Brighter Than the Sun, Page 2Maya Banks
The sound of a door opening and Rusty’s sudden joyous smile made Zoe turn in the direction of the front door. An older woman rushed out and Rusty dropped the suitcases on the ground and ran into the woman’s arms. Zoe had never seen Rusty so excited before.
“My baby’s home!” the woman she assumed was Marlene said as she enfolded Rusty in a fierce embrace.
A second later, an older gentleman also appeared and Rusty rushed into his massive embrace just as she’d done with Marlene.
“Glad to have you home again, girl,” the man said gruffly.
Zoe couldn’t control the surge of longing or the sudden tears that burned her eyelids. It was obvious these two people loved Rusty every bit as much as she loved them. What must it feel like to have such unconditional, abiding love? She suddenly felt completely alone and unworthy, casting her gaze downward, no longer able to take in the sight of all the things she’d longed for—and had been without—her entire life.
“Mom, Pop, I told you about my friend who’s come to stay with me for a while,” Rusty said, heading back toward Zoe to grab her hand. “This is Zoe Kildare.”
She pulled her toward the older couple, and Zoe was surprised to see the sincere, welcoming smile on Marlene’s face and the instant affectionate expression on Frank’s.
“It’s wonderful to meet you, dear,” Marlene said, shocking Zoe by pulling her into a hug every bit as fierce as the one she’d given Rusty.
For a moment Zoe held on, drowning in the sensation of what a mother’s hug must feel like. God, she never wanted to let go. Almost as if sensing her need, Marlene tightened her arms around her and simply held her for a long moment. Then she stepped back and Zoe was at once swallowed up by Frank’s huge arms as she was pressed against the barrel-chested older man.
“Any friend of Rusty’s is considered family,” he said in the gruff tone Zoe had already come to associate with Rusty’s adoptive father. “Stay as long as you like. Marlene will be thrilled to have another person to fuss over.”
Rusty sent her a smug “I told you so” look while Zoe could only stand there in utter befuddlement, unsure of how to react to their unreserved welcome.
Marlene grabbed her hand as Frank went to gather the bags. “Come inside, dear. You must be hungry and thirsty after your drive.”
“Just go with it,” Rusty whispered as she and Marlene passed them. “Marlene feeds everyone, and trust me, you’ve never tasted anything as good as her cooking.”
Rusty led her up the staircase to a bedroom at the far end and the two women entered.
“This was the only modification to the original house,” Rusty said with a soft smile. “Originally there were seven bedrooms, the master and then one for each of my brothers growing up. When I came along, only Nathan and Joe were still living at home, though they were rarely here because they enlisted in the army. They saw little point in buying their own place when they were only home on leave for short periods of time, so they stayed here. When I came along, Marlene just gave me one of my brothers’ old rooms, but when they had the house reconstructed, she insisted on giving me my own bedroom even though there are now six unoccupied bedrooms in the house.”
Zoe looked at her in confusion and Rusty laughed.
“I know, right? As I said, Joe is the only unmarried son left but he lives in my oldest brother’s former home on the lake outside the compound. Everyone else has their own homes with their wives and children, but Marlene was adamant that everything stayed the same, everyone had their old bedrooms, right down to the way they’d been decorated with old trophies, awards, memorabilia, et cetera. It’s kind of cool when you think about it. She said she always wanted a place for everyone to come ‘home’ to and gather for holidays and remember old times and happy memories. It was very important to her. And, well, I can’t say I blame her. All her children have left the nest, and this is her way of holding on and keeping the family together and those memories alive. She wants her grandchildren to see where their fathers grew up, show them pictures and the things that belonged to their dads when they were younger. I guess you could say this house is a tangible link to the family history.”
“I think that’s beautiful,” Zoe said, trying to disguise the ache in her voice.
“And,” Rusty said, drawing out the word, “you’re bunking with me. Not because there’s a shortage of rooms, mind you.”
The two burst into laughter before Rusty recovered and continued on.
