ally waved off his apology. “I get it,” she said. “I would hope Jake would do the same thing.”

“Okay.” James studied her for a moment. All of the Hardy siblings boasted the same high cheekbones, brown hair, and chocolate eyes. Even Ally, who had delicate features and most closely resembled Grady, couldn’t be mistaken for anyone other than James Hardy’s sister when they were standing together, though. “Why did you hug me?”

“Because I love you, although I often forget why,” Ally replied, irked. “Can’t a sister just hug her brother?”

James shrugged. “I guess.”

“You guess?”

“I don’t know, Ally,” James replied. “This conversation is making me really uncomfortable. What’s going on?”

“Nothing is going on,” Ally spat, her notorious temper coming out to play. “I just thought you might want a hug and to hear that … um … I love you.”

James furrowed his brow. “Have you been talking to Mandy?”

“I have and you’re lucky to have her,” Ally said, not missing a beat. “She’s one in a million.”

“She
is
one in a million,” James agreed. “You’re also one in a million … although not in the same way for me because that would be gross.”

Ally giggled, her eyes somber. “I wanted to apologize.”

“Oh, geez.” James pinched the bridge of his nose. “I love my wife, but she is such a busybody.”

“She is, but she’s also a good friend,” Ally said. “She pointed out that I might’ve treated you poorly when that whole Vince thing went down.”

“Ally, that was years ago,” James said. “We don’t need to rehash it.”

“I just want you to know that I appreciate what you tried to do for me back then,” Ally said. “I know you were trying to protect me and I was too young and stupid to see it. You’re a good brother … and I love you.”

James pursed his lips as he regarded his sister. He wasn’t one for mushy pronouncements and exchanges, but he couldn’t ignore the earnest expression on her face. “I love you, too. What happened back then was just … our family finding its footing. We’re okay. We’ve moved on and you’ve picked a much better guy this go around.”

“I have.” Ally bobbed her head up and down. “Still, I never apologized for yelling at you. I waited until Vince ran out on me and then raced to your doorstep so you could slap my life back together. It was … wrong.”

“It wasn’t wrong,” James argued. “You’re my sister and that’s my job.”

“Well, I still think I owe you an apology,” Ally said. “So … I’m sorry.”

James didn’t want to laugh because it was a serious moment, but he couldn’t help himself. “Should we hug?”

Ally nodded as she stepped into his embrace, taking a moment to bask in his warmth before retreating. When the siblings separated, things were a bit awkward.

“So, um, where is my wife?” James asked finally. “She created all of this trouble so I figure she has to be watching from afar.”

“She’s picking out a bracelet for you from one of the kiosks over on crafts row,” Ally replied. “It has a shark charm and is woven and you need to pretend to like it no matter what.”

“I don’t have to pretend,” James said. “I’ll wear whatever she gives me.”

“I know you will.” Ally’s smile was so soft and pretty it almost hurt James to look at her. “You turned out to be the best husband in the world. You know that, right?”

“That’s because I have a wonderful wife,” James said. “You know … .” He broke off, unsure how to proceed. He would never ruin Jake’s surprise, but he had no doubt that Ally would make just as wonderful of a mate for Jake as Mandy did for him. “You’re going to make a wonderful wife and mother, too. I hope you know that.”

“I know that,” Ally said. “I just wish Jake would get off his butt and propose. I’m ready for a baby. Every time I see Avery my ovaries hurt.”

James smiled at the mention of his nephew. He had no doubt Ally and Jake would have a multitude of beautiful kids to add to the family one day. “Something tells me you’ll get your wish,” he said. “I’m happy for you no matter what, though. You deserve to be happy.”

“So do you.” Ally impulsively hugged her brother again. “I love you, James. You married my best friend and made her happy. You always take care of her and me even when we’re pains. You’re my hero.”

James awkwardly patted Ally’s back. “You’re being mushy and it’s throwing me off. I’m not sure how much of this I can take.

Ally blew out a long-suffering sigh only the youngest of four children could muster. “Well, just so you don’t think I’ve gone completely soft, you should also know that it took months for Mandy to stop worrying about you leaving her.”

James frowned at the conversational transition. “What?”

