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Authors: Lily Harper Hart

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Eight

“So, wait, Ally’s house was broken into, and instead of calling us she relied on Jake?” Grady was incensed.

The three Hardy brothers were standing around the pool table in James’ apartment catching up. Mandy had locked herself in the bedroom, only gracing James with three words in three hours before grabbing her Kindle and shutting the door. James had coped the only way he knew how, by calling for reinforcements.

“She’s a piece of work,” James griped. “I blame her for all of this.”

Finn arched an eyebrow, rubbing the back of his neck as he regarded his brother. “I don’t want to take Ally’s side … .”

“But you will,” James said, cutting him off. “You always take her side.”

“We’re brothers,” Finn said. “We have a certain bond. Ally and I are the youngest. We also have a certain bond. It’s no different than the bond you have with Grady as the oldest. There’s nothing wrong with it. We just all deal with each other in different ways.”

“Ally should have called me,” James said, refusing to back down. “Her house was broken into.”

“I have to agree with James,” Grady said, tucking his shoulder-length brown hair behind his ear. “She found a dead body – which no one called and told us about until after the fact, by the way – and then her house was broken into. She needed her family, not a stranger.”

James stilled, his pool cue in his hand. “They couldn’t be related, could they?”

Grady shrugged. “How?”

“What are they odds they’re not related?” Finn pressed. “I mean, you have to have the worst luck ever for that to happen randomly.”

“I hadn’t even considered it,” James admitted. “I just … I was so angry.”

“Is that why the bedroom door is shut?” Finn asked.

“She’s not talking to me,” James said. “She’s really … hurt.”

“Hurt? I thought she was just mad on Ally’s behalf,” Finn said. “Why is she hurt?”

“I said something awful,” James admitted. “I told her that my argument with Ally was none of her business because Ally was my family.”

Finn sucked in a breath. “Oh, dude, really?”

“I was thrown,” James said. “I didn’t mean what I said, and I especially didn’t mean it the way she took it.”

“Did you really find out by eavesdropping?” Grady asked.

“How do you know that?”

“Girls talk, man,” Grady said. “I’m not sure which one of them called her, but one of them was on the phone with Sophie a few hours ago.”

James frowned. Sophie was Grady’s girlfriend. She had been for almost a year now. She’d forged a strong bond with both Mandy and Ally. It was anyone’s guess who had called. “Did Sophie say anything?”

“She said you’re a douche,” Grady said. “I’ve always known you were a douche, so I didn’t think anything of it. Now that I know the truth, though, I have to agree.”

James scowled, dipping his head. “I’ve already tried apologizing. I don’t know how to make it up to her. She’s really upset.”

“Do you blame her?” Finn pressed. “You just told the woman who you promised to spend forever with that she’s not part of the family. She can’t be happy.”

“Has anyone ever told you that you think like a girl?” James asked, aggravation getting the better of him.

Finn shrugged, leaning forward on his pool cue. “I’m not trying to take sides,” he said. “I do think you might have … overreacted.”

“I already know I overreacted,” James shot back. “I need to know how to fix it. There are three really important women in my life. Right now? Two of them aren’t talking to me.”

“You still have Mom,” Grady teased.

“Once Ally gets Mom on the phone, she’s going to turn on me, too,” James lamented.

Finn sighed, the sound both exasperated and sympathetic. “You can’t think you were in the right here.”

“I don’t,” James said. “I did what I usually do. I reacted, and then I wished I hadn’t reacted the way I did.”

“I hate to say it,” Grady said. “I think you’re in a pickle.”

“A pickle?” James scoffed.

“Fine, you’re fucked,” Grady said. “You’ve really hurt Mandy. And, while I think women tend to overreact, I think you might have really been in the wrong here.”

“I know I hurt her feelings,” James said. “Don’t you think I know that? I’ve apologized every way I know how. I crushed her heart. I wouldn’t hurt her for anything in this world, and yet I have.”

“The good thing is, Mandy loves you,” Finn said pragmatically. “If you give her some time … .”

“I don’t want to give her time,” James said. “I want … I want my blonde back. I want her smile back. I want to take back what I did.”

“You can’t take back what you did,” Grady said. “It’s impossible. She can never get those words out of her head. You’ve got to get her to forgive you.”

“Yeah, I didn’t figure that out myself,” James said, sarcasm overtaking him. He jerked his head when he heard the bedroom door open.