“But because I want to be close to you at night.” Her tone sobered as did her expression. “You’ve had a hell of a scare, girlfriend, and you haven’t even had time to deal with it much less process it. I need to be close so that if you have nightmares or wake up screaming, Marlene and Frank won’t be alerted and we won’t have to lie our way out of a sticky situation. I realize I’m lying by omission to them, and I hate the idea of lying to them at all. I’d never betray their trust after all they’ve given me.”
Very real pain shone in Rusty’s eyes, mixed with shadows from the past, and Zoe immediately felt a surge of guilt for what she was making her friend do. They were both lying to Rusty’s adoptive parents and it made her feel like complete scum.
“Hey, don’t look like that,” Rusty said. “Sometimes we have to do things we don’t agree with or like, and in this case, I’m okay with that. Besides, they’d never be angry with me in a situation like this. I’m not lying to them out of malice or to get out of something I’ve done or a failure to take responsibility. I’m doing this to save my friend’s life, and quite frankly, they’d be completely disappointed in me if I turned my back on you and refused to help you or just looked the other way. That’s not who they are. Any of my family. Frank and Marlene have always taught their children and everyone they’ve adopted into the fold to step up, do the right thing and be selfless. It’s safe to say that they managed to successfully instill those values into every single one of their children, whether blood-related or not. It may have just taken me a little longer to grasp the concept than the others,” she added ruefully.
“Knock knock,” Frank called out from the hall. “I’ve got your bags. If you’ll tell me where you want them, I’ll get you all squared away.”
Rusty hurried to the door and swung it open and Zoe noticed already that any time Rusty so much as looked at her parents, her expression immediately softened into one of love and warmth.
“Thanks, Pop. You can just set them down here,” she said, gesturing to the wall just inside the door. “We’ll unpack later after we face-plant onto the bed for an hour to rest up. I swear the drive from Knoxville gets longer and longer each time I make it.”
Frank kissed Rusty’s forehead. “That’s why you need to establish your career closer to home. It’s not the same without you here, and your mother and I miss you. Would be nice to be able to see you more often and even better if when you marry and have children, you’re right here with all our other grandchildren so we can spoil them rotten.”
Zoe stifled her laughter at Rusty’s immediate deer-in-the-headlights look at Frank’s mention of marriage and children.
Frank turned to go. “I’ll let you girls get unpacked. Again, it’s nice to have you, Zoe, and if you need anything at all, you just let me or Marlene know and we’ll fix you right up.”
He had nearly disappeared from view when he suddenly turned back.
“Oh, I forgot to mention. Your mother wanted me to tell you that dinner will be ready shortly, so I’d put a rush on it.”
JOE leaned back against one of the desks in the war room and surveyed the loosely scattered teams, including the two new recruits, Ryker Sinclair and Allie Jacobs. Ryker had joined Joe and Nathan’s team, a fact that made the twin brothers extremely happy. Ryker had served in the army with them, and Joe and Nathan both trusted him with their lives—and those of their other teammates, Swanny, Edge and Skylar.
Allie had been a surprise to say the least. She was an explosive fireball in a very s
mall package. The look on Rio’s face alone when he’d been introduced to his potential new team member had been worth the price of admission. Less than an hour later, after she had put not only Rio but Terrence—Rio’s right-hand man and a giant of a bear—on their asses, Rio’s skepticism had turned to respect in a nanosecond. And after her prowess at the shooting range and a demonstration of her ability to quickly and efficiently defuse explosive devices, everyone in KGI had been convinced that she was a superior recruit and grateful they’d snatched her up before another agency had.
All the elements of an awesome find were there, but there was some question as to whether she would be a match personality wise. Allie was stiff and seemed uncomfortable around the easy camaraderie of the KGI team members, but everyone was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. It could be that she was simply nervous and ill at ease in her new surroundings.
Sam, his oldest brother and founder of KGI, looked at his watch with clear confusion.
“Anyone hear from Steele? Not like him to be late for a meeting.”
The others appeared as surprised as Sam. Members of Steele’s team shifted but remained silent, but concern clearly shone in Dolphin’s eyes.
“What if something happened to him?” He asked the question most prevalent in all their minds.
