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Brighter Than the Sun

Maya Banks


  ZOE. Your name is Zoe Kildare now.

  Zoe mentally cautioned herself while she paced back and forth, her agitation only increasing as she stopped to check her watch. Where was she? Rusty should have been here by now. Zoe’s mind raced with a number of gruesome possibilities. What if she’d been found out? What if she’d led Rusty straight into harm’s way?

  The door burst open and she barely managed to suppress her surprised cry of fright. She sagged with relief when her college friend Rusty Kelly hurried through carrying a stack of folders and loose papers.

  Rusty dropped the load onto the coffee table and pulled Zoe into a fierce hug. The two women held on to each other for a long moment before Rusty finally pulled away, her gaze sweeping up and down Zoe as if assessing her condition.

  “Are you okay?” Rusty asked anxiously.

  Zoe swallowed and nodded though tears pricked her eyelids.

  Rusty gave her another bone-crushing hug, and Zoe held on to her friend just as tightly. Then Rusty guided her to the nearby couch and urged her down, sitting diagonal to her and gathering her hands in her firm grip.

  “Did anyone follow you? Did you see anything out of the ordinary or get a sense that anyone was watching you?” Rusty asked urgently.

  Zoe shook her head. “No, I don’t think so. I was careful. I did everything you told me. I made it appear as though I was heading west to California.”

  Rusty nodded approvingly. “That’s good, but we can’t afford to waste any time nor can we ever adopt a false sense of security. You went to college here and it’s a city you’re familiar with, so it stands to reason this is a logical place you’d go.”

  “I can’t stay here,” Zoe choked out.

  “No, you can’t,” Rusty said calmly. “I need you to answer some questions for me, Stel—I mean Zoe. Damn it. We can’t afford to slip. You’ve got to be aware and on your toes at all times. You cannot react to your real name. You can’t flinch, show any awareness. You have to act as though you assume whoever is using it is calling someone else’s name. And you absolutely have to be tuned in to your alias and behave as if it’s the name you were born with.”

  Zoe nodded, clasping Rusty’s hands more fiercely. Her heart felt as though it were going to beat right out of her chest. Not a minute had passed since overhearing Sebastian’s—or whoever the hell he was—conversation six days ago that fear hadn’t been a living, breathing constant for her. Her entire life had been upended the day she’d been crushed and had learned what a gullible, naïve fool she’d been. Had always been.

  “Zoe is a name I’m intimately familiar with,” she admitted, lowering her eyes in embarrassment. “When I was a child, I felt so isolated . . . so alone that I made up an imaginary friend. Zoe. Zoe Kildare. I had no other friends. I was a stranger in my own home. My father barely acknowledged my presence.”

  She broke off, tears threatening once more. Damn it. She’d shed no more tears over her father or a bastard like Sebastian. She’d never mattered to anyone in her life, so why should she have believed for a moment that she would matter to the man who became her lover? A man whom she’d overheard laughing and saying what a chore it was to have to fuck a loser like her. Just the memory had her cringing with humiliation.

  “Oh honey,” Rusty said, her own eyes going bright with tears.

  Zoe shook her head, firming her lips. “They aren’t worth your tears or mine. Now, what questions did you have for me?”

  Rusty sighed but returned to the matter at hand. “Did you ever at any time mention me, my name, anything about me, to Sebastian, your father or anyone? Think hard, Zoe. This is important.”

  Zoe frowned as she thought back. But no. She hadn’t wanted to risk Rusty in any way—Rusty was her first and only true friend. The only person in her entire life who was real and loyal. She shook her head in response to the question.

  “Are you one hundred percent certain?” Rusty persisted.

  “I wasn’t exactly on speaking terms with my father,” Zoe said bitterly. “And when I was with Sebastian we didn’t talk about my life outside of our ‘relationship.’ I was too worried he would find out about me . . . who I was . . . and that he’d hate me, never knowing he knew all along.”

  Rusty looked relieved and then smiled, her eyes lighting up with triumph. “I don’t want you to worry. I have the perfect plan.”

