Brighter than the sun, p.12
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       Brighter Than the Sun, p.12

         Part #11 of KGI series by Maya Banks
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  “Stand on the other side of the door and I’ll turn my back and shield the opening in the doorway so that no one can see you change,” he said. “Not that anyone’s around that I can see, but just in case, I promise you they won’t see a thing. Just hurry before I’m tempted to peek,” he teased.

  To his surprise and delight she responded by laughing. “You’re incorrigible, Joe. But then Marlene said as much. She said you were the evil twin, always into mischief, and that Nathan was the quieter one. I see now what she means.”

  He gasped in mock outrage and indignation. “I’ll have you know that I’m considered the sensitive twin. Nathan’s just a caveman with no manners. Did you see how he is with my poor sister-in-law Shea?”

  “Yeah,” she said in a wistful voice. “It’s obvious he loves her a lot. I loved watching them together.”

  Joe’s eyebrow went up. He hadn’t realized that she had been watching any one person or couple in particular at the cookout or that she’d even been able to sort through the haphazard introductions to make the connections between names and faces, but it was obvious that Nathan and Shea had at least caught her attention and that she’d spent a lot of time studying them.

  “They have a pretty amazing story,” he said softly.

  “Oh? What do you mean?” she asked eagerly.

  He smiled to himself. His Zoe was a romantic. Good to know. At least now he knew a way of winning points in his favor down the road.

  “It’s a long story, and it’s not always pretty. But it’s definitely always beautiful.”

  “Wow,” she breathed. “That was beautiful, Joe.”

  His brow furrowed in confusion. “What do you mean?”

  “The way you put it. The way you described it. It was very poetic.” There was quiet yearning in her voice, as if she’d always wanted someone to speak to her in such a way.

  It took him a moment to realize what she meant and then he smiled. “As much as I’d like to take credit for my philosophical side, I have to confess that I gave no forethought to the wording of that statement.”

  “That’s what makes it all the more beautiful,” she said pointedly. “But what did you mean exactly, when you said it wasn’t always pretty. Did they argue a lot or something?”

  As she said the last, she tapped him on the shoulder to let him know she was finished, and he turned around, smiling down at her. “No, baby. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen them actually argue. Well, unless Nathan is worried that something she’s doing is going to be too hard on her.”

  “Do you know your entire face lights up when you talk about them?” Zoe asked quietly.

  He smiled again. “Yeah, I guess it does. You have to understand. Nathan is my twin. We share something most people don’t understand. But Shea gets it because she’s a part of it. I’ll tell you all about it sometime. I promise. But as I said, it’s a long story and parts of it are definitely not for the faint of heart. But it was always going to be a happily-ever-after ending. Nathan wouldn’t have had it any other way. It just took them a little longer to get there than others. But if I had to guess, it’s all the more sweet for just that reason.”

  “Do you ever listen to yourself?” she asked as they both closed their doors after climbing into the truck. “You have the most eloquent way of phrasing things. I could spend hours just listening to you talk.”

  He reared his head back in surprise. He stared at her a long moment before he realized she was absolutely serious. Then he laughed. He laughed so hard that he put his arms over the steering wheel and then laid his forehead down on top of them and wheezed until his sides hurt.

  Zoe made a sound of exasperation. “What?” she demanded. “What’s wrong with you? I take it back. You talk like a jerk.”

  She made a huffing sound and crossed her arms over her chest, glaring at him from her periphery.

  “I’m sorry, sweetheart,” he said, still trying to contain his laughter. “You have to understand that according to the rest of my brothers I’m impatient, short tempered and foultempered to boot. Not to mention foulmouthed. Hmm, they like the word foul a lot when it comes to describing me,” he said with a grin in her direction. “If they heard you describe anything having to do with me as being eloquent or, God forbid, beautiful, they’d laugh themselves silly. Hell, they’d probably piss themselves from laughing so hard.”

  “Well, they sound like jerks,” Zoe said darkly.

