Brighter than the sun, p.11
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       Brighter Than the Sun, p.11

         Part #11 of KGI series by Maya Banks
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  from the fish’s mouth.

  “Yep. You were right, Zoe. This is a huge one. One of the biggest I’ve ever seen, for sure.”

  “Really?”

  Her eyes danced with delight and she wiggled in her excitement, causing his smile to grow even more affectionate. Lord but she made it easy for someone to love her. How could anyone not?

  “I’m definitely taking pics of this one before he gets cleaned, and I plan to measure and weigh him too. Who knows? Maybe you caught a record breaker.”

  And he didn’t think it was possible for her smile to get any bigger or for her to light up any more than she already was. He busied himself dropping the fish in with the others and then he turned back to her.

  “Well, Zoe, what’s it going to be? Fish fry for the entire family or dinner for two tomorrow night at my place? At the rate you’re catching them, you’ll have a dozen in the boat in no time flat.”

  She flushed and ducked her head in embarrassment but her lips twitched upward in a smile. “Well, I’d hate for you to be up late cleaning more than a dozen,” she said.

  He chuckled. “That’s generous of you, sweetheart. All right then. Three down and nine to go. You ready to go again?”

  She wrinkled her nose as he put a cricket on the hook and was careful to keep her bobber plenty distant from her body as she swung it out over the water.

  “I thought people fished with worms and such. I’ve never heard of using crickets. Not that I’d want to touch a worm either,” she said in distaste. “I’m not sure which is worse. Slimy or creepy, crawly legs.” She shuddered. “How come you got the raw end of this deal anyway? I get the fun of catching them all while you get stuck baiting the hook, taking the fish off the line and cleaning them afterward.”

  “I assure you that at no time have I gotten a raw deal,” he drawled, a smile twisting his lips. “In fact, if putting a few creepy-crawlies on a hook, taking a few slimy fish off a hook and cleaning them afterward is the price I have to pay for an afternoon with a fun, cute-as-hell woman who’s made me laugh more than I’ve laughed in longer than I can remember, then sign me up for more.”

  This time she didn’t look away nor did she seem to deny that anyone would think any such thing. She looked at him with honest bemusement as if she couldn’t quite figure out his angle.

  He took a step closer to her as he guided her line toward the spot where she’d caught the first several fish. He stopped just inches from touching her and stared down into her eyes.

  “I’m not hard to figure out, Zoe,” he murmured. “No games. I’m not the flirting type. If I don’t mean it, I don’t say it. And I never feel obligated to say shit I don’t really mean just to make someone else feel better. I think it’s best if we get that out of the way right now. You with me?”

  She swallowed, her throat working up and down as she slowly nodded. Her gaze was full of wonder as she continued to stare back up at him, as if processing his solemn statement and measuring its sincerity.

  “Yeah,” she finally whispered. “I think so.”

  “Then you might want to catch that fish that’s messing with your line,” he said in amusement.

  She whirled around just in time to see her bobber plunge under for the fourth time, and she hauled upward on the pole with both hands, letting out a peal of infectious laughter.

  “I’m so fucked,” Joe whispered to himself. “And the hell of it is, I’m loving every fucking minute of it.”

  CHAPTER 15

  ZOE stretched lazily and yawned as the sun beat down over her, warming her muscles to the bone. She could so take a nap. She was tired in the best kind of I’ve-never-had-so-much-fun-in-my-life way, and the sun’s rays weren’t making it any easier to beat back the lethargy that had taken hold of her the minute she’d changed into the swimsuit Joe had borrowed from Rusty.

  She’d been horrified when she’d figured out that the suit Rusty had given Joe was a two-piece bikini, and not a particularly modest one either. She’d kept a towel wrapped firmly around her until finally she’d picked out a place to sun herself. Only when she realized she needed the towel to lie on did she finally allow it to fall from her body as she scrambled to get down as quickly as possible.