  Zoe looked at her in confusion, but Rusty went over and gathered the stack of folders she’d carried in with her. She began placing items in front of a stunned Zoe.

  “First, here’s your driver’s license. You’re from Chicago, by the way. Here’s your birth certificate, passport and Social Security card. Oh, and credit cards with an already well-established credit history. You have a penchant for books and wine, judging by the purchases. And clothes. I made you a total clothes and shoe whore. You even have Facebook and Twitter accounts that date back seven years—do you have any idea how long it took me to make up and post inane details of your life as well as establish fake friends for you? Oh, and you also have a solid purchase history with Amazon, including a Kindle and plenty of ebooks. You’re a devoted fan of cookbooks, romance and science fiction.”

  Zoe looked at her in utter bewilderment. Then she latched on to one of the last things Rusty said. “Cookbooks?” She broke into hysterical laughter. “I can’t even boil water!”

  Rusty shrugged. “Details. Not like you’ll have to prove your culinary prowess, and it was all I could come up with on such short notice.”

  Zoe’s jaw gaped in awe. “Rusty, how on earth did you accomplish all this? Isn’t this . . . illegal?”

  Rusty didn’t look overly concerned. “What can I say? I have mad tech and hacking skills. I impressed even myself this time.”

  “I have no idea what to say. This is . . .”

  Rusty gave her a cheeky grin. “Brilliant? Genius?” She made a show of blowing on her nails, a devilish gleam in her eyes. “Oh, and by the way, after you got your BA, you also graduated with an MBA from DePaul University. I didn’t want any similarities to your past reality.”

  “I think I’m kind of afraid of you right now,” Zoe said, though some of the panic that had been ever present since hearing of her intended fate from her scumbag ex-lover eased, and for the first time she began to feel . . . hope.

  Rusty rolled her eyes. “It’s just as well you can’t tell anyone what I’ve done because it’s not like my overbearing brothers would ever believe I was more tech savvy than my geek-god brother, Donovan. Not to mention a certain asshole sheriff who’s the bane of my existence and hasn’t missed any opportunity to demean and insult me over the years but then inexplicably decided to give me the most delicious kiss of my life. Not that there’ve been that many.”

  Zoe winced in sympathy. She was the only person Rusty had confided in about her love/hate relationship with Sean Cameron, the sheriff of the county she lived in.

  “Apparently we both suck when it comes to men,” she said lamely.

  “No, sister. We don’t suck. They do,” Rusty said emphatically.

  “I’ll drink to that,” she muttered.

  Rusty leaned forward and squeezed her hands, sympathy brimming in her eyes. “He’s an asshole, Zoe. And not worth your time or regret. You did nothing wrong. He played you. That’s on him. Not you.”

  “Doesn’t make me any less stupid,” Zoe muttered.

  “Well, join the crowd. I should have knocked Sean’s teeth out when he pulled that stunt and especially since he apologized and said it never should have happened. But noooo. I stood there like a moron. God, I’m mortified to this day and avoid him at all costs.”

  “So you said you had the perfect plan,” Zoe said, purposely turning the subject away from w
hat was clearly a painful, embarrassing memory for Rusty.

  Rusty’s eyes lit up as she smiled. “I have the perfect plan. You’re going to come home with me and stay for a while. You know. A friend I met at a conference while in college and kept in touch with. Marlene and Frank will love you and take you in just like family.”

  Zoe’s expression became troubled. “That’s not a good idea, Rusty. I don’t want you or your family exposed to any danger. You’ve already risked far too much.”

  To Zoe’s surprise, Rusty laughed. “I realize we’ve both kept our secrets during our friendship—you keeping the fact your father is involved in organized crime, and me? Well, let’s just say that the very safest place for you to stay until we figure out a better plan or nail Sebastian’s sorry ass to the wall is with my family. He doesn’t stand a chance against my brothers, not to mention all the people who work for them.”

  Zoe’s eyebrows went up in question.

  Rusty held up fingers as she ticked off her points. “Apart from the fact that the asshole sheriff is exceedingly protective of our family and is an adopted family member much like myself, my brothers kick asses for a living. They’re all ex-military and someone would be a fool to ever cross them in any way, and once you come home with me as a friend? Well, consider yourself a member of the Kelly clan. Their motto is ‘no one fucks with the Kellys,’ and trust me, sister, that isn’t just an idle boast.”