  Warmth spread through his chest and slid up his neck until it gripped him fiercely right around the throat. No one had ever defended him to his brothers. Everyone was usually too busy agreeing with his brothers’ assessment of him to ever offer any disagreement. And yet Zoe looked like she wanted to wade in and kick their asses for insulting him.

  “Don’t hurt anyone, honey.” He chuckled. “In their defense, I am all of that. Well, most of the time. I seem to make exceptions for really beautiful women named Zoe.”

  She ducked her head and loosened her arms until her hands fell into her lap. She stared down at them for a long moment before she cocked her head to study him once more.

  “I forget what you do most of the time.”

  His smile and ready laughter faded as he tensed.

  “How hard it must be to protect and defend people you don’t even know at such a great risk to yourself. I’d be shocked if you weren’t all those things your brothers call you. But that isn’t who you are. I haven’t seen that person even once. I think I’ve figured out your little secret, Joe Kelly.”

  He looked at her in horror. “You’re not going to expose me, are you?”

  “What you are is a nice guy. A tough guy outside and a completely gooey, mushy softy on the inside.”

  He damn near choked. He covered his reaction with a cough and then cleared his throat. A softy? Oh wait, not just a softy. It was way worse. A “gooey, mushy” softy. Sweet mother of God. If he thought he was going to get shit from his brothers before, that was nothing compared to the way he’d be laughed right out of the war room if it ever got out that Zoe called him a “gooey, mushy softy.”

  His expression must have been as appalled as he felt because she burst into laughter and proceeded to laugh so hard that she was wiping tears from her cheeks.

  “Oh God, if you could just see your face,” she sputtered and choked out.

  “Yeah, yeah, have your fun. Kick a man when he’s down,” he grumbled good-naturedly. “We’ll see who has the last laugh.”

  “Do they also call you a bad sport?” she teased.

  “Definitely.”

  She cracked up again. “No! I can’t imagine why.”

  “Sarcasm doesn’t suit you, pretty lady.”

  “I think it suits me just fine,” she said cheekily.

  Well, she had him there, but then everything suited her just fine. He couldn’t think of a single thing that wouldn’t suit her.

  “Oh, here we are,” she said, sounding surprised—and a little disappointed—as they drove into the compound.

  He well understood the feeling. Today had been one of the best days he could ever remember. It was right up there with the day he learned his twin was finally safe and coming home when it wasn’t known if Nathan was dead or alive. Or the day when a badly traumatized Shea had finally returned to them after days of being withdrawn completely into herself as the only way she’d survived the worst.

  He frowned. Until now, all the best times he could remember revolved around either Nathan and Shea or his other brothers and memorable moments with their wives. Never before had he had anyone to share those kinds of moments with. Until now.

  He gazed lovingly at her as he parked in front of his mother’s house, knowing she wouldn’t see how he was looking at her. She was too busy glancing up at the porch like she expected his mom or dad to walk out at any moment.

  “Zoe.”

  She turned to look up at him. He touched a tendril of hair, tenderly pulling it away from her cheek to tuck behind her ear.

  “Thank you
for today,” he said, brushing his thumb over her chin and jaw.

  She looked inquisitively at him. “Shouldn’t that be my line?”

  “Not unless you’re me and you just had one of the best days of your life for the second day in a row,” he said with no hint of teasing or jest in his tone.

  Her gaze softened and for a moment he saw so much want and need, so much yearning in her eyes, that it was like a punch to the stomach. No longer could he resist the temptation of her pull. Slowly he closed the distance between them in the cab of the truck. He cupped her jaw in his palm, tilting her head in just the right position for her to take his kiss.

  He said nothing for fear of breaking the spell. Instead he gently pressed his lips to hers. He swallowed up her breathy sigh, sucking it deep into his lungs, savoring it before reluctantly expelling it once more. He lapped slowly over the surface of her lips, tasting every centimeter, leaving no part untouched or untasted. Then he became a little bolder, flicking his tongue forward, asking her to let him in even as he continued his gentle assault on her mouth.