Mandy stalked out, casting a derisive look at James as she moved toward the bathroom. Even in her track pants and oversized T-shirt, her blonde hair piled at the top of her head in a messy bun, James was overwhelmed by the urge to cross the room and take her in his arms. The look on her face stilled him.

Once the bathroom door shut, Finn shot a dubious look in James’ direction. “Yeah, she’s pissed.”

“You think?”

“Man, I don’t think I’ve ever seen her look that angry,” Grady said. “And I saw her the morning after you had sex with her and then ran away.”

James made a growling noise in the back of his throat. “What a great time to bring that up.”

“Sorry.”

The bathroom door opened again, and Mandy strode out.

“Hey, Mandy,” Finn said. “You look … nice today.”

Mandy made a face. “Finn. Grady.”

“Mandy,” Grady said. “You seem down. Is there anything I can do to help?”

Mandy rolled her eyes. “Oh, don’t even.” She slammed the bedroom door shut as she disappeared inside.

“Wow,” Grady said. “I don’t have words.”

“Join the club,” James said.

“So, wait,” Finn said. “Jake spent the night with Ally?”

“He slept on the couch,” James said.

“You made sure?”

“There was a blanket and a pillow.”

“Yeah, but you spent the night on the couch at Mandy’s place, and I’m guessing there was some emotional stuff going on there,” Finn said. “Is Jake interested in Ally?”

“I’m not a hundred percent sure, but my gut says yes,” James admitted. “That was another reason I was pissed off.”

“I like Jake,” Finn said. “I think he might be good for Ally.”

“Why do you say that?” James asked.

“He’s calm,” Finn said. “He thinks before he acts. Those are two things that you can’t say about Ally.”

“So?”

“People need someone who balances them,” Finn said. “Take Sophie and Grady, for example. Sophie is pragmatic and driven. Grady is scattered and full of himself. They mesh.”

Grady shot out his tongue. “Thanks.”

“And you and Mandy,” Finn said, ignoring his brother. “You fly off the handle, but you’re a worrier. Mandy acts before she thinks, but she’s slow to anger, and she’s optimistic. You fit.”

“She’s plenty angry now,” James said.

“I think Ally and Jake might be a nice match,” Finn said.

“Ally is our baby sister,” James countered. “She deserves … .”

“What? A prince?” Finn asked. “Any man who finally nabs our sister is still going to be a man, no matter what you want for her.”

“And Ally deserves to be happy,” Grady added. “You might not like the idea, but I don’t think she should be alone.”

“I don’t think she has to be alone,” James said. “My problem is, we know very little about Jake. He seems like a nice guy, but Ally is our sister. Do you want him to … defile her?”

Finn snorted. “Defile her?”

“You know what I mean.”

“Did you defile Mandy?” Finn asked.

“I … .”

“You love Mandy with your whole heart, we’ve all seen that,” Finn said. “I want Ally to love someone with her whole heart, too. She deserves that.”

“Well, wait a second,” Grady said. “I’m not sure James is wrong on this. We don’t know anything about Jake.”

“You’re the one who found him,” Finn said.

“And I like him,” Grady said. “That doesn’t mean that he’s good enough for our sister.”

Finn sighed. “I’m not sure anyone would be good enough for Ally for you two,” he said. “Just don’t rule Jake out, and don’t treat Ally like she doesn’t have feelings. She’s going to make her own decisions about life. You can’t take that away from her. James made his own decision. Grady made his own decision. And I happen to be happy with my decision, because she’s beautiful and amazing, for the record. Just because she’s a girl, that doesn’t mean that Ally isn’t going to make her own decision. Just keep that in mind.”

 

ONCE
his brothers left, James tried distracting himself with the television. When that didn’t work, he booted up his laptop and finished the month’s billings. When the door between the bedroom – the door between happiness and sadness – refused to open, James made a decision.

He found her on the bed, her Kindle in her hand. She glanced up when he entered, immediately turning her attention back to whatever she was reading. Her hair was even more mussed now, her face devoid of makeup.

“Hey.”

Mandy didn’t respond.

James sat on the edge of the bed, reaching over so he could snatch the tablet from her hand. He clicked the power button off and placed it on the nightstand. She wasn’t going to speak, so James had to breach the gap. “Hey.”

“What?” Mandy’s voice was filled with irritation.

“I’m really sorry,” James said. “I’m
really
sorry.”