  Thankfully Joe had given her privacy, busying himself with something else, so he hadn’t been witness to the debacle of her in a bikini.

  Now that he was done though, it might be a better idea to roll onto her stomach so her boobs weren’t falling out of her top. As soon as she’d settled back down on her stomach, she sighed as the heat slid languidly over her back.

  She startled when Joe’s hand came down on her bare back, and she rose, turning her head to look over her shoulder.

  “Sorry to disturb you,” he said. “But I don’t want you to burn so I’m going to rub sunblock on your back. Just relax and go back to what you were doing. You won’t even know I’m here.”

  She nearly snorted. On what planet would she not know he was there or that his hands would be sliding over her bare skin?

  “I can do it,” she said uneasily, trying to push herself up.

  He put gentle pressure on her back, pushing her back down. “Unless you’re an octopus or are extremely flexible, I don’t see how you’re going to get parts of your back. Besides, I’ll need someone to do my back when I’m done with yours.”

  He said it so innocently, as if it were no big deal whatsoever for them to be rubbing sunblock all over each other. And maybe it wasn’t to him, which meant she was just making a huge fool of herself.

  With a sigh, she settled back down and closed her eyes. A few seconds later, she nearly moaned aloud when both of his palms pressed down over her skin and he began rubbing in tight, circular patterns. It had to be a crime for a man’s hands to feel this good. Everywhere he touched lit up beneath his fingers as if begging and aching for more.

  She was about to fidget right out of her skin and she had to bite hard into her lips to prevent sounds of pleasure from escaping her throat. This was torture. Absolute, magnificent, the most amazing torture ever concocted in the history of mankind. Thank God he wasn’t asking her any questions because she’d do or say just about anything as long as he didn’t stop.

  He didn’t appear to be in a rush, a fact she was thankful for. She closed her eyes as his hands caressed every inch of exposed skin from the sensitive skin at her nape to the soles of her feet and all parts in between.

  When his fingertips massaged perilously close to the globes of her buttocks, she found herself holding her breath until spots appeared in her vision. But he continued with featherlight strokes, merely tracing the boundaries of the bikini bottom and tantalizing her mercilessly with one thought: What if that bottom weren’t there?

  She was nearing unconsciousness when he finally halted, and this time her moan of displeasure couldn’t be held back. He chuckled softly above her but it penetrated the thick fog surrounding her as more of a whisper than a true laugh. Then she felt something else press against her shoulder. Something that felt like his . . . lips? Now she was just hallucinating. There was only so much orgasmic bliss a girl could take, after all.

  “You just lie there, sweetheart. I’ll put my shirt on so you don’t have to worry about doing me.”

  “Mmmkay,” she said dreamily.

  Again his amused chuckle penetrated her semiconscious state, but she just smiled and drifted away on a cloud of euphoria. She could swear his fingers then sifted through the stray strands of her hair that had come undone from the messy bun, but she couldn’t be bothered to open her eyes to investigate. Besides, as far as fantasies went, this one was pretty damn awesome and she had no desire for it to end anytime soon.

  “I wonder if you even know how very beautiful you are,” Joe whispered, his voice seemingly miles away.

  Now she knew she was definitely asleep and dreaming. For once it was nice to dream about something other than fear and humiliation or to wake with her heart pounding, sweat drenching her hair.

 
; “Never had a better dream,” she murmured through unmoving lips. “Are you going to go away when I wake up?”

  She heard soft laughter and then a voice that was anything but light and teasing. It was contradictory to the entire setting of the dream. It was firm and filled with gentle yet implacable resolve and sent shivers all the way to her toes.

  “I’m not going anywhere, Zoe. Not now. Not ever. I’m afraid you’re stuck with me, baby. I’m not sure how much you’ll like that when you wake up and figure out this wasn’t a dream and is all too real, but I like it a hell of a lot, you being stuck with me.”