  She gasped, her lips parting and another breathy-sounding noise, almost like a tiny sob, disappeared into his mouth as he slid his tongue inside, rubbing sensuously over hers. Touching, retreating, performing a delicate dance. Careful not to batter her senses or overwhelm her, he merely continued to pour every bit of his love and desire into one precious kiss.

  Then suddenly she yanked away, tears filling her eyes as she stared back at him. Grief shone in her gaze. Grief? What the fuck?

  “I’m sorry, Joe. God, I’m so sorry,” she said with an agonized cry. “I didn’t mean to lead you on. I know I sent mixed signals. But we can’t do this. I can’t,” she whispered in a tortured voice. “Oh God, don’t you see?”

  “No, I don’t see,” he said in the most gentle tone he could muster when he was raging on the inside at the blame she was heaping on herself. Misplaced and misdirected blame!

  “You deserve so much better than someone like me,” she said, tears now streaming down her face. “Please, we have to forget this ever happened.”

  He almost snorted. Like that was going to happen. And what the fuck kind of bullshit was she spouting about him deserving so much better? He wanted to put his fist through the fucking glass he was so enraged at how a pathetic excuse of a human being could ever tear down a woman as sweet and vulnerable and beautiful as Zoe. He wanted to kill the son of a bitch!

  “I’m sorry,” she whispered again.

  Before he could collect himself and trust himself to speak without roaring and scaring her to death, she flung her door open and jumped down and was gone, leaving him sitting in the truck, staring in frustration, as she ran into the house.

  He sat there for a long moment before he realized Rusty had come outside and was now standing at his window waiting for him to acknowledge her.

  He quickly rolled it down, and she gave him a look filled with sympathy and answering pain.

  “Mom has her,” she said quietly before he could demand the answer.

  He pounded his fist on the steering wheel and swore viciously. Then he let his hand fall and gave his sister a remorseful look.

  “Don’t you dare apologize for something I’ve done myself more than once since I saw Zoe again.” Rusty glowered at him.

  “What the fuck did he do, Rusty? And don’t give me that bullshit answer you gave me before. I’m losing her just after I gained so much ground with her today. I kissed her, and she freaked out. Started apologizing and saying I deserved so much better. What the fuck kind of bullshit is that?”

  Rusty’s lips trembled and sorrow filled her eyes. “It isn’t my story to tell, Joe. Even if I had the whole story. You can’t ask me to betray Zoe when everyone else in her life has. I can’t do that to her. It would destroy her.”

  He sighed. “No, of course you can’t, honey. I’m sorry. I’m just so frustrated. I can’t lose her. I won’t lose her,” he said more emphatically.

  She smiled. “If you sat back and did nothing, then what kind of sorry-ass Kelly would you be?”

  “Damn straight,” he growled. “Look. She needs you right now. Be a good friend to her, Rusty. I won’t ask you to betray that. But damn it, I don’t care what you have to say to her or tell her, you make sure she doesn’t start hiding from me. We have a date tomorrow night. I’m cooking for her at my place and I expect you to have her ready to go by the time I get here. Can I trust you with her?”

  She reached up and covered his arm with her hand. He then took her hand and squeezed affectionately.

  “I’ll have her ready to go. You just be here when you said you would and leave the rest to me. Okay?”

  “I’m trusting you with my future, Rusty,” he said quietly. “She’s everything to me. You understand that?”

  Her smile was oddly sad. “I understand all too well what happens when a Kelly man decides a woman is his. It’s too bad the rest of the male population can’t take their cues from you. Don’t worry, Joe. I’ll call you if anything comes up. In the meantime, leave us girls to have our girl time. I’ll have her talked around by tomorrow, and then it’s up to you.”

  Then her expression grew serious and she looked him directly in the eyes. “It’s not going to be easy, Joe. I hope you know that, and I hope you’re prepared for it. You don’t live your life under a pile of shit and then have someone dig you out and convince you all in a day that you smell like a rose garden. You’re going to have to have patience with her and handle her very carefully.”

  “You do have a way with words, little sister,” he said, shaking his head. Then he snorted. “A rose garden. I’ve got to remember that one.”

