Brighter than the sun, p.10
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       Brighter Than the Sun, p.10

         Part #11 of KGI series by Maya Banks
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  lightly applied in a natural look that highlighted her features in a way that even she had to admit made her feel . . . pretty.

  “Come on, I’ll walk you down,” Rusty said with a smile.

  Zoe shoved her feet into a pair of sparkly flip-flops, checking the fresh coat of toenail polish she and Rusty had applied just the previous night while Rusty had gotten the lowdown on her first date with Joe. Hot pink wasn’t a shade she would have usually gone for, but it made her feel a little daring and ultrafeminine.

  “You look gorgeous,” Rusty assured her.

  “I must be out of my mind,” Zoe murmured as she allowed Rusty to herd her down the stairs.

  “Honey, you know this. God knows I’ve said it enough times. But you can’t let that asshole control the rest of your life, and you damn sure can’t give him the power over your self-confidence. Can you imagine if it was me thinking and saying the things you are? You’d be all over me like a bad rash. Now stop overthinking everything and go have fun. It’s not a crime, you know.”

  Zoe’s head came up and with it a surge of realization. “You’re right. I’ve been letting him control me for too long. Enough is enough.”

  “Thata girl,” Rusty said approvingly. “Now have fun and we’ll dish about it later.”

  “Yeah, well, don’t forget that we’re going to dish about Sean too,” Zoe said in a warning tone.

  Rusty’s expression immediately soured. “Nothing to dish about except an obnoxiously arrogant male with his head stuck up his ass.”

  Zoe laughed. “Girl, you just described half of the male population.”

  “Only half?” Rusty asked innocently.

  Another peal of laughter rolled off Zoe’s lips just as they rounded the corner into the living room, and Joe immediately looked up. His eyes warmed with approval as his gaze raked up and down her. Her skin prickled and goose bumps rose and raced down her bare arms all the way to her fingertips.

  Heavens but the man was sex on a stick. Heat swamped her cheeks as mortification struck her. She was disgustingly transparent for the most part and she just prayed he missed that particular thought that had surely been reflected in her eyes.

  Judging by the way his expression hardened and his gaze smoldered and grew darker, she didn’t think he’d missed anything. Nor did it appear he had any objection to that train of thought either.

  Get it together, Zoe. Nothing can happen. Nothing will happen.

  She was reading far too much into what Rusty deemed southern hospitality. She’d been told over and over how warm and welcoming Rusty’s family was, and all she was seeing was evidence of that fact.

  “You ready?” Joe asked, his voice husky and gruff. “Ma packed us lunch again.”

  “Is it bad that as stuffed as I am from her pancakes, my stomach just growled in anticipation?”

  He chuckled. “You aren’t human if Ma’s cooking doesn’t have that effect on you.”

  He leaned over and kissed Rusty’s cheek and then pulled her into a quick hug. “I’ll have my cell if you or Ma needs anything. Have a good day, sweetheart.”

  “You take good care of her,” Rusty warned.

  Joe tangled his fingers with Zoe’s and pulled her to his side so that she settled beneath his shoulder. “Only the best,” he said sincerely.

  A soft smile curved Rusty’s mouth, and for a moment, Zoe thought she saw raw emotion reflected in the deep green of her eyes. Puzzled by the brief interaction, she glanced up at Joe only to see deep seriousness reflected in his gaze.

  He lifted the picnic basket with his free hand and then guided her to the door and then out to the waiting truck. Once he had her in the passenger seat, he walked around and stuck the picnic basket in back before sliding in behind the wheel.

  “I thought I might take you out in the boat and do a little fishing while it’s still cool out,” he said as they backed out of the driveway.

  “Really?” Zoe asked, excitement threading through her veins.