In response, Sam picked up his cell and punched a button just as the door to the war room slid open and everyone turned to see Steele standing there, eyes glazed, appearing as though he didn’t have one clue where he was or who he was.
“I was about to inform you worrywarts that Steele passed the security gate sixty-two seconds ago,” Donovan, the resident tech guru, said dryly.
Joe’s eyes narrowed when Steele continued to stand there, eyes fixed, seemingly unaware of anyone else’s presence.
“Hey, man, are you okay?” Joe asked.
P.J. Coletrane stepped forward and put her hand on Steele’s arm. “Hey, what’s up, Steele?”
Cole moved behind his wife, P.J., also holding out a hand toward Steele as if afraid his team leader was going to face-plant right then and there.
“Maren’s pregnant again,” he said in a dazed tone.
The room erupted into hoots and congratulations, and a round of back slapping knocked Steele back and forth between the many members of KGI as he drunkenly attempted to maintain his balance.
“Holy fuck,” Steele breathed when the hoopla died down. “She’s pregnant. Again.”
Everyone laughed, but Steele’s expression was one of complete seriousness and . . . fear. He rubbed his hand over his face as the others exchanged amused glances. Before Maren, Steele’s nickname had been the Ice Man. Unemotional. Antisocial. Living only for his job and his team. Terse and not overly communicative in the least. He was more of an “actions speak louder than words” guy. Not an unappreciated quality in their organization.
“Hey, she’s tough,” Garrett, Joe’s second-oldest brother, said in an effort to console the befuddled team leader. “After all she’s survived, kicking ass while doing so, giving birth again will be a walk in the park.”
“I don’t think I’ll survive another pregnancy,” Steele burst out, the crazed look in his eyes intensifying.
Another round of laughter sounded but he was given looks of sympathy and understanding from the fathers in the room. And Jesus, but it had become a regular baby factory in the ranks of KGI. Joe sent his twin, Nathan, a nervous look, and Nathan, who would normally give him shit about being the last remaining bachelor and their mother setting her sights on him, shot him back an equally queasy look.
“Trust me, it doesn’t get better after you’re married,” Nathan muttered. “I thought that would get Ma off my back and permanently onto yours until you succumbed and found ‘the one,’ but now she’s dropping hints about when Shea and I will provide her with a grandchild. Geez. She already has nine by blood or adoptive family bond. I thought she’d lay off by the fifth at least!”
Joe gave his brother a disgruntled look. “Great. So you’re telling me that in addition to Ma hounding me day and night about finding some nice young woman to marry, that once that happens, and I’m not saying it’s going to occur anytime soon, she’ll just move on to filling a fucking nursery?”
Some of his horror must have been reflected on his face because his twin laughed until he started wheezing. “Yeah, that’s about the way it goes.”
“And obviously it doesn’t end after one either,” Joe pointed out. “She was on Sam and Sophie to have another. She’s already hinting about Sarah having another baby, and Kelsey is barely over a year old! Poor Sam and Sophie are probably hearing about baby number three now that Grant is fourteen months old.”
“Oh, I don’t feel sorry for Sam,” Nathan said wryly. “Sophie gets my sympathy because there’s nothing Sam would love more than for her to spend the next several years popping out babies. He and Ma probably coordinate their offensive and tag-team the poor woman.”
“Maybe the news of Maren’s pregnancy will appease Ma and distract her for a few months at least,” he replied sarcastically.
Nathan scoffed. “As if!”
They tuned back in to the goings-on in the room just in time to see Steele slump into a chair that another team member, Renshaw, had hastily pulled forward and positioned near his team leader.
“She went through so fucking much during her first pregnancy,” Steele said raggedly. “Kidnapped, intimidated, manipulated, controlled, living in fear for our child’s life every single day of her captivity. She constantly feared the son of a bitch would rape her. She didn’t eat or drink properly because she feared he would harm our baby. Then she damn near falls to her death from a helicopter and miraculously survives the ensuing helicopter crash. Then there’s the fact she had me hovering over her twenty-four-seven after all of that because I was scared shitless if she was out of my sight for even a minute I’d lose her all over again. And the delivery. Jesus, the delivery took forever! She was in so much pain, and now she’s going to go through it all over again? What if something happens to her or our child? I wouldn’t survive it. She’s my life.”