  “What on earth do they do? I mean, apart from kicking asses for a living and being ex-military.”

  “They run an organization that takes a wide range of assignments from personal protection to hostage retrieval to messy jobs the government doesn’t want to soil their hands on but don’t mind throwing KGI under the bus for in order to achieve their purpose. They’ve done fugitive recovery, rescue missions, obliterated terrorist organizations, and that’s when they aren’t meeting their significant others while on a mission.”

  Zoe studied her for a long moment. “You’re not joking, are you?”

  Rusty shook her head. “Nope. When I say they are the ultimate badasses, I am not in the least bit exaggerating. Wait until you meet them!”

  “Uh, maybe that’s not a good idea,” Zoe mumbled. “I’d feel better staying to myself as much as possible.”

  Rusty shrugged. “If you come home with me, it’s inevitable you’ll meet them at some point. Just be yourself and act casual. If you start acting all weird and jumpy then they’re going to get suspicious, and that’s the last thing we want.”

  “So you aren’t going to tell them about . . . me? I mean, the truth?”

  Rusty’s eyes grew earnest. “I would never betray your confidence, Zoe. You’re my friend, and as far as they’re concerned, we’re friends who met in college and you’re visiting me while we decide what to do with our degrees and futures. The less they know, the better. In fact, no one but the two of us ever needs to know the truth. That’s how fuckups happen. I’m going to keep you alive no matter what it takes. I won’t let that asshole get his hands on you.”

  Zoe took a deep breath. “So when do we leave then?”


  “WE’RE almost there,” Rusty said cheerfully as they crossed the bridge over Kentucky Lake.

  “It’s beautiful here,” Zoe breathed. “It seems so quiet and peaceful. No hustle and bustle of a big city. Are the people here nice?”

  Rusty wrinkled her nose. “For the most part. I mean, like any small town we have our share of nosy busybodies whose sole ambition in life is to make others miserable, but the Kellys are very respected in this area. Frank owns a hardware store in Dover, and as I told you, all six of his and Marlene’s sons served in various branches of the military. I was on the other side of the fence growing up. White trash. Troublemaker. Loser. Pick your poison. My life changed when I broke into Frank and Marlene’s house because I was starving and my asshole stepfather didn’t give a shit about anything except where to score his next hit. He wasn’t choosy. Alcohol, drugs, whatever would get him hammered the fastest. Taking care of a stepdaughter dumped on him by his slut of a wife wasn’t exactly a priority. I wouldn’t have ever stayed the first night with him, but I had nowhere else to go and I was too young at the time to pull off acting older than I was, so I would have just gotten hauled into the foster care system. At least my stepfather was the devil I knew and I learned to get around him.” She grimaced. “Most of the time.”

  “God, Rusty. My life wasn’t exactly wonderful, but I was never abused and I never went without. My father saw to it that I had the best of everything. Most likely so I wouldn’t be more of an embarrassment to him than I already was. I mean, it was obvious that my own mother had no use for me. She left and couldn’t be bothered to take her daughter with her.”

  Rusty scowled. “I don’t see much of a difference in our situations. We were both unwanted, and that does a number on a child, as we can both attest to.”

  “That’s true,” Zoe admitted.

  “I was so lucky,” Rusty said, her features going soft, her eyes lighting with love and pride. “Marlene and Frank are the very best kind of people. Marlene took me in without question, even confronting my asshole stepfather and then permanently removing me from his custody. They even adopted me after I turned eighteen because they wanted me to know they truly did consider me a part of the family. Their daughter.”

  “They sound wonderful,” Zoe said wistfully.

  “Wait until you meet them,” Rusty said, smiling. “I give it a day before Marlene claims you as family. My brothers give her shit about her propensity for collecting ‘strays.’ Strays being all the people she’s adopted into the family over the years. It’s impossible not to love her and Frank.”

  “They sound too good to be true,” Zoe admitted.