  He smiled at her, his eyes glowing with the warmth she’d grown accustomed to when he looked at her. “Yeah. Really. I have a smaller boat at my house but I also keep a larger platform boat docked at the marina. We use it when there’s a group of us and we go out swimming or to have a day in the sun. We can fish, swim or both. We don’t even have to leave the lake until this afternoon if that’s what you’d like. We can fish while it’s cool, take a break for lunch and then swim to cool off.”

  Her face fell. “I didn’t bring anything to swim in, though.”

  He flashed a triumphant grin. “I may have told Rusty to pack one of her bathing suits for you, and I wore my swim trunks under my jeans. Always pays to be prepared.”

  “I can’t change on a boat in the middle of the lake!”

  “There’s a changing curtain that boxes you in on all four sides,” he said, not losing his smile. “I’d never put you in a situation you weren’t comfortable with.”

  “Oh, okay then.”

  She was momentarily lost for words.

  “Well?” he prompted. “What’ll it be? Fishing then swimming, or you just want to fish and head back in?”

  “Uh, well, I’d like to swim. I mean, that is unless you don’t want to.”

  “And miss out on seeing you in a bathing suit?” he asked in mock horror.

  Her face flushed crimson. It had to be bright red, as hot as it was burning. She cursed the fact she was a redhead and had the fair skin to go with it. It meant she never got away with an embarrassing thought, and that those embarrassing thoughts were always prominently on display.

  “It’s nothing to write home about,” she mumbled as she glanced away.

  “You’re a beautiful woman, Zoe,” he said, all humor gone from his voice. She peeked at him from the corner of her eyes and saw that his face was a picture of absolute solemnity. “I don’t give a shit who told you different or that you believe the asshole, but you are gorgeous, and not just on the outside. You’re beautiful where it counts.”

  For a moment it was painful to breathe and she rapidly turned so he wouldn’t see the betraying evidence of her tears. If he only knew that she wasn’t beautiful inside or out. If he knew who and what she was, the filth she came from, he’d never look at her the same again.

  Her heart ached painfully and she closed her eyes as the pain intensified. Anger and betrayal burned like acid and left a foul taste in her mouth. Anger at the choices her father had made and the fact he hadn’t cared that his own daughter would be made to pay for them. And anger at her mother for simply leaving and not caring enough about the child she left behind.

  What was it about her that was so damned unlovable? Unworthy of love?

  When she finally risked looking back over at Joe, he was staring straight ahead, his jaw set tightly in a mask of anger. What had she done to piss him off? Damn it, for just one day could she at least pretend to be the person she’d become with Rusty’s help? Just once could she leave behind the mess that was her old life and live a few stolen moments as someone she wasn’t but wanted to be with her every breath?

  Knowing she’d already made a mess of the day and they were only just outside the compound, she forced away the taste of despair and made herself inquire lightly, “So what kind of fish are we fishing for? And do you eat what you catch or do you throw them back?”

  He reached for her hand before answering, the reassuring warmth and strength of his fingers as they laced through hers easing the tightness in her chest.

  “I fish for anything I can catch and I definitely eat them. In fact, if we manage to catch enough for a meal, I thought I could fry them up for you for dinner. I won’t even make you help clean them,” he teased.

  She couldn’t control the shudder at the thought of what cleaning fish entailed. She had a firm policy on never eating anything at a restaurant that wasn’t completely beheaded already so that no eyeballs stared lifelessly back at her.

  “Thanks,” she said dryly.

  He chuckled. “
As to what kind of fish we’ll try for today, I thought I’d start you out on something that’s not only easy but fun as hell. I’ll set you up with a Zebco rod and reel and a bobber and we’ll see if we can catch a bream or two. Nothing more fun than watching your cork start to bounce in the water right before it disappears. For such a small fish, they fight like hell. There’s nothing like it.”

  She wrinkled her nose in thought. “How small? If they’re so small, how can you eat them?”

  He smiled indulgently at her. “Leave the sizing to me. You’d be surprised what constitutes a keeper. And there’s no better eating. That I can guarantee. You haven’t lived until you’ve had a big ole fish fry with bream and hush puppies.”