The entire room was rendered incapable of speech and all stood staring agape at the team leader who’d often been deemed more robot than man. He’d said more in the last few minutes than he’d spoken in nearly the entirety of his leadership of one of the KGI teams.
“And you wonder why I avoid the fine institution of marriage,” Joe drawled in a low voice. “Look at him. He’s a fucking basket case and that man never loses his shit. Ever. Except when it has anything to do with Maren or Olivia. Who the hell would willingly sign up for a lifetime of constant worry, stress and anxiety?”
Nathan gave his brother a look that immediately made him feel inadequate, ignorant and, if he were completely honest, envious as hell.
“Because I can’t imagine my life any other way,” his brother replied simply. “The knowledge that Shea is mine, that she loves me and that I love her more than life? Well, it makes every worry, every fear, every paralyzing moment of terror worth it. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a single thing. I’d go back to hell and be tortured by those sadistic sons of bitches, because if not for that, I wouldn’t have Shea now.”
Joe went silent at his brother’s quiet, impassioned vow. He had seen Nathan at his very lowest point and at his very highest. Shea had brought him back. Had given Joe back something priceless. His twin, that bond stronger than ever now, especially since the very special telepathic bond Nathan and his wife shared extended to Joe. It had startled the hell out of both Joe and Shea, but now he wouldn’t have it any other way. It made him feel all the more close to his brother when otherwise he would have felt left behind, excluded from something so very precious and life changing. It comforted him to know that Shea could reach out to him if she or his brother were ever in danger or needed help.
“Maren’s going to be fine,” Ethan spoke up. “That woman is a fighter. All our women are fighters. Yo
u said it yourself. She’s already survived the worst. Enjoy it, man. It only gets sweeter and sweeter from here on out. You can’t dwell on the past or it’ll eat you alive. Take it from someone who knows.”
Steele looked up at Joe’s brother, Ethan, understanding instantly flashing, his expression sobering at the remembrance of what he and his wife, particularly Rachel, had endured and where they were now. Stronger than ever. Rachel was a survivor. A fucking fierce survivor who’d refused to quit. Joe had never admired anyone in his life as much as he did his two sisters-in-law, Rachel and Shea. Both had endured the unimaginable for his brothers.
Steele’s expression was pained when he glanced back up at Ethan. Another uncharacteristic display of his usually locked-down emotions. “God, I sound like such an asshole.”
Ethan smiled. “No. We all need to be reminded how blessed we are and not to drive ourselves crazy with worrying about what might happen, or with mistakes or things we have no control over.”
Sam cleared his throat. “If the morning meltdown is over, perhaps we can get to business?”
Steele shot him a glower but seemed relieved to have the attention diverted from him.
“Do carry on, oh lord and master,” Donovan drawled irreverently. “I have a date with my wife and kids that I’d like to embark on before, say, next week.”
Yep, business as usual once more. A sigh of relief seemed to settle over the room. Blowing shit up, bringing down the bad guys, being shot at, none of that was as uncomfortable as witnessing emotional meltdowns from men and women who made their living being ultimate badasses.
“As most of you know, or at least those who’ve bothered to pay attention,” Sam said, making another amused dig at certain members of his teams, “we’ve hired two new recruits. Everyone’s met Ryker Sinclair, Eden’s brother, and Hancock’s, as well.”
A collective good-natured groan sounded at the name of their once archnemesis, who like Steele had done an abrupt about-face and gone from a cold, emotionless machine whose sole objective was to accomplish the mission however it had to be done to a man who lost his damn mind if his new wife so much as stubbed her toe.
And this is what Joe’s mother and sisters-in-law wanted for him? On that, he’d take a rain check. A very extended rain check that he was in no hurry to cash in. He liked his sane life just as it was. Sane. Thank you very much.
“He’ll be joining Skylar, Edge, Swanny, the team headed by Nathan and Joe.”
Ryker cracked a grin. “Swanny, you should know that my sister has threatened to kick my ass unless I watch over her beloved husband and make sure he doesn’t ever come home with any missing body parts.”