  “No one ever stays,” she said sadly, not liking the turn this dream had taken. She wanted the good parts back. “No one ever loves me back. Everyone always leaves.”

  There was a long silence and for a moment she relaxed, content to let the dream die after its not-so-great shift from really awesome to not so awesome. And then . . .

  “Not this time, baby.” That voice again. So achingly familiar, but then it had occupied a solid place in her dreams for the last several nights. “And that’s a promise.”

  Even though she knew no such promise would ever be kept, it still gave her comfort and she clung to it as she drifted further into oblivion.

  • • •

  JOE sat a short distance away from where Zoe slept, his gaze drifting occasionally between the sun and her back, which still glistened from the sunblock he’d now applied twice. The second time he’d gently worked the lotion into her skin, she hadn’t so much as stirred, but the tiny puckered frown she wore even while sleeping and the strain evident on her forehead and around her mouth instilled an ache in his chest that wouldn’t be assuaged.

  Who was the “everyone” she’d referred to in an almost childlike voice that had broken his heart? Her pain went beyond that of one ex-lover. What about her childhood? Donovan hadn’t mentioned a family. Parents or siblings. He hadn’t said anything at all, and now Joe wondered why. Was she all alone in the world? Surely Rusty knew that much about her. Perhaps it was why Rusty had befriended her and was so loyal and protective of her. He commended his sister for that, but from now on, protecting Zoe from anything that had the power to hurt her was his job.

  He checked his watch as he watched the sun sink farther down in the sky. As much as he hated even a night’s separation from her, it was getting late and she was clearly exhausted. It was time to be getting her back to his mom’s for the night. She hadn’t eaten much at lunch. She’d been quiet. Almost pensive while they shared the offering his mother had prepared for them. Every once in a while he managed to get a smile out of her when he teased or joked with her, but sadness had clung to her features for most of the afternoon after they’d finished catching the dozen fish he’d told her they needed.

  And then she’d fallen asleep while he applied the first coat of sunblock. In her dreamlike state, her reactions had been honest and sincere. She’d greatly enjoyed his touch, arching into it like a purring kitten. But then sadness had dripped from her voice when she’d quietly told him that no one ever stayed and that no one ever loved her back.

  He’d never wanted anything more in that moment than to cradle her in his arms and hold her tightly and vow to never let her go. But he knew it wouldn’t be as easy as simply promising her something she had no faith in. It would take time for her to establish trust and be able to fully place it in him. And he intended to give her all the time in the world she needed until the time came that she was with him, in his arms where he intended to prove to her every single day that he wasn’t going anywhere but wherever she did.

  “What secrets are you hiding, baby?” he whispered as he watched her sigh and tuck her fist beneath her chin. “Will you trust me enough to share them and let me take away their power to hurt you?”

  He let out a sigh and then reluctantly stood from where he’d been sprawled on the platform of the boat. He crawled over to where Zoe lay, smiling as he stared down at her closed eyes, the lashes that rested on her skin making her appear so innocent in sleep. She reminded him of an angel or one of those little pixies in fairy tales.

  “Zoe. Zoe, honey. I need you to wake up. It’s time to go home.”

  She wrinkled her nose and her lips turned downward. “G’away,” she muttered.

  He laughed as he lowered his head to kiss the wrinkles from her nose. Her eyelashes immediately fluttered as she came awake.

  “Hi,” he said, smiling at her befuddlement.

  Then she smiled, and it sent warmth through regions of his heart he hadn’t even realized had been so shut off before.

  “Hi,” she said shyly. “Is it time to go?”

  She sounded so disappointed that he hated to tell her it was. Instead he nodded.

  “Sun’s setting. I thought you might enjoy watching the sun go down while we head back to the marina. Ma will have supper on the table soon and she’ll wonder where we are.”

  She yawned, covering her mouth. “I had the most wonderful dream,” she said wistfully.