“I forgive you.”

James sighed. “You say the words, but I don’t feel the truth behind them.”

“What do you want me to say, James? I said I forgive you.”

The blue eyes James loved so much were clouded, cold. Her face was bland. “I want to take it back.”

“We’re not in elementary school,” Mandy replied. “Backsies don’t exist.”

“I still want to take it back,” James said.

“Why?” Her voice was wounded.

“Because I didn’t mean it,” James said. “I especially didn’t mean it the way you took it.”

“And how did you mean it?”

“I meant that it was my argument with Ally,” James said. “I meant that it was my fight with Ally.”

“Because she’s your family.”

“Baby, you’re my family,” James said, capturing her hand and pulling it to his chest, pressing the palm against his heart. “You’re my … everything. I am so sorry. I can’t tell you how sorry I am.”

Mandy didn’t respond, but she didn’t move to yank her hand way. James took that as a sign of encouragement.

“It’s hard for me to remember that you were Ally’s family before you were mine,” he said. “I’ve always thought of you as family. I’ve had to readjust my thinking as you became a different sort of family. What I said was … mean. It wasn’t true. Please, baby, just … forgive me.”

“I told you I forgive you,” Mandy said, forcing her face away from his.

“I need you to really forgive me,” James said. “I need you to … please.”

“I forgive you.”

James pulled her to him, wrapping his arms around her stiff frame. “I love you more than anything I’ve ever loved in this world. Please … just forgive me.” He brushed his lips against her forehead. “Please.”

Mandy’s frame remained stiff, but James refused to let her go. Eventually, her body melted and she fell into him. James tightened his grip. “I’m so sorry, baby. I’m so sorry.”

Her mouth found his, and there was nothing stiff about her ministrations. He gripped her head with his hands, pressing closer. “I’m really sorry.”

“I know,” Mandy said. “I know.”

“Please, just … forgive me.”

“I love you,” she said. “I’ll always forgive you.”

Nine

“Do you want to talk about it?”

Ally scorched Finn with a look. He was sitting on her couch, watching her pace, and he had an amused look on his face.

“What would I possibly want to talk about?”

“How about Jake?”

Ally scowled. “What about him?”

“James thinks you like him,” Finn said. “Is he right?”

“James is an unmitigated jerk sometimes,” Ally said. “He was definitely one yesterday.”

“And today?”

Ally didn’t find Finn’s smug expression even remotely appealing. “Why don’t you ask Mandy how charming she found James yesterday?”

“I happened to see Mandy yesterday, and I saw how upset she was.”

“How did you see her?” Ally asked, throwing herself in her armchair with a dramatic sigh.

“Grady and I went over and played some pool,” Finn said. “Mandy locked herself in the bedroom the entire time we were there. Well, she left the bedroom once, and I could have sworn we were in Siberia it was so cold.”

“He was mean to her.”

“He knows he was mean to her,” Finn said. “He felt really bad about it.”

“Did he feel bad about being mean to me?” Ally asked.

“I don’t think so,” Finn replied, the smile back on his face.

“Of course not,” Ally said, extending her fingers so she could look over her manicure. “I’m so sick of him.”

“You’re the baby, Ally,” Finn said. “Of course we’re all protective of you.”

“There’s protective and there’s deranged,” Ally said. “James is bordering on deranged.”

“No one wants to think of some guy … doing stuff with their sister,” Finn explained. “That’s what’s got him all bent out of shape.”

“Doing stuff? What kind of stuff are you talking about?”

“Don’t be cute, Ally,” Finn said. “I’m less protective of you than they are because we’re closer in age, but I still get weirded out when you talk about stuff like that.”

“Don’t you find it strange that I don’t have a problem with any of you having sex with your girlfriends, and yet you all have a problem with me having sex?”

Finn made a face. “It’s different.”

“You know, Emma has an older brother,” Ally pointed out. “How do you think he feels about what you do with her?”

“See, now you’re trying to purposely upset me,” Finn said. “I know what you’re doing.”

“Whatever,” Ally said. “When are these stupid security people getting here?”

“Any minute,” Finn said. “Grady and James are coming, too. I just thought you should be aware.”

“Well, great,” Ally said. “I can’t wait to see the big brothers of doom. I have a few things to say to them.”

“Hey, Grady hasn’t done anything,” Finn said. “I can see why you’re angry with James, but you should probably give Grady a break until he actually does something.”

