Authors: Lily Harper Hart
Hardy Brothers Security
Lily Harper Hart
“What do you think?”
Sophie Lane looked her friend Mandy up and down, trying hard not to smile at the blonde’s rampant enthusiasm as she eyed the pool table.
“I think it’s cool,” Sophie replied. The truth was, the pragmatic reporter saw little use in a pool table – especially one that Mandy spent weeks designing so she could surprise her new husband on his birthday. Now that the surprise had been ruined – and James Hardy knew what his gift was – Sophie couldn’t understand why Mandy was still making such a big deal about it.
“Do you really think it’s cool, or are you just saying that to get me to shut up?” Mandy asked, arching an eyebrow.
“I think it’s cool,” Sophie said, giving in. “I really do like the purple felt. I just don’t understand why it’s such a big deal.”
“James loves to play pool,” Mandy said. “When we bought this house and I saw the saloon in the guesthouse, I knew we would make it into an entertainment hub. You need a pool table in an entertainment hub.”
“What about the pool table in the apartment?” Sophie asked, referring to the game table that currently resided on the second floor of Hardy Brothers Security in suburban Detroit. Up until their marriage two months before, Mandy and James had resided there before moving into their new house. Recent events – including gun-wielding assailants laying siege on the house – had forced Mandy and James back to the apartment for several weeks while the house was being repaired. They’d just managed to move back into their dream house the day before, and the duo was celebrating by throwing a big family barbecue to celebrate James’ birthday.
“We’re leaving that pool table there,” Mandy said. “I figured the guys might want to go up there and have lunch sometimes. James loves that pool table.”
“So, why did you buy this one?”
“I hate that pool table,” Mandy admitted. “It’s ugly. This one is pretty. The wood is all new and shiny.” She rubbed the carved sides of the pool table in admiration.
“You really gave this a lot of thought, didn’t you?” Sophie asked.
“His birthday gift.”
Mandy shrugged. “It’s his thirtieth birthday. I wanted to make a big deal about it. I want him to be happy.”
“I think all he needs to be happy is you naked on top of it,” Sophie said, smiling. “Still, it’s nice that you’re so excited about giving him a gift.”
“Oh, that reminds me,” Mandy said, swiveling her shoulders. “There’s one more piece.”
Sophie watched Mandy pull a large box from behind the bar, dragging it across the floor. “What’s in there?”
Mandy rummaged around inside the box, straightening a few seconds later. The light she was holding in her hand was ornate. On first inspection, it looked like one of those kitschy stained-glass box lights – the rectangular ones with advertising slogans on them – that you regularly saw in a pool hall or bar. On closer inspection, which Sophie found herself doing now, Mandy had designed the light to advertise a specific business: Hardy Brothers Security.
“Holy crap,” Sophie said. “That’s amazing. You … wow … you had all three of their silhouettes put on there with the name of the business. How did you do that?”
“I had to find photographs with all of their profiles,” Mandy admitted. “It wasn’t easy. Ally helped me. Grady was actually the hardest. The first three times they tried to get his silhouette right he looked more like Ally than himself. The designer didn’t understand when I explained about the hair.”
Sophie smirked. The Hardy siblings – four in total – all resembled each other. They had strong, angular jaws, and dark brown hair and eyes. As the eldest brother, James’ hair was of medium length and often looked like he needed a haircut. Youngest brother Finn had gone for the ‘no muss, no fuss’ approach and clipped his tresses close to his scalp. Younger sister Ally had long, flyaway waves down the middle of her back, while middle brother Grady had let his hair grow long enough to brush the tops of his shoulders.
Grady’s hair was a running joke in the Hardy family – but since Sophie was the one who got to run her fingers through it every night when they climbed into bed in the house they shared – she was quite fond of it.
“That’s really beautiful,” Sophie said, her voice small. “I … that’s beautiful.”
Mandy’s face colored. “I just thought it would be cute,” she said. “I wanted the table to be something special. I figure we have years ahead of us in this house, decades hopefully. I always pictured him out here playing pool with his brothers and Jake. The light was just kind of a nod to it.”
“You know him so well,” Sophie said, running her fingers over the stained glass thoughtfully. “He’s going to love this.”
“Yeah,” Mandy said, jumping up onto the pool table. “Hand me the lamp. They put a hook up here, so I should just have to hang the chain on it.”
Sophie lifted the lamp up, being careful to hold it until Mandy indicated she could remove her hands. Mandy jumped off the table and plugged the cord in, smiling as the lamp flared to life.
“That is … .”
Mandy shifted her gaze to Sophie, smiling quizzically. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m jealous of how well you know James,” Sophie admitted.
“Are you saying you don’t know Grady? Because you two spend every night wrapped up in each other,” Mandy said. “You two definitely know each other.”
“Not like you and James,” Sophie said, biting her lip.
“James and I have known each other since we were children,” Mandy replied. “Besides, you know everything you need to know about Grady.”
“You know he’s crazy about you,” Mandy said. “You know you’re the only woman he’s ever cared about for more than two weeks. You know that he surprised you with a freaking hot tub three weeks ago. What don’t you know about him?”
Sophie bit into her bottom lip. “I guess I’m just worried.”
Mandy’s face softened. “Because Peter is coming?”
Peter Marconi was Sophie’s foster father. After her parents were killed in a tragic accident when she was a child, she’d bounced from foster home to foster home until finally settling with Marconi. While Peter had been a loving parental figure in her life, he was also a significant figure in Detroit’s organized crime scene.
As a security specialist, Grady hadn’t been sure how he felt about Peter in the beginning. Since Peter had come through with both information and security – multiple times – for the Hardy family, Grady’s stance against the man was faltering. Mandy inviting Peter to James’ birthday party was a big step in the right direction – at least where Sophie was concerned – but it was also a minefield.