  His pulse sped up as he simply watched her, his gaze traveling over every inch of her face, her eyes, even her hair. “Oh? Did you dream about me then?” he teased.

  She flushed a deep red and dropped her gaze, though a smile still hovered on her lips.

  “Not going to share what this wonderful dream was about?”

  She shook her head. “No. Because if I do then it might not come true.”

  She had his attention there. Was she referring to what she thought she’d dreamed? Or had she dreamed something else in the two hours he’d let her sleep after she’d drifted off?

  “And do you want your dream to come true?” he asked casually.

  Yearning was evident in her eyes as they became focused on something far away, in another time perhaps.

  “If any dream could come true, then yes, more than anything I’d want this one to.”

  Not that he hadn’t already decided his fate and course, but if he hadn’t, those words would have sealed it for him. She had no idea that he knew exactly what she was referring to and that he’d been party to what she thought she’d dreamed about. And, well, in a way it was fitting since he planned to make every last part of it come true exactly as she wanted.

  “Dreams come true all the time,” he said.

  Her smile slowly faded. “For some, I guess.”

  “But not for you?”

  She looked away. “I’m not much of a dreamer,” she said with forced nonchalance. “I’m more of a realist. When reality continually bites you on the ass, you tend to pay attention.”

  Joe extended his hand, sliding his thumb under her chin before gently turning her back to face him. “I don’t agree.”

  She looked confused. “What don’t you agree with?”

  “That you aren’t a dreamer.”

  Her eyes went wide and she blinked several times as if trying to figure out how she wanted to respond.

  “There’s nothing wrong with being a dreamer, Zoe. The bigger you dream, the bigger the outcome and the happier the ending, wouldn’t you say?”

  Her eyes filled with tears and she would have turned away again, but he cupped her cheeks with both palms, cradling her face in his hands. He used his thumbs to tenderly wipe away the slip of moisture that trailed down one side.

  “One could also say the bigger you dream, the harder you fall when reality bites you on the ass,” she choked out.

  He laughed softly. “You have an obsession with reality and people’s asses.”

  “This isn’t a joke,” she said in a pleading voice, as if begging him not to make light of her statements. “This is my reality. It may not be yours, Joe. But it is mine and I’m well acquainted with what dreaming gets you. In my world, it’s a big fat nothing no matter how hard I wish it otherwise.”

  “Baby, listen to me,” he said, caressing the silky skin over her cheekbones. “When I said that I believe you are a dreamer, it was the best of compliments. Just because not all your dreams have com
e true so far doesn’t mean they’re destined to never come true for you at all. We all have a dreamer inside us. You may not think you do, but I see her. I see you. And it just makes me all the more determined to make those dreams of yours come true so you can finally let that beautiful dreamer out for the entire world to see.”

  Her eyes were glazed with shock as she stared back helplessly at him. “You can’t make promises like that to me, to anyone,” she denied. “You aren’t responsible for making anyone else’s dreams come true. Only your own. Only I can make my dreams come true, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned about myself in that area it’s that I’m a huge, fat failure.”

  Joe let out a growl of impatience and anger, though it wasn’t directed at her. She jumped and then looked at him with wounded eyes, even as she tried to shrink away from him. He cursed violently under his breath. He was coming on with the finesse of a freight train and he knew damn well she had to be handled with the utmost care, as if she were the most precious of things.

  “You forget something about me, baby. I’m in the business of doing two things. Making some people’s dreams come true. And making other people’s nightmares come to life. So don’t tell me what I can or can’t do or what I can or can’t take on. Because I promise you that if you let me in, if you give me the chance, I’ll do my damnedest to make every single one of your dreams come true.”

  She swallowed hard and her lips parted in shock, and it took everything he had inside him not to haul her across the last remaining inches of distance between them and kiss her until neither could draw a breath without breathing the other’s air. That was his dream right now, fuck it all. All the others could wait their damn turns.

  “You don’t even know me,” she whispered. “Why would you even say something like that to me?”