“You know he’s going to do something,” Ally said, lifting her head when the front door of the house opened. “Oh, good, I think they’re here.”

Grady’s was the first face Ally saw, and the smile on it was small and tight. “Hey, Ally,” he said. “How are things?”

Ally ignored him.

Mandy and James were a few steps behind, and the minute Ally saw them she jumped to her feet. “I want to talk to you.”

“I want to talk to you, too,” James said, shifting uncomfortably.

Ally scowled. “I was talking to Mandy.”

“Oh.”

Ally beckoned to Mandy and then moved down her hallway, not saying a word until they were both safely locked in her bedroom. “Did you and James make up?”

“Yeah,” Mandy said. “That probably isn’t what you want to hear.”

“I don’t want
you
to be unhappy,” Ally said. “Just him.”

“If it’s any consolation, I think he feels bad,” Mandy said, sitting down on Ally’s bed and leaning against the pillows.

“He feels bad about what he said to you,” Ally said. “I could tell he regretted it as soon as he said it. You know he didn’t mean it, right? He was really mad at me. He would never purposely hurt you.”

“I know,” Mandy said. “He still said it.”

 

“IS
she still mad at you?” Grady asked.

The three Hardy brothers were sitting in the living room, watching as a security team went through the house making notes. James was paying for a full upgrade, something top of the line so Ally could feel safe. Now they just had to wait for suggestions.

“She says she’s no,” James said.

“You don’t believe her?” Finn asked.

“I think that she wants to still be mad at me,” James said. “I think she especially wants to be angry with me because Ally is angry with me.”

“Ally is definitely pissed,” Finn said. “We had a long talk before you guys got here.”

“And?”

“And she wants to know why you’re so against Jake,” Finn said.

“I’m not against Jake,” James said. “I like Jake. I just don’t like Jake for Ally. I already told you that.”

“Well, Ally is in a snit,” Finn said. “Be forewarned, she wants to rip your hair out. I’m sure she is giving Mandy an earful in the other room.”

James glanced over at Grady, who was standing next to the big bay window and looking outside. “What are you looking at?”

“Jake is standing outside,” Grady said. “I’m just trying to figure out how long he’s going to pace out there before he finally gets the guts to come inside.”

James joined his brother at the window. “Why do you think he’s here?”

“Maybe he just wants to make sure that Ally is safe,” Finn suggested.

James and Grady shot Finn twin looks of disapproval.

Finn held up his hands in mock surrender. “Sorry. You’re right. He’s probably just waiting for us to leave so he can have hot and sweaty sex with our sister.”

“You’re sense of humor is just disgusting sometimes,” James said.

 

“YOU
should have made him buy you a pony,” Ally said.

Mandy rolled over on her side, fixing Ally with a peculiar look. “A pony? What would I do with a pony?”

“Your new yard is big enough for a pony,” Ally said. “And James owes you a big gift for what he said to you.”

“I don’t want James to buy me things because he’s sorry,” Mandy said. “That seems like a really crappy way to build a relationship.”

“You’re looking at this the wrong way,” Ally said, sliding off the bed and widening her arms. “You need to benefit from his stupidity. You need to benefit in a really big way. He needs to get you a pony.”

“I don’t really like horses.”

“Well, I want a pony,” Ally said. “I’ve always wanted a pony.”

“Yeah, I think the message that I can be bought off is the wrong one to send,” Mandy said. “I just want him to think before he speaks sometimes.”

“Just like he wants you to look before you leap,” Ally said.

Mandy frowned. “When did you become so wise?”

“I’ve always been wise,” Ally said. “You guys just refuse to see my brilliance.”

 

“WHAT
are they doing?” James asked.

Grady walked back into the living room, shrugging. “They seem to be talking.”

Jake had finally made his way into the house and was sitting on the couch, watching the three Hardy brothers with a curious look on his face. “I think I’m confused.”

“They’ve been in Ally’s bedroom for an hour,” Finn said. “It’s driving James nuts.”

“So, you sent Grady outside to spy on them through the window?”

“I wasn’t spying,” Grady said. “I was making sure her bedroom window was secure, and I just happened to see them through the window.”

“That seems like a rather dubious distinction,” Jake said. “Why don’t you just go and ask them what they’re talking about?”

“Because that would be the adult thing to do,” Grady said. “No one is feeling very adult today.”

“I noticed.”