“It’s a big deal,” Sophie admitted. “He’s coming to a family party.”
“He was here before,” Mandy said.
“Yeah, but that’s because he had important information,” Sophie said. “This time he’s purely coming as a guest.”
Mandy’s smile was soft and heartfelt as she patted Sophie on the shoulder. “You don’t have to worry,” she said. “Everyone is going to welcome Peter with open arms. Without Peter, there’s a good chance we’d all be dead. We owe him. We like him. Heck, even the men like him.”
“I know,” Sophie said. “It’s still a big deal for me. You’re my family, and he’s my family, but now both sides of my family are meeting together. I’m just really … .”
Mandy grabbed Sophie’s hand, squeezing it for reassurance. “Don’t worry,” she said. “They’re going to have a fancy new pool table to play with. Men bond over pool tables. They’ll all boast about how big their sticks are, and then everyone will relax.”
“That’s true,” Sophie said, brightening considerably. “When are you going to unveil it?”
“Soon,” Mandy said. “James is driving me nuts to see it. He says I’m the one who is a baby when it comes to surprises, but he’s worse than a kid on Christmas right now.”
“He’s going to love it,” Sophie said, sighing as she took in the light one more time. “He’s going to absolutely love it.”
you seen your present yet?” Grady teased his older brother, swigging from his beer.
“She’s right there,” James replied, pointing as his giggling blonde wife exited the guesthouse with Grady’s brunette reporter close on her heels.
“They look happy,” Grady said. “I wonder what they were doing in there.”
“They were getting James’ present ready,” Ally said, shoving Grady’s legs to the side so she could settle next to him on the patio lounger. As the youngest Hardy sibling, Ally had a special talent for irritating her older brothers.
“I already know what I’m getting,” James said. “I don’t know why she’s making such a big deal about this.”
“Why did you make such a big deal out of the shark tour on your honeymoon?” Ally countered.
“Because I know she loves sharks,” James said. “I knew she would be excited.”
“Maybe she knows you’ll love the table,” Ally replied.
“I will love the table,” James said. “I already know I’m getting it, though. It’s not like it’s a surprise.”
“Maybe she’s just excited to give her husband a gift for the first time,” Grady said.
James furrowed his brow. “What do you mean?” He pointed to the watch on his wrist. “She gave me this the day we got married. This was the first gift my wife gave me.”
“Your fiancée gave you that,” Grady said. “That was the last gift your fiancée gave you. This is the first gift your wife will give you. It has special significance.”
James mulled the statement over. “I never thought about it like that.”
“What’s the first gift you gave your wife?” Ally teased.
“I … .”
“Oh!” Ally leaned forward, clapping her hands together with undisguised glee. “She finally beat you at something. You bought the first gift when the two of you got together – those butterfly wind chimes she has hanging outside of her studio window. You bought the first gift when you got engaged – this house. She finally got to be the first one to give a gift for something.”
The look on James’ face was priceless, and Grady was having a hard time reining in his laughter. “You’re upset that she beat you, aren’t you?”
“No,” James said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully.
“He’s trying to decide if he has time to run out to the store and get her something,” Ally said, her face lit with delight.
“For your information, I happen to have a bracelet in the safe for just such an occasion,” James said. “I bought it when I bought her necklace.”
“You told me you bought that bracelet because you knew you were going to have to bribe her with a gift at some point,” Grady said. “You wanted the bracelet – and a few charms – locked in there so you could whip them out when you pissed her off.”
“That’s better than what he usually whips out,” Ally deadpanned.
Grady flicked her on the ear. “Don’t be gross.”
“Yeah,” James said, making a face.
“Dude, don’t take this away from her,” Grady said, his voice low. “Let her have this one. You’re always the first one that gives a gift. She wants this to be special. If you give her the bracelet today, even though you’re doing it from a place of love, it’s going to take away from her gift to you.”
“He’s right,” Ally said. “This is a big deal to Mandy. Let her be Santa today.”
James sighed. “You’re right.”
“I’m always right,” Ally said. “When are you going to learn that?”
“I think that’s the mantra for your family,” Jake quipped, joining his co-workers and girlfriend on the patio. He dropped a kiss on the top of Ally’s head as he snagged the spot next to her on the chair. “What are you all fighting about this time?”
“We don’t fight,” Ally said.
“What do you call it?” Jake asked.
“We just communicate loudly,” Ally replied.
Jake ran a hand through his dark hair. “I think I’m going to let that one go.”
Ally’s brown eyes narrowed. “You were going to say that I do everything loudly, weren’t you?”
Jake held up his hands to ward off her faux fury. “No.”
“Yes, you were.”
“No, I wasn’t.”
“I didn’t hear you complaining last night when I let the whole neighborhood know what a good job you were doing when … well, you know when,” Ally pressed.
Jake’s cheeks colored as Grady and James shot twin looks of disapproval in his direction. Even though all the Hardy brothers considered Jake to be their friend, the knowledge of what he was doing with their sister on a nightly basis was still a sore subject.
“Thank you, angel,” Jake mumbled.
Ally crossed her arms over her chest obstinately. “I’m so underappreciated in this family.”
Jake sighed, leaning over and pressing his lips to her cheek softly. “I appreciate you.”
“You’re the only one,” Ally said, snuggling in closer to him. “My brothers are all on my list tonight.”
“Well, that will be fun.”
Sophie suddenly appeared at the edge of the patio, her hands clasped together in front of her as she met Grady’s curious eyes from several feet away. “He’s here.”