  “You’re right. I don’t know all of you. Yet. But I want to. I will. And when I do, then I plan to keep every last one of my promises. Now, before I finish freaking you out so badly that you jump in the lake and swim your way back to the compound, we need to get going or Ma’s going to have my ass in a sling. I need you to put your life vest on and find somewhere to get comfortable for the ride back in. Okay?”

  She looked dazed, and he couldn’t very well blame her. He’d rolled over her like a bulldozer and then backed off so quickly he was lucky she hadn’t fallen into the lake, much less jumped. But he had to get a grip and keep himself in check before he went way too far way too damned fast and ended up letting her slip right through his fingers.

  Jesus, but the mere thought of reaching out only to find her gone nearly paralyzed him with fear. He was a fucking mess and if he didn’t get his shit together quick, he was going to fuck everything up before he even had a chance to prove she was safe with him. That he’d never hurt her. That he’d take apart anyone who ever fucking tried to hurt her again.

  And right now, maybe the best course of action was to simply keep her off balance. If she was a little unsteady and trying to figure him out, then she couldn’t run at the same time. Her running was the possibility that terrified the fucking hell out of him, when not much had ever had the power to scare him in his life. Losing his brother, losing Shea, losing his parents. Those were the only things close to the terror he felt when he thought of losing Zoe.

  As soon as he navigated out of the cove where he’d anchored the boat so he and Zoe could swim and sunbathe, he opened the throttle and planed out as they roared over the smooth-as-glass water of Kentucky Lake. The sun was a giant fiery ball of orange in the west inching its way farther down the horizon, and up ahead, the twinkling lights of the marina were starting to flash on.

  Zoe sat huddled on the side bench just two feet from where he stood to navigate the boat, her gaze focused sightlessly on some distant object, the strands of hair that had escaped the bun atop her head streaming behind her like splashes of moonlight.

  She had a towel wrapped around her slight figure and wore her safety jacket underneath. He should have allowed her to change back into her clothing before they headed back in, but it would have been dark by the time they set back for the marina. He could give her privacy where the truck was parked and stand on the other side of his open door with his back to her, standing guard to watch for anyone else in seeing distance.

  At least now he understood the mischievous twinkle in Rusty’s eyes and her innocent grin when she’d given him a bathing suit for Zoe as he’d requested. Rusty was taller and not as rounded in the places Zoe was, and as a result, Rusty’s bikini, which covered her modestly enough, was too small for Zoe in places that had given him a permanent erection for the entire afternoon.

  Rusty had known exactly what she was doing and precisely how the bikini would fit—or rather not fit—Zoe, and if the devious little heifer didn’t think he’d get her back, she was deluded.

  Once parked in his slip at the marina, he helped Zoe from the boat and then wrapped his arm around her waist, pulling her into the warmth of his body as they walked to his truck. The early summer mornings and nights still had a hint of a chill to them as spring reluctantly gave way to the hotter days of summer that lay ahead.

  These were the best times of the year. Days filled with many a happy memory. Countless trips just like today. Fishing, swimming, horsing around with family, cookouts, campfires, a cooler full of beer, talking about old times and of the days ahead.

  Joe had never really been able to participate in the talks of what was yet to come as his brothers looked at their wives and children with love in their eyes and spoke of raising their kids where they’d been raised. He could recount plenty of “good ole days” stories and all of the hell-raising that had been involved, but he’d always gone silent when the conversation turned to the future. Over time, as all of his brothers had finally been accounted for, he had felt an awkwardness he’d never before experienced. Like an outsider looking in at something so beautiful that it hurt his eyes to look at it. He realized now that what he’d felt was loneliness. And envy for what his brothers had that he didn’t.

  He glanced over at Zoe as he opened his passenger door for her. Who knew such a short time ago that his future would right now be standing beside him and that for the first time he’d truly understand and be able to relate to everything his brothers talked about, shared and related.

 
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