Swanny rolled his eyes. “Yeah, well you got off light. She’s told me in exacting detail what happens to me if her precious brother so much as gets a scratch. Pussy boy.”
Allie scowled, scrunching her features into a ferocious expression of disapproval.
“Are any of you ever serious or did I sign on with a circus act? I thought this job was about being a well-oiled machine, training at the highest level and taking on missions that changed the lives of others for good.”
More than one look of surprise was cast her way, but Rio just smirked, as did the rest of his team.
“Told you she’d fit right into you bunch of antisocial grouches,” Sam said with no heat.
At that Allie’s expression became even more outraged. Given the fact she’d already taken down half their asses in hand-to-hand, those closest to her warily backed off and eyed her cautiously.
“They’re just shitting you, Allie,” Skylar soothed, though Joe could tell Allie’s remarks had annoyed her. “We can’t be serious all the time or this job would eat us alive. I think you’ll find that our sense of humor, or the lack thereof in a few select cases, in no way affects our ability to kick some serious ass when it’s called for.”
“Hooyah!” Ethan and Cole crowed simultaneously.
“I’m sorry if you took offense at our blowing off some steam,” Donovan said seriously. “But what Sky said is true. When we face death on every mission we take, we learn to live for the moment and not dwell on the what-ifs. We know that every time we leave our wives, husbands or loved ones, it might be the last time we ever see them. Everyone deals with the pressure in their own way and we try not to judge unless it’s completely out of line. Most of us have been together for a long time and we’ve seen one another through shit that would destroy others or make them hang it up and simply walk away. We chose you because you’re the best new recruit we’ve ever hired, with skills we not only need but that will make us even better as a team. Nothing in this organization is about one person. To borrow a phrase you’ll hear often around here, we live and die by the team. And that means that not one of us is out for him or herself. So I hope we haven’t given you the wrong impression. We certainly meant you no disrespect, and I do hope you’ll choose to remain on our side.”
“Yeah, please do,” Garrett grumbled. “You’d kick our asses if you were pitted against us.”
For a brief second, Allie actually smiled. Wow, and her face didn’t even crack. Damn, but when she wasn’t so fucking serious and wearing that pinched-ass expression, she was one beautiful woman. Straight midnight black hair, creamy skin and beautiful eyes, part of her Asian heritage. When she smiled, it was as though her entire face transformed, and Joe wasn’t the only one affected. Others were similarly stunned as they stared back at their newest female warrior. Maybe there was hope for her yet. She was going to have to loosen up quick, or this job would eat her alive and spit her back out.
“Sorry,” she said sincerely. “Let’s just say my last teammates weren’t exactly an ideal set of people to work with. They talked too fucking much about shit they had no business talking about. If they’d talked less and actually did their fucking jobs, I wouldn’t have gone down on my last job with them and then been forced to take an extended leave of absence that resulted in me never returning.”
“That’s just fucked-up,” Terrence growled.
P.J. stepped forward and put her hand on Allie’s arm, a surprising gesture since P.J. wasn’t exactly known for being the warm and fuzzy type.
“Trust me, Allie. There are no better people to have at your six. I should know. They’ll talk shit, yeah, but they will always have your back, and that you can trust if you trust nothing else.”
Allie blinked at her ferocity but then studied the set of her jaw and gave a clipped nod that told Joe she was reserving judgment.
“I’ll keep this short and sweet since we’re long past short and sweet,” Sam muttered. “Steele, I’d like you and your team to hang around base for a couple of weeks to assist with training the new recruits. Both Rio’s team and Nathan and Joe’s team will be conducting all training exercises here, and we can split off by specialty and get in one-on-one time in addition to team drills.”
“We don’t often get this much time off between assignments,” Garrett said, picking up where Sam left off. “And I plan to keep enjoying my time with my wife and daughter as long as the calm lasts. To that end, we’ll be reporting for training four hours in the mornings Monday through Friday, or at least until things go to shit and we get called out.”
“Anyone ever tell you what an optimist you are?” Nathan grumbled.