Authors: Lily Harper Hart
James’ to-do list didn’t shrink any further that afternoon, and by the time he left the garage he was both exhausted and frustrated. The police plied him with questions he didn’t have answers to, and James realized relatively quickly that the police were hiding something.
As soon as James and Jake were cut loose, they bent their heads together in front of the garage.
“What do you think?” Jake asked.
“I think they know something,” James said. “We need to get moving on that background check.”
Jake rubbed the back of his neck. “I can do it tonight.”
“No,” James said, shaking his head. “You have other things to do tonight, and no that wasn’t a euphemism. I’ll run the background check. You need to make my sister feel better, and no I didn’t mean that the way it came out.”
Despite the surreal afternoon – and the seriousness of the situation – Jake couldn’t stop the laughter that bubbled up. “You’ll get used to it.”
“I hope so,” James said, pulling his cellphone out of his pocket.
“What are you doing?”
“Texting Mandy,” he replied. “I have a feeling she’s with Ally.”
“Because Mandy won’t leave Ally when she’s upset,” James said. “Ally won’t stop being upset until she makes up with you. That means I can’t reclaim my fiancée until you make up with Ally. See, my happiness is now contingent on Ally’s happiness.”
“You’re a good brother,” Jake said, patting him on the back.
“I just want Mandy home with me tonight,” James said. “I know Ally will be safe with you.”
“You’re embracing this thing awfully quickly,” Jake said.
“Once I accept something, you’d be surprised how quickly I can come to terms with things,” James said, frowning when his phone dinged. “Yeah, Mandy is with Ally. They’re at her house.”
“So, what do we do?” Jake asked.
“We pick up dinner,” James said. “Then I have to apologize to Ally, and you have some begging to do.”
“I’m guessing we’re going to pick up a good dinner, right?”
“We are,” James said. “I’m going to pick up Ally’s favorite.”
Jake was immediately shaking his head. “No garlic.”
James arched an eyebrow. “That’s your problem,” he said. “I’m getting my sister her favorite pasta dish, and hoping that at least gets her to open the door.”
“Okay, I’ll bite,” Jake said. “What’s her favorite pasta dish?”
“It’s not fancy,” James said. “You might be disappointed.”
“Hey, I need the insight.”
“Well, my friend, Ally’s favorite restaurant is ironically pretty simple,” James said, pushing the phone back to his ear. “Yeah, is this the Olive Garden? Great. I have a takeout order. I need four orders of the seafood Alfredo, all with salad, and extra bread sticks.”
James fixed Jake with an unreadable look when he disconnected. “Okay. Here we go.”
here,” Mandy said, pulling away from the bay window in Ally’s living room.
“I can’t believe they’re together,” Ally said. “I thought for sure James would have killed Jake and buried his body out in the country somewhere.”
“I told you, James is going to accept your relationship with Jake,” Mandy said.
“I don’t have a relationship with Jake,” Ally said. “I’m a ‘lapse in judgment.’”
“You’re being dramatic,” Mandy said. “It looks like they brought food.”
Although curious, Ally refused to get up from her chair and spy with Mandy. “What are they doing?”
“They’re talking,” Mandy said.
“Does it look like they’re arguing?”
“How does Jake look?”
Mandy turned back to Ally, a small smile tugging at the corner of her lips. “He looks scared.”
Ally wrinkled her nose. “That’s not what I meant.”
“He looks the same as he always does,” Mandy said. “He just looks scared on top of it.”
“So, he didn’t somehow have a disfiguring accident last night?”
“Dammit,” Ally said. “I’m going to take one look at him and forgive him.”
“Hold your ground,” Mandy said, navigating around the couch and heading toward the front door. “Make him beg.”
Ally rolled her eyes.
Mandy pulled open the door, accepting James’ kiss as he greeted her. “Hey, baby,” he said. “I brought dinner.”
“Ooh, Olive Garden,” Mandy said, taking a step away from the door. “I think you had bribing someone else in mind this evening.”
James smiled, the expression rueful. “I might have.”
“Well, she’s right over there.”
James nodded, handing the bag of food to Mandy. “I guess I’d better get this over with.”
“Do I have a choice?”
James walked across the room, palms turned upward, and faced Ally. Her face was pinched and tight as she regarded him.
“I’m sorry,” James said.
James was prepared for this. He’d been running various conversational scenarios through his mind all afternoon. “Because I walked into your house without knocking, embarrassed you in your own home, and treated you like a child.”
Ally frowned. “Have you been practicing that all day?”
“Do you mean it?”
“Are you going to stop treating me like a child?”
James tilted his head to the side. “Probably not.”
Ally leaned forward in her chair. “Probably not?”
“Ally, I know in my head that you’re an adult,” James said. “In my heart, you’re always going to be my baby sister.”
“Oh, you’re not going to change at all,” Ally said, throwing up her hands in disbelief.
“You know, Ally, the day Mom and Dad brought you home from the hospital, I was the first one who got to hold you,” James said. “They made me sit on the couch and then they put you in my arms. You were so small and tiny. You were helpless. Do you know what the first thing Dad said to me was?”
Ally shook her head.
“He said that I always had to protect you,” James said. “He said that you were different from Grady and Finn, and even though I had to take care of them, too, you were special.”
“Oh, that’s not fair,” Ally said. “You’re saying something sweet, and I’m really mad at you.”
“I know you are,” James said. “I always took what Dad said to heart. I always wanted to take care of you. Now, I know that you don’t need me to butt in and take over your life, but I’m always going to want to take care of you. It’s my job.”