  “Yum,” she said, smacking her lips appreciatively.

  “That’s what I’m thinking,” he murmured, his eyes on her mouth, giving her the distinct feeling he wasn’t referring to fish.

  She flushed again, this time a buzz of pleasure heating her cheeks. His mouth was beautiful, and she wondered how it would feel against hers. Whether he’d be a demanding, passionate kisser or a man who’d be content to let her lead. God, she hoped for the former because something as delicious as surely his kisses would be shouldn’t be left up to her guidance.

  Whoa. She needed to back the heck up and stop with that line of thought. She was getting so far ahead of herself even thinking about him kissing her. He was being friendly. Hospitable. And it was obvious he felt sorry for her. Ouch. That was one way to douse the heady euphoria that had enveloped her the moment she’d begun fantasizing about him kissing her.

  Besides, it would only complicate matters, and complicated was the very last thing she needed right now. Especially since she couldn’t stay here indefinitely. Or even for much longer. She was becoming complacent. Already the fact that Sebastian hadn’t just used her but had planned to kill her was growing dimmer in her memory. How screwed up was that? She needed to wake the hell up and stop fantasizing or she’d not only get herself killed but endanger a lot of innocent people as well.

  “Give a mint to know what you’re thinking right now.”

  His statement brought her focus sharply back and she saw that his eyes were narrowed and his lips a tight line as he stared intently at her. Crap. She had to quit being a freaking open book when it came to every single thought process she had.

  “Was just thinking about how many more fish I’m going to catch today than you,” she said lightly.

  “Mmm-hmm,” he said, clearly not believing her. But he let it drop. Thankfully.

  A few minutes later, they pulled into the marina across the lake from where the compound was located, and she stared at the cozy inlet that housed so many boats. It had the beginnings of an absolutely perfect day. The water was calm and serene and a vibrant, deep blue that had her sighing with delight.

  “Liking that sound a lot better, so whatever you’re thinking now, keep thinking and stop dwelling on that other shit,” he said firmly.

  Her eyes widened in surprise at how adeptly he read her body language even when her face wasn’t a direct reflection of her thoughts. But then considering what he and his brothers did and the fact that Rusty had warned her of their ability to read any situation, it shouldn’t shock her that he seemed so in tune with her chaotic mind.

  He chose a parking spot and then hopped out, reaching back for the basket and a cooler she hadn’t seen until now. Then he walked around before she could clamor out and held up his bended arm for her to hold on to as she slid down from his truck.

  “Ready to go put the whooping on a mess of unsuspecting bream?” he asked, his eyes gleaming with amusement.

  “Ready to get your ass kicked by a girl again?” she challenged in her sassiest tone.

  He threw back his head and laughed. Then to her surprise he dropped a kiss on her upturned forehead. “Yep. And I plan to enjoy every minute of it.”

  CHAPTER 14

  “MY cork bobbed!” Zoe shrieked, nearly dropping the rod and reel she had a death grip on.

  Joe smiled as the bobber went crazy over the surface of the water and then suddenly disappeared from view. “Now!” he shouted. “Pull up, but not too hard. Set the hook just like I taught you.”

  She yanked entirely too hard but thankfully the hook was firmly set, because all she got for her efforts was resistance. Her eyes danced with excitement as she began to frantically reel. Her brow furrowed and she bit into her bottom lip in concentration as she fought the bowed rod.

  “That’s it. Reel slowly. Not too fast. Get him into the boat.”

  Suddenly the fish broke free of the surface and dangled haphazardly as the line swung in crazy circles. Joe reached out to snag the line and then brought the fish inside the boat so he could take out the hook.

  Zoe stood over him, a frown dimming her earlier enthusiasm. “That’s it?” she asked skeptically. “He felt so much bigger! We’re supposed to eat that?”