  “They’re the real deal. You’ll see soon enough.”

  Zoe twirled the ends of her long hair nervously through her fingers and glanced at her reflection in the side-view mirror.

  “I don’t know about this whole disguise, Rusty. It just doesn’t feel like . . . me.”

  Rusty laughed. “That’s the point.” Then as if sensing Zoe’s very real discomfort, she reached over and put her hand over her friend’s and squeezed reassuringly. “You look stunning as a blonde. Going from red to black was too risky. The roots would be more prominent, though you’re going to have to keep a close watch and touch up your color on a regular basis. You weren’t a carrottop by any means, so even if your roots start to show it will be a lot more subtle.”

  “And the extensions?” Zoe asked doubtfully.

  “Think about it. You had shoulder-length hair. What do most people do when they want to change their appearance? They cut it because they can’t exactly grow their hair fast enough to complete a believable disguise. By making your hair a good eight inches longer it gives more credibility to your disguise, and no one can tell you have extensions in. It looks absolutely natural. That’s why it took so long to do. I had to make it absolutely seamless, and again, this is something we have to stay on top of at all times. No slipups.”

  Zoe’s lips curled into a glimmer of a smile. “You say ‘we’ as if you’ll have my back the entire time.”

  Rusty’s expression turned fierce. “If I’m able, that’s exactly what I’m going to do until we figure out a way to get you out of this mess and get rid of that asshole trying to kill you.”

  “Still, I’m not sure I can pull off this sweet, all-natural, girl-next-door image you’re trying to make me into,” Zoe said.

  Rusty’s sigh was audible as she cast a sideways glance at her that was a mixture of rage and sorrow.

  “Don’t take this the wrong way, Zoe. This is not in any way a criticism of you,” she said fiercely. “I’m well aware of the exacting standards your father forced on you and subsequently enforced your entire life. You were high-class, high-fashion twenty-four-seven. You were the epitome of wealth and posh. Hell, you never even set foot out of your apartment without makeup to conceal y
our freckles, because your father viewed them as an imperfection. Over time he made you feel the same way about them, about every single thing; he labeled you until you believed yourself that you weren’t just fine the way you were. You said yourself the asshole you were dating had no clue you had freckles. You’ve never been allowed to just be you, and Zoe, listen carefully to what I’m saying. You, the real you? There is nothing wrong with her. You’re beautiful, and you don’t need clothes, makeup or jewelry to make you that way. But now your obsession with concealing what you were convinced was a flaw works in our favor because you’re sporting a fresh face, makeup free, and you only have a dusting of freckles across your nose. They look freaking adorable. You look nothing like the high-class fashionista you’ve been your entire life. With the casual faded jeans, cute tops, and loafers and flip-flops, no one would ever look at you and see the person you were. You’ve simply allowed yourself to be who you were all along. Real and not some costume you were forced to wear for most of your life. Trust me, this look, the person you represent now, is a foolproof disguise because it isn’t a deception in the least. It’s one hundred percent honest and representative of the person you’ve always been.”

  Hot tears burned like acid at the corners of Zoe’s eyes and she blinked hastily to clear her vision as Rusty’s impassioned words settled over her, sinking into places, vulnerable areas she’d never dared allow anyone to see.

  “I sound vain and ungrateful,” Zoe said, shame creeping up her spine. “I swear I’m not, Rusty. What I am is scared out of my mind, not only for me but for you. You’ve risked everything to help me and I can’t help but wonder what happens if they find out about you or get to you. I could never live with myself knowing you were hurt or killed because you risked so much for me.”

  Zoe was gripping her hand so tightly that Rusty gingerly pried it from her terrified grasp and gave her a look of understanding, love and friendship that nearly brought tears to her eyes.

  “You’re my dearest friend,” Rusty said sincerely. “There’s no way I’d ever turn my back on you. Besides, I have mad skills. Not even my brothers would be able to uncover the truth of your past, and that’s saying a lot considering what they do. It usually pisses me off that they either continually underestimate me or are so overprotective that they want to wrap me in Bubble Wrap like they do their wives and never let me out in the world on my own. God, you should have heard the objections when I wanted to move off campus and get my own apartment after my sophomore year. You would have thought the world had come to an end. Then there was the time when I was totally teasing one of my brothers and said that I was perfectly capable of defending myself and made reference to the fact that self-defense classes were a must for a woman going to university. He immediately demanded to know what assholes were giving me trouble and threatened to go kick some serious ass.”