  She laughed, but the sadness in her eyes still bothered him because he had a feeling what he saw had nothing to do with Zoe and everything to do with something that was making his baby sister look defeated. Because defeat was not ever a word used in context with Rusty Kelly.

  Until now.

  CHAPTER 16

  ZOE sat huddled against the headboard of Rusty’s bed, knees drawn up to her chest, her arms wrapped tightly around her legs as she rested her chin atop them. She was so embarrassed, and she had only herself to blame after making such a spectacle when Joe had kissed her.

  Okay, so it wasn’t just because he kissed her. It was the way he kissed her. It was the promise of love and forever in his kiss that had sliced her open and prompted her meltdown. Here was a guy putting it all on the table, not holding anything back. Everything she’d ever dreamed of in a man, only now she’d found it too damn late to make any difference. There’d been nothing but honesty and sincerity in his kiss, his words and even his actions. No deception or lies. No, that was all her doing. Those things were coming from her and it broke her heart.

  Joe was one of the good guys. A rare breed she wasn’t even sure existed anymore outside of fairy tales and urban legends. He was too much of a good guy. Too good for the likes of her and her ilk. Too good to be tainted by her legacy of crime, murder and corruption. Although taking her father’s empire down might look good on KGI’s résumé.

  The hysterical thought rose and died just as quickly as it welled. Tears burned her eyelids and she closed her eyes, refusing to cry any more for all she’d never had and never would. It was fine before when she didn’t know what she was missing. Didn’t know that what she fantasized about wasn’t a mere fantasy but an actual flesh and blood man. A man who seemed interested in her. In Zoe Kildare. And that was the problem. As much as Zoe liked to declare that Stella Huntington was a woman who no longer existed, had never existed, Zoe Kildare was the fictional character. Not Stella. Zoe had no birth certificate. No past beyond what Rusty had fabricated, no matter how expertly it had been done. Zoe was just Stella’s imaginary friend, a result of her pathetic, lonely childhood and her refusal to accept reality. Maybe if she’d gotten a good grip on what was real a hell of a lot earlier in life, she wouldn’t be such a naïve, clueless twit as an adult. Gullible. That about covered al
l the bases in a single word. She had to be the most gullible woman on earth.

  “Sister, if you beat up on yourself any harder, you’re going to have bruises tomorrow,” Rusty said as she plopped onto the bed beside her.

  “I’m an idiot, Rusty.”

  To her horror, a fresh torrent of tears welled in her eyes as she spoke.

  Rusty wrapped both arms around her and hugged her fiercely. Zoe held on to her as tears slid soundlessly down her cheeks.

  “I’m so stupid,” she whispered. “I wanted—want—what I can’t have so badly it hurts.”

  Rusty pushed away from her and stared hard, her features drawn into a fierce expression. “Why on earth would you say a dumb thing like that? Do you think he’s better than you, Zoe? Do you think this family is better than you? That I’m better than you? For fuck’s sake, listen to yourself. You know what I came from. The things I did. The things I had to do. How is that worse than your situation? You’ve done nothing except be born to the wrong people, and if that’s a crime, then lock me and a hell of a lot of other people up right now and throw away the damn keys.”

  “My entire life—identity—is a complete lie,” Zoe said earnestly. “I’ve lied to your entire family. To Joe. Do you honestly think he’d just shrug and say oh well if he knew that everything he knows about me, that everything I’ve told him, is nothing but a fabrication? I don’t even know who I am right now, so how can I expect someone else to want someone who doesn’t even exist?”

  Rusty’s smile was soft and full of understanding and compassion. “Because that’s what love is all about. Love is what’s there in the absence of proof. Love doesn’t require evidence, and if it does, then it’s a fucked-up aberration of love, and personally I wouldn’t want anything to do with it. Besides, you didn’t lie about what matters. You’ve never lied about who you are today. Right now. Who you were when you stepped into this house. You’ve been the person you always were but was never allowed to be. How is that wrong? I’ll tell you what’s wrong. It’s the people who never allowed you to be anything except the person they wanted to make you into. That’s fucked-up, Zoe. You wanting to be free of all that shit, free to be your own person and above all free to be happy, is not fucked-up. It’s real, it’s good, it’s precious and it’s right. You’ll never persuade me differently. You’d never persuade a single person in this family any differently, and it damn sure wouldn’t change the way my brother looks at you. Don’t you get it yet? You’re loved, Zoe. You. Not the pretend Stella. Not the person you think you are. The real you. How much more real do you want to get?”