  He laughed at her bemusement and then held up the freed fish for her inspection. “That’s a very nice size catch,” he pointed out. “Larger than average. Definitely a keeper.”

  “Seriously? You’re not putting me on?” she asked as he opened the live well and tossed the fish inside.

  “Nope,” he returned. “You catch us a few more like that and supper is guaranteed.”

  “Oh. They just seem so . . . small.”

  “Sometimes the best things in life come in small packages,” he said, allowing his gaze to drift meaningfully over her sun-kissed body.

  She flushed but pleasure shone in her eyes. “Think I’ll catch another one in the same spot or should I fish somewhere else?”

  “Oh hell no. Throw your bait right back where you had it. Where there’s one, there’s usually at least a dozen.”

  “What about you?” she asked, staring back at him as he perched on one of the seats to watch her.

  “I’m having a good time right where I am. No better view on the lake,” he said lazily.

  She snorted. “You’re so full of it, Joe Kelly.”

  He grinned. “Nothing but the truth, ma’am. My mama taught me never to lie.”

  At that, her expression sobered and she turned quickly around as she cast her line in the general vicinity of where she’d just caught the first fish. Joe shook his head, impatience flaring. She was no closer to opening up to him and trusting him than she had been the first time they’d met. In fact, if anything, it seemed that she’d only tightened her reserve around him as if she’d firmed her resolve not to let anyone in. Had she confided nothing in Rusty or was Rusty as clueless as the rest of them were? More and more he wondered if his sister had been telling him everything when she’d related what Zoe supposedly told her about her ex-boyfriend screwing her over. But even if Rusty did, he couldn’t ask her to betray Zoe’s confidence. Not when it would likely send her running as fast and as far in the opposite direction as possible.

  Frustration beat at him. At a time when he should feel as if he had all the time in the world to explore a relationship with a woman he could very well see forever with, instead he felt as if he were working against the clock and time was fast running out. He couldn’t explain the persistent edge of panic that assailed him. Just that it was eating a hole in his gut and if he didn’t make his move fast, he could lose her. However, if he made his move too fast or came on too strong, he lost her anyway.

  Hell of a position to be in.

  Suddenly all the times he’d given his brothers so much shit over their women came to mind and he grimaced. If they had felt even half of his fear and frustration when he was busy giving them shit, he was surprised they hadn’t beat his ass on the spot. He would have deserved it. He had a bad feeling he was going to owe one hell of a round of apologies before it was all over with. But he could eat humble pie with the best of them as long as it meant coming home to Zoe every night.

  “Joe!” she cried as she grappled with her pole. “I’ve got another one! Oh my God, you were right! There’s more!


  This time when he unhooked the fish, Zoe was staring at him, her eyes glowing with pleasure and excitement and with such a rapt expression that he had to physically control the urge to kiss her senseless and keep on kissing her until fishing was all but forgotten.

  Her lips were moist from her repeatedly running her tongue over them in abject concentration. Even now, her tongue darted out frequently in an endearing nervous gesture. He was having some serious fantasies about what she tasted like and doing his own exploration of her lips, nibbling over every delicious inch. God knew she smelled good enough to eat. When, not if, he got his mouth on her, he might spend the better part of a week just tasting her delectable skin from the top of her mussed hair right down to those dainty, feminine, hot pink–painted toenails.

  “Joe?”

  Shit. She’d totally caught him out with his head in the clouds. Or rather with his mind solidly focused on her and those groan-worthy fantasies he was torturing himself with.

  “Yeah, honey?” he asked absentmindedly as he continued to watch her work her lower lip with her teeth. He focused on baiting her hook again, praying his thoughts weren’t as transparent as they felt.

  He had to shift position because his balls were aching and throbbing like a son of a bitch and his dick had already pushed past the opening in his swim trunks and was pressed so tightly against his zipper that the marks were going to be a permanent tattoo.

  “Is this one a keeper too?” she asked.