  Rusty rolled her eyes, making her laugh.

  “I don’t know,” Zoe said wistfully. “It must be so wonderful to have a family who loves and cares about you so much.”

  Rusty immediately looked chagrined. “God, I’m such a jerk. I didn’t mean to make you feel like shit.”

  “Don’t,” Zoe said forcefully. “Do not apologize for having such a wonderful family just because for all practical purposes I had none. Besides, if what you said is true, then it looks like I’ll get to experience what having a real family feels like while I’m here.”

  “Just remember,” Rusty said in what Zoe thought had to be her best schoolmarm impression. “None of your usual makeup, no designer clothes. You have to act like what you look like. A fresh-faced, innocent, all-American girl next door who thinks a Jimmy Choo is a restaurant and not an outrageously expensive shoe.”

  Zoe burst out laughing. “That I can do. It’ll be nice getting to be myself for once instead of some made-up Barbie doll controlled by my dad, who only remembered he had a daughter when he was telling her how to dress and act and where to go or not go.”

  “You’re going to get through this,” Rusty promised. “I don’t have all the answers. Yet. But for now I want you to relax and enjoy hanging out with me and my family and try to forget about the asshole trying to kill you. He can’t hurt you here, honey. That much I can promise.”

  They turned onto a winding highway that paralleled the lake, and a few minutes later, Rusty’s Jeep pulled up to a huge security gate that had Zoe’s eyes widening. When Rusty rolled down her window and faced the retinal scanner, Zoe’s mouth fell completely open.

  “I told you what my brothers do,” Rusty said with a shrug. “They take the safety of our family very seriously. They’ve made some not-so-nice enemies over the years, and one of my sisters-in-law was even abducted from the compound before construction was complete, so believe me when I say no one gets in and out of here without them knowing.”

  For the first time since her entire world had fallen apart, Zoe began to feel hope. Maybe Rusty was right. This just might be the absolute safest place for her to lie low for the time being. As they passed an airfield, a shooting range, two buildings that Rusty explained were the war room and the infirmary, her belief was only cemented. Even her father didn’t have the extensive resources the Kellys seemed to possess.

  A few seconds later they pulled up to a large, two-story house that, while new, looked like a throwback to another era. The epitome of a southern, country home complete with charming dormers, a wraparound porch with rockers and a porch swing.

  “This is Frank and Marlene’s house,” Rusty explained. “My brothers and their wives all have houses spaced out within the confines of the compound. It took a while for Sam, my oldest brother, to convince our parents to move, but here they are. They had an architect draw up an exact replica of their old place, the next best thing to plunking their old house right down on this plot of land. The only holdout remaining is Joe. He and Nathan are twins and the youngest. Well, until I came along,” she added with a grin. “He’s the only remaining bachelor, and he spends most of his time dodging Marlene’s matchmaking efforts when he’s not on a mission.”

  “Are they away often?” Zoe asked curiously.

  “Depends,” Rusty said as she climbed out and met Zoe around back to get the bags. “Right now things are pretty quiet but that could change at a moment’s notice. They have three teams and are currently hiring new muscle and training. They usually rotate missions to give each team enough downtime between missions, but sometimes shit gets real and all three teams are involved.”

  Zoe’s eyes went round. “I don’t even want to know.”

  “You’ll get used to it,” Rusty said nonchalantly. “It’s just a way of life around here. I guess for someone outside the family our setup appears bizarre, but it’s just another day for us. In fact, it feels weirder when nothing is going on and we actually lead normal lives.”

  “Something tells me you have a lot of stories you could entertain me with,” Zoe said, lifting an eyebrow in her direction.

  Rusty laughed. “Boy, do I. I’ll tell you all about them sometime. For now, let’s get you settled in.”