  Zoe went quiet and then frowned as she processed Rusty’s impassioned statement. “You act like me lying about who and what I am to everyone in your family and especially Joe is no big deal.”

  Rusty sighed. “It’s only a big deal because you’ve made it one, honey.”

  Zoe stared at her friend in utter bewilderment. “What do you suggest I do then? Tell Joe the truth?”

  She blurted the question that she’d been burning to ask, but she wasn’t prepared for Rusty’s calm, measured response.

  “That’s exactly what I think you should do.”

  “What? Are you insane? How does that solve anything? Do you think I want to involve anyone else in the mess that is my life? I don’t want him or anyone in your family to get hurt because of me,” she burst out.

  “Honey, I am not demeaning your situation whatsoever when I say this, but after all I’ve told you about what my brothers do on an everyday basis, do you think this would even register as a blip on their radar? Do you think hiding for the rest of your life, having no friends, no family, no chance at love, is any real solution to the threat against you? They could help you,” Rusty said quietly. “They absolutely would help you. And isn’t that what you want? For the situation to be resolved so you can sleep at night without worrying if you’ll die the next day or never see the next day? Is this the way you want to continue?”

  “Of course not,” Zoe said, a sob bubbling up from her chest.

  She buried her face in her hands, wiping helplessly at the tears sliding down her cheeks.

  Rusty’s arms went around her once more as the two women hugged in silence. Zoe buried her face in Rusty’s shoulder as her body shook with subdued sobs. Rusty stroked her hair, offering comfort and support as Zoe slowly pulled herself together. When the sobs quieted, Zoe pulled back, her hands shaking as she met Rusty’s earnest, sympathetic gaze.

  “I don’t know what to do,” she admitted. “I’m so tired, Rusty. Being here with you and your family has been hell for me. The best sort of heaven and the worst kind of hell all at the same time, and it’s exhausting. It’s like being taunted with everything I ever wanted but can never have.”

  “Answer me honestly,” Rusty said, pinning her with her gaze. “Do you care about Joe? Could you see yourself loving him? And don’t offer me reasons why you shouldn’t or reasons why you can’t. I’m only interested in hearing your honest, heartfelt response.”

  For a moment, Zoe was paralyzed and unable to formulate a single word. Her lips felt numb and frozen. She closed her eyes and finally whispered what she’d desperately tried not to allow herself to feel but had failed miserably. “I already do love him.”

  When she opened her eyes, Rusty was smiling at her through her own tears. She squeezed Zoe’s hands in hers as a single tear slipped down her cheek.

  “Then I think you have your answer. Are you going to give up any chance you have at a happy life with the man you love because you’re afraid of all the what-ifs? Or are you going to get off your ass and take a chance and lay it all on the line?”

  “You really think I should just . . . tell him? Everything?” Zoe asked uneasily.

  “Every single word. From your father right down to the shithead Sebastian. Not only can he and my other brothers help you, but honey, they will help you. Even if you meant nothing to Joe, and that’s clearly not the case, they would still help you. It’s who they are and what they do.”

  “You make it sound so easy,” Zoe said miserably.

  “It is,” Rusty said. “It’s only hard if you make it difficult. But honey, listen to me. Joe loves you. That much is clear to anyone who has eyeballs. He’s going to swear a blue streak and make all kinds of threats against humanity, but listen to me. None of his anger and rage will be directed at you. He’ll want to storm off and go kick the ever-loving shit out of Sebastian and then go stomp all over your father, and I’m sure my other brothers will have to sit on him—that is, after they’ve stopped making their own threats against everyone who’s ever wronged you. But he’ll be so freaking thrilled that you trusted him and that you
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