  He smiled at her anxious question. “Yeah, honey. It’s definitely a keeper too.”

  Just like you are.

  He damn near said the last aloud and clamped his lips shut to prevent his thought from escaping.

  She clapped her hands together in satisfaction. “How many more do we need?”

  “We fish until you get tired of catching them or they stop biting,” he said in amusement. “The more we catch just means the more people I have to invite over for a fish fry.” Then he paused and pretended to give the matter great consideration. “On second thought, let’s quit at a dozen. That way I don’t have to invite anyone over and I’ll have you all to myself for dinner. I’ll be a gentleman and wait until I drop you back by Ma’s this evening to clean them so you don’t have to help. Then I’ll head home, clean and ice down the fish and I’ll fry them up for you for dinner tomorrow night. How does that sound?”

  She had a complete deer-in-headlights look going on. Her eyes were wide and panicked, but more than that, her mouth was open in apparent shock that he’d invited her to spend time with him again. Anger stirred within him, making him restless and edgy. Why the hell it should surprise her that he—or any man—would be interested was beyond him. She had to see her own beauty and appeal. But that was just it. She didn’t. She didn’t see what he and everyone else saw. Her vision of herself in the mirror was flawed. Marred by some selfish, unthinking dickhead’s perception of her, and worse, he’d apparently taken every opportunity to knock her down a few notches. To remind her just what he thought about her and to make her feel like less of a woman and more insecure.

  He wanted . . . Hell, Joe had no idea what the asshole wanted. What more could he have wanted when he had Zoe? She had been his. Though the idea left a bad taste in his mouth, he had to accept that she had once belonged to a bastard who hadn’t appreciated her, hadn’t realized what a treasure he had. But that didn’t mean that Joe wouldn’t now move heaven and earth to make her realize that he would never make the same mistakes her ex had. He’d never squander the beautiful gift she’d once given another man. Herself. If he were blessed enough for her to ever entrust herself to his care, he’d never give her a single reason to doubt him or the fact that he’d spend every single day showing her just how fortunate he believed himself to be.

  He roused himself from his dour thoughts and regarded her solemn features. “Is that a no?” he teased lightly, bringing the topic back to his dinner invitation. “Or is it that you’re just dying to help me clean the fish and would prefer we do that together?”

  She shot him a startled look over her shoulder and then a giggle escaped her.

  “Zoe! You’ve got one on!”

  She nearly dropped her pole as she scrambled back around, her feet tangling as she sought purchase. She yanked upward on the rod and let out a sound of jubilation when the tip bowed and the cork disappeared even farther from view.

  “I’ve got it!” she yelled. “Holy crap, Joe. This one must be huge!”

  He moved quickly behind her and pressed his chest against her back, reaching around her to steady the pole. “Like this,” he murmured close to her ear. “Hold the tip upward at all times. Don’t let him have any slack. As you pull up, reel in every bit of slack. Keep the line tight at all times.”

  He rested his hands over hers, guiding her movements as the pole wiggled and danced against her palms. He inhaled the sweet scent of her hair and wrinkled his nose when the wind blew soft strands over his nostrils, tickling them slightly.

  She felt warm and so very soft in his arms. Like she belonged. Like it was where she’d always belonged. Though she was concentrating fiercely on reeling her fish in, he could see that she was very aware of his close proximity. Her tongue darted over her lower lip and then her teeth sank into it as if to steady her nerves. Or perhaps disguise her reaction. He smiled to himself. He hoped like hell she wasn’t immune and that he wasn’t flying solo here. It would suck if his attraction wasn’t returned, but that clearly wasn’t the case. She may not want to feel the sexual tension between them but it was there, acknowledged by them both.

  His hand cupped over hers, he helped her reel in enough line that the fish came sliding free of the surface of the water and he reluctantly let her go so he could retrieve her catch. He snagged the line and then expertly slipped the hook
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