“She mentioned it when we were talking about Vince leaving,” Ally explained. “I told her that I never worried about him leaving because I was young and dumb and she mentioned that she spent your first few months together terrified you would leave because your love burned so brightly she thought it would eventually run out of fuel.”

“I hate that,” James muttered. “How can she think something so ridiculous?”

“She doesn’t think it now,” Ally clarified. “She thought it back then. She said she’s not sure when she realized you weren’t leaving, but when she got to that point it was if the pain in her chest lessened. She felt happy and loved.”

“She is loved,” James said. “She’ll always be loved.”

“Then don’t give her a hard time for telling me about your fight with Vince,” Ally prodded. “She doesn’t deserve it. She just wanted to know if she was missing something.”

James stilled. “What did you tell her?”

“The truth,” Ally replied. “I told her you were a good brother and I treated you terribly.”

“So you didn’t tell her about the time I punched Vince and threatened his life?” James was ashamed to admit how juvenile he was at the time, but once he said the words it was almost a relief. “I was going to own up to it earlier but … I didn’t.”

“She won’t care,” Ally said. “Well, I mean she might care a little. She’ll be more worried about you than anything else. It will be okay, though. She won’t judge you.”

“She never does.” James rubbed the side of his cheek. “I guess I should find her.”

“And get your bracelet,” Ally said, her eyes twinkling. “She got a matching one for herself.”

“I know you think that bugs me, but it doesn’t,” James said. “If she wants me to wear a bracelet with a shark charm, I’ll gladly do it. That’s love.”

“And that’s why you’re a great husband,” Ally said, shaking her head. “Mandy hit the jackpot with you.”

“We hit the jackpot with each other,” James corrected. “For the record, I think Jake feels the same way about you.”

“Oh, it’s a mutual admiration society,” Ally said, giggling. “Go and find Mandy. Then I think everyone wants to meet up for lunch.”

“That sounds good,” James said, resting his hand on Ally’s shoulder and giving it a reassuring squeeze. “No matter what, Ally, I’ll always be your big brother. I’ll always love you. No fight could ever change that.”

Ally smiled. “Thank you … and right back at you.”

A
FTER
fruitlessly searching
for Mandy for half an hour, James joined Ally and Jake at a picnic table close to the river and fidgeted on the bench for what felt like forever. Finally, Jake couldn’t take it a moment longer.

“Do you want me to go looking for her with you?”

James shook his head. “I texted her where we are. I just … why didn’t she text back?”

“It’s loud,” Ally replied. “She probably didn’t hear the phone.”

“She knows it makes me crazy when I can’t find her,” James muttered.

“And that’s exactly why she’s heading in this direction,” Ally said, grinning as she pointed toward the parking lot to their east. “It looks like she’s been shopping.”

“She could turn it into an Olympic event,” James said, relief washing over him when he caught sight of his wife’s familiar blond head. “She’s here.”

Jake smirked when he locked gazes with his boss and friend. “Were you really worried about her?”

“Have you forgotten how much trouble she finds?” James shot back.

“No,” Jake said. “You should’ve let me go with you to search for her instead of tying yourself up in knots.”

“I didn’t want you to have to leave Ally,” James said, standing as Mandy approached and grabbing the bag from her hand so there would be nothing between them when he hugged her. “Where were you?”

Mandy balked at her husband’s serious tone, surprised. “I was shopping.”

“I’m sorry.” James held up his hands. “I just got worried when I couldn’t find you. You should’ve texted me back.”

“I didn’t get your text until a few minutes ago,” Mandy said, her expression unreadable as she studied her husband. “I couldn’t hear it in the crowd.”

“I told you,” Ally said, smug.

“Thank you for that,” James muttered, wrapping his hand around Mandy’s thin wrist. “I’m sorry, wife. I just got a little frazzled.”

“It’s okay,” Mandy said. “I’m the one who should be sorry. I’ll pay better attention next time.”

James flashed a warm smile. “That sounds good,” he said. “How about some lunch? I think we could all use some fuel and I know how you love hot dogs and elephant ears.”

“That sounds good.” Mandy rolled up to the balls of her feet and kissed James’ cheek. “I love you … and I would love to share a hot dog with you.”

James couldn’t hide his smile at her playful demeanor.

“Oh, and they say romance is dead,” Jake teased. “That was just too cute for words.”

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