Ally sighed, the sound low and exasperated. “Oh, well, fine.” She got to her feet and threw her arms around James’ neck. “I forgive you.”
James tightened his arms, holding her close for a second. “Really?”
“This time,” Ally said.
James pulled away, glancing at Jake as he hovered next to Mandy by the front door. “I want you to consider forgiving Jake, too.”
Ally made a face. “Now you’re on his side?”
“I understand his side,” James said. “I’m always going to be on your side.”
“Is that why you brought Olive Garden and him?”
“I think you should give him a chance,” James said. “I’m not going to make your decisions for you, but I’m also not going to stand in your way. I know that’s not fair.”
“Wow, Mandy must have really given you a talking to,” Ally said.
“She did,” James agreed. “It’s my job to protect her, too. It’s my job to make her happy. She’s not going to be happy if you’re sad.”
“Did you get her Olive Garden, too?”
“Well, I guess we should eat it,” Ally said, glancing at Jake. “I’m sure we’re all hungry.”
“I had them separate the order into two different bags,” James said. “The bag Mandy is holding is for you and Jake. Ours is out in the truck.”
“Wait … you’re leaving me here alone with him?”
“I think you two have some things to talk about,” James said. “They’re not things you need an older brother for.”
“I might need Mandy,” Ally said.
James chuckled. “Well, for tonight, you’re on your own,” James said. “Mandy is coming home with me. I need her tonight. You’re going to have to find someone else to rely on.” James leaned in so only Ally could hear him. “Lean on him, Ally. If you let him, I think he can give you everything you want.”
Ally pulled back, regarding Jake dubiously. “If you say so.”
James and Mandy left, Jake was nervous. He’d served two tours overseas, and another on domestic duty, but no enemy on either front had terrified him as much as the pouty brunette on the other side of the room.
Jake shook the bag of food Mandy had handed him before exiting. “Are you hungry?”
“I haven’t decided yet,” Ally said, crossing her arms over her chest.
Jake nodded, walking around the couch and setting the bag on Ally’s coffee table. “I hear you’re considering becoming a nun.”
“Mandy has a big mouth,” Ally grumbled.
Jake blew out a shaky sigh. “I have some things I want to say to you.”
“I already know what you’re going to say,” Ally said. “I don’t want to hear it. I know you think being with me was a mistake. I’m sure you understand, I don’t think my ego can take you explaining – in excruciating detail, I’m sure – about how I was a ‘lapse in judgment.’”
Jake rubbed the heel of his hand against his forehead. “You’re not going to make this easy, are you?”
“I don’t think I can make it much easier, Jake,” Ally said. “You can go.”
“I don’t want to go,” Jake said.
“Why would you want to stay and hang out with your ‘lapse in judgment’?”
“Stop saying that,” Jake snapped. “I didn’t mean it the way you seem to think I meant it.”
“How could that statement be up for interpretation?”
“I meant that sleeping with you without making my intentions known was a lapse in judgment,” Jake said. “I didn’t mean you were a lapse in judgment.”
“That’s not what you said,” Ally said, her lower lip trembling. “You regretted sleeping with me. Don’t deny it.”
“Ally, I would never regret that night,” Jake said, his tone earnest. “That night was … .”
“A mistake,” Ally finished.
“I was going to say amazing,” Jake replied. “I can’t ever remember having a better night in my life.”
Ally froze. “What?”
Jake took a step toward her, not completely closing the distance but lessening it. “I don’t connect with people very well, Ally,” Jake said. “I’m not sure I ever did. After Afghanistan, though, I had even more trouble. You and I connected that night. In fact, I’ve felt myself connecting with you since I met you.
“I’ve fought it,” he continued. “I didn’t fight it because of you. I fought it because of your brothers, and myself. I don’t want to fight it anymore. James and I had a talk today.”
“I figured that out myself,” Ally said, crossing her arms over her chest. She was still wary, that much was written all over her beautiful face. Jake desperately wanted to kiss that wariness away.
“He asked my intentions where you’re concerned,” Jake said. “I told him I want to date you. I told him I want us to have a chance.”
“And he just accepted that?”
“He wants you to be happy.”
“And what do you want?”
“I want to touch you,” Jake said. “You’ve already touched me. I just … I want to see if we can make this work.”
Ally’s face scrunched up as she fought off tears. “Don’t say that if you don’t mean it.”
Jake erased the distance between them, kneeling in front of her and capturing her hand between his. “I mean it.”
Tears were leaking out of the corners of Ally’s eyes. “I … .”
Jake lifted his hand, pushing Ally’s flowing brown waves away from her face. “I can’t promise you anything except that I don’t want to be away from you. Just … give me a chance.”
Ally nodded mutely.
Jake leaned forward, pressing his lips against hers. When Ally opened her mouth, accepting him, he moved his hands to her shoulders and tugged her down to the floor with him.
Ally’s body was shaking as Jake pressed himself against her. He tilted her head to the side, kissing up the high ridges of her cheekbones, tasting the salty tears as he tried to wipe the remnants of sadness from her face.
Jake cupped the back of her head, drawing her earlobe into his mouth. Ally’s hands tangled in Jake’s hair, her gasp causing Jake’s heart to flop. She seemed so vulnerable now, so silent.
Jake tugged at Ally’s T-shirt, pulling it over her head. She wasn’t wearing a bra, and the sight of her lovely breasts drew a sigh out of him. He carefully pulled Ally down to the carpet, his mouth seeking and finding her hardened nipple, laving it with his moist warmth.