Brighter than the sun, p.13
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       Brighter Than the Sun, p.13

         Part #11 of KGI series by Maya Banks
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  gave him that last part of you he knows he doesn’t have yet.”

  “You sound so sure,” Zoe said doubtfully.

  “I am!” she said in exasperation. “Do you want me to write it out in blood? Or maybe we should make a blood pact between us.”

  Zoe laughed. “Only if it includes whatever the latest development is between you and a certain hot sheriff named Sean Cameron.”

  Rusty’s expression became murderous, but behind the anger was so much hurt that Zoe winced at the raw emotion flaring in her friend’s eyes.