James shot him a look. “Hey, you’re partially to blame for this. If you’d just called me … .”

“Ally was adamant that she didn’t want that,” Jake said. “She seemed upset. I didn’t want to make things worse.”

“How is calling me making things worse?”

“Oh, I don’t know, why don’t you ask the two women hating on you in the other room,” Finn suggested.

“They’re not hating on me,” James said.

“Ally was spreading her arms out like she was about to fly,” Grady said. “I have a feeling she was hoping you’d take a flying leap.”

James made a rude noise with his lips. “And she’s in there filling my girl’s head with ideas.”

“Mandy has a mind of her own,” Grady said. “I think you should just suck it up and apologize to Ally. You’re not going to get Mandy completely back on your side until you do.”

“Mandy and I made up,” James said. “She’s back on my side.”

“Then why is she in the bedroom with Ally?”

“Because Ally dragged her in there.”

“It didn’t look like Mandy was putting up much of a fight,” Grady said. “I think she’s still mad.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Because, if I’ve learned anything over the past year, it’s that women express their anger in a different way than men,” Grady said.

“Oh, enlighten us,” James said.

“Well, I get mad and yell and it’s over,” Grady said. “Sophie does things all the time that drive me crazy. I call her on the carpet, I tell her why I’m mad, and we talk about it and it goes away.

“She, on the other hand, will tell me she’s perfectly fine that I’m late,” he continued. “She’ll smile. She’ll give me a kiss. She’ll sit down and have a perfectly reasonable dinner. Then, when I’m least expecting it, she’ll bring it up again. It’s infuriating.”

“So, you think Mandy is going to keep bringing this up?”

“I think Mandy is still hurt, no matter what she says,” Grady said. “I think Ally is in there fueling that hurt.”

James glanced down the hallway, uncertain. “I think I should go and get her.”

“I think you should leave them alone,” Finn said. “Just let them … do whatever it is that they’re doing, even if it is hating on us.”

 

“I THINK
you should ask him out,” Mandy said, meeting Ally’s face in the mirror. They were trying out different hairstyles, and Mandy currently had Ally’s long brown hair up in a messy bun. “You have great hair. You’ve always had great hair. I’m jealous.”

“People love your hair because it reminds them of angels,” Ally said. “I wish I could go blonde without looking like an idiot.”

“Your hair is perfect the way it is,” Mandy said. “Don’t you
dare
change the color! So, are you going to ask Jake out or not? I think he’s out there right now.”

“My brothers are probably filling his head with all sorts of little lies,” Ally said. “They’re probably telling him I’m flighty. That’s what they always say.”

“You are flighty,” Mandy said. “Guys like that. I wouldn’t worry.”

“I’m not flighty.”

“You do flighty things,” Mandy said. “So do I. It’s not a big deal.”

“Okay, let’s say, just for curiosity’s sake, what should I say if I want to ask Jake out?” Ally asked.

“Hey, Jake, do you want to go out to dinner with me?”

“I can’t just say that,” Ally said. “I’d die of embarrassment if he said no.”

“You won’t know unless you ask,” Mandy said. “And, trust me, the longer you obsess about it, the worse it’s going to be. Just ask him.”

“You didn’t ask James out,” Ally pointed out.

“And, maybe if I had, things wouldn’t have been so rough there at the beginning,” Mandy said.

“Well, how do I do it?”

“Just wait until all of us are gone and then ask him,” Mandy said. “Come on. I’ll get your brothers out of the house. Just give it a try.”

“Okay.”

 

JAMES
signed the work order the security representative slipped in front of him. “You can get all of this done this afternoon?”

“Yes, sir.”

Once he was gone, the Hardy brothers returned to their discussion, while Jake looked on with amusement.

“Women are just aliens,” Finn said. “I came home and found Emma crying over some commercial the other day. When I asked her why, she said she just felt so bad for the puppy until he found his food dish.”

Grady wrinkled his nose. “Yeah, she is an alien. You know, most women aren’t that bad, right? I think Emma might be a special case. Sophie never cries. She just gets even.”

“How does she get even?” James asked.

“She just gives back as good as she gets,” Grady said.

“Mandy meddles,” James said. “She gets in everyone’s business and tries to manipulate things the way she wants them.”

“They all do that,” Grady said. “They all do it together, too. Sometimes, when I see them in a corner with their heads all bent together, I think they’re plotting our demise.”

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