Authors: Lily Harper Hart
Hardy Brothers Security
Lily Harper Hart
Text copyright © 2015 Lily Harper Hart
All Rights Reserved
“I like the blue,” Mandy said, spreading the paint wheel out on her lap.
Ally, sitting on the adjacent lawn lounger perusing her own color wheel, wrinkled her nose as she glanced over. “It’s too blue. I think you would be better with a powder blue.”
Now Mandy was the one making a face. “I don’t like powder blue.”
The two friends were sitting on the back patio of the new house, the echoes of construction popping up from time to time, trying to decide what hues to steer the painters toward when they arrived the next week.
“Well, that blue is too blue,” Ally countered. “Especially for a kitchen.”
“You don’t know that,” Mandy argued, tucking a strand of blonde hair behind her ear. “I think it will look nice.”
James, who was standing in the dining room watching as the workers removed the old dishwasher and refrigerator, was having a hard time not laughing at his sister and fiancée as they battled it out over paint colors.
“You always were color blind,” Ally said. “That is an ugly color. James! Come out here and tell her how ugly that color is.”
James poked his head out the door. “Absolutely not. If she wants blue, she gets blue.”
Mandy smirked at Ally, poking her in the side. “See. He has to take my side now.”
“You’re not married yet,” Ally said. “I’m still his sister. He has to take my side until you get married. Those are the rules.”
“How does that work?” Mandy scoffed.
Ally’s voice was like nails on a chalkboard sometimes. James loved his baby sister, he would die for her, but there were times he wanted to kill her himself. “Ally!” His tone was mocking when he screeched back.
“Tell her that blue is ugly.” Ally’s lip was poking out in a pronounced pout. She’d gotten her way her entire life with that pout. Between their parents and three doting older brothers, James was convinced she’d never learned the word no.
James sighed, moving out onto the patio so he could get a better look. Ally held up her color wheel and tapped on a panel. “This is a better blue,” she said.
James shifted his attention to Mandy’s blue. “Those are different colors?”
Ally’s mouth dropped open in dramatic fashion. “Oh, so now you’re color blind?”
“They’re the same color, Ally,” James said, looking to Mandy for support. “Right?”
“Not even close,” Mandy said. “My color is darker and richer. The color she picked is pale and annoying.”
“You’re both annoying,” James grumbled.
Mandy and James had taken ownership of the house in Harrison Township a week before. James insisted that, even though Mandy wanted to move in right away, it made sense to do updates to the property while they were still living in the apartment located above his business.
After his pronouncement, the color wheels of death had arrived, and Mandy and Ally hadn’t stopped bickering. They’d been friends since they were in elementary school, which meant they had a lot of ammunition to throw at each other.
“Do you remember junior prom?” Ally asked, trying a different tactic. “I told you that blue dress you picked was going to wash you out. You didn’t believe me, and how do you look in all of your prom pictures?”
“The color of that dress wasn’t the problem,” Mandy countered. “The problem was that it was too low cut, and I spent the entire night making sure my boobs didn’t fall out. It was horrible.”
“Oh, yeah, that was funny,” Ally said, giggling. “Brad spent the whole night trying to get his hand in there. His eyes kept bulging out of his head like he was a cartoon character.”
James cleared his throat. They may have all grown up in the same small town in northern Lower Michigan, but since he was four years older – and had been in the military at the time – he’d missed Ally and Mandy’s wild dating years. He was thankful for that.
“Oh, grow up,” Ally said. “We were sixteen. That’s what sixteen-year-old boys do. If she’d been your date at your junior prom, you would have been doing the same thing.”
“Yes, but now we’re getting married,” James said. “I don’t want to hear about other guys doing it. She’s all mine now, and I like to pretend she always was.”
“You’re such a girl,” Ally said.
James rolled his eyes. “You’re a pain.” James sat down at the end of Mandy’s lounger. “Pick whatever colors you want, baby. I don’t care.”
When he’d proposed three weeks before, presenting Mandy with her dream house and a ring in the same afternoon, he had no idea what he was getting himself into. Silly him, he’d thought blue was just one color – not one thousand variations of the same bright sky.
Mandy arched an eyebrow, her bright blue eyes flashing with irritation. “You don’t care? This is where we’re going to live, and you don’t care?”
He’d stuck his foot in his mouth. He was sure of it. He just wasn’t sure when. He decided to backtrack. “I like your blue.”
“You’re just saying that,” Mandy said, crossing her arms over her chest. Now she was pouting.
“No, I’m not,” James said, reaching over to tug at a chunk of her blonde hair. “It matches your eyes, and that’s my favorite color in the world.”
Ally snorted. “Oh, you’re just trying to placate her now,” she said. “You don’t want to be cut off from sex, so you’re going to take her side no matter what.”
“First off, she would never cut me off from sex,” James said, his grin wolfish. “Second, that really is my favorite color.”
Mandy leaned forward, giving him a soft kiss – and an even softer smile. “See, I knew I fell in love with you for a reason.”
“Yeah, he’s a pushover,” Ally complained.
James flicked Ally’s ear with his finger. “If you want to paint something, you have a house.”
“I rent a house,” Ally corrected.
“Does that mean you can’t paint it?”
“I have to have approval first,” Ally said. “It’s not like having your own house.”
“So, buy your own house,” James said. “Do you need money for a down payment? I can loan you some.”
“That’s not what I want,” Ally replied.
“Then what do you want?”
“I want Mandy to pick this blue,” Ally said, shaking the color wheel for emphasis.
“Well, she doesn’t want that blue,” James said. “It’s her house. She gets the blue that she wants.”
Ally let loose an exaggerated sigh. “Fine. It’s her house.”
James smiled, leaning back and brushing a quick kiss against Mandy’s cheek. “I’m hungry,” he said, hoping a change in conversation would ease Ally’s faux hurt. “How about we let Ally pick what we have for dinner?”
“I can live with that,” Mandy said.
Ally’s face brightened as she leaned forward and clapped. “Yay! I want Greek.”
“Greek sounds good,” Mandy said. “Is there any place around here that has good Greek?”
“Actually, yeah,” Ally said. “There’s a small diner over on Harper. It’s really good. I can look up the number on my phone.”
James pulled out his wallet, removing a handful of bills and shoving them in Ally’s direction. “If you go and get it, I’ll pay,” he said.
“You just want to get me out of the house so you can play naughty games with Mandy while I’m gone,” Ally said, taking the money from her brother’s hand.
“I can play naughty games with Mandy whenever I want,” James said, running his hand up and down Mandy’s back suggestively. “And, yes, I might want to play a quick game.”
Ally jumped to her feet, her long brown hair swinging. “I’ll get the food so you can play,” she said, extending her hand out in front of James.
“What’s that for?”
“I’m going to need money to buy pop and snacks, too,” Ally said. “Oh, and there’s a sweater I saw at the mall last week, and I know you want to buy that for me, since you hurt my feelings and all.”
James sighed, but he dug back into the wallet. “I think I’ve been had.”
Ally grabbed the additional money from his hand. “You have an hour. Don’t waste it. None of that ridiculous foreplay stuff.”
“Hey, don’t you want to know what we want for dinner?” Mandy asked.
“I know what both of you like,” Ally said. “I think I can handle it.”
“I don’t want to see you for an hour,” James said. “You promised.”
Ally didn’t look back. The sound of Mandy’s happy squeal told her James was about to get what he wanted, whether Ally was still in the general vicinity or not.
is one of those local haunts that an outsider would look right past and dismiss as a dank hole in the wall. It’s a small place, built solely for takeout and boasting only three small tables inside, but anyone who has ever eaten there once, will return every chance they get.
Ally had been introduced to its hidden joys by a co-worker several months before. While she loved the house James and Mandy would be moving into in a few weeks, its proximity to Pauly’s was one of the things she was most excited about.
Ally parked in front of the facility, which was located on the corner parcel of a small strip mall in Harrison Township. She’d already picked up pop and chips, even grabbing a bag of her brother’s favorite buffalo-chicken-wings pretzel nubs as a surprise. Now all she had to do was order dinner.
She glanced at her watch, calculating the time in her head. She could place the order and be back at the house just in time for James’ hour to elapse. They’d better not be naked when she returned, that’s all she could say.
While she was happy her brother and best friend had found love with each other, part of Ally was unsettled. No, unsettled wasn’t the right word. She was jealous. Yes, there it was.
She didn’t begrudge Mandy and James their happiness. In fact, James turning the woman Ally considered a sister into her actual sister was the best gift he ever could have given her. She wasn’t jealous because she wanted them to be unhappy. She was jealous because she wanted to be happy herself.
The problem Ally had was that no man had ever struck her fancy – for more than a few weeks, that is. She’d dated. She’d found joy in the first few weeks of a relationship. She’d just never felt that … connection.
When Ally looked at James and Mandy, she saw how in sync they were, and it made her heart ache. James was always reaching for Mandy at the same times she was moving toward him. They were just aware of each other.
Ally desperately wanted that. Her biggest problem was that the only man who had even remotely piqued her interest in the last year was now an employee of Hardy Brothers Security, the security agency James ran with their other brothers, Finn and Grady. Jake Harrison had bonded with the Hardy brothers during a previous case – one where Mandy’s life was in jeopardy – and James had been so impressed he offered the ex-military man a fulltime position.
So, while Ally was thrilled with Jake’s proximity, she wasn’t happy with the dark looks James shot her way whenever she tried to flirt with the man. She had to figure a way around her brother’s overt hostility – and she had a feeling Mandy was the only way she was going to do it.
Mandy knew that Ally had a crush on Jake. She’d even encouraged it. Sometimes Ally thought Mandy was oblivious to the inner-workings of siblings. Since she was an only child, Mandy had never had to deal with a bossy older brother. Since James was utterly besotted with his fiancée, though, Ally had a feeling Mandy could be an important ally.
Ally decided to approach Mandy tonight. The faster she got the blonde on her side, the faster she could get Jake alone. At least that’s what she hoped.
The bell over the diner door jangled as Ally pushed it open. The front of the small diner was empty – which wasn’t unusual. Most people placed large takeout orders and went on their way. As good as the food was at Pauly’s, the ambiance was terrible.
Ally walked up to the counter, glancing down at the menu as she waited. She decided to order at least five entrees and let everyone pick from them. When no one appeared from the back after a few minutes, Ally called out. “Hello?”
Maybe they just hadn’t heard the bell? When no one came out, Ally slipped behind the counter and pushed open the swinging door that separated the kitchen from the restaurant front.
The kitchen was eerily quiet, and for a second Ally’s inner danger alarm dinged. Ally tamped down her fear. She was being ridiculous. The man who owned the place – and she couldn’t remember his name off hand, just that it wasn’t Pauly (she’d made at least three inappropriate jokes after finding that out) – was friendly. Surely he would be angrier at losing out on business than an invasion of privacy.
Ally tilted her head, thinking she heard something on the other side of the stainless-steel counter. Ally moved toward it, worried for a second that the owner – who was older, but not elderly – might have fallen and hit his head. What she found on the other side of the counter could not be mistaken for an accident.
The body on the floor was … battered. Blood was everywhere, and Ally couldn’t make out the features of the prone man because of the mixture of blood and puffy coloration. She was fairly sure it was the owner, but given the state of the body she couldn’t be sure.
Ally knelt down next to the man, reaching for his wrist to check for a pulse. A raspy breath escaped his chest, letting Ally know he was still alive. He was trying to say something, and Ally leaned forward and lowered her ear close to his mouth. “I’ll call for help,” she said, tears collecting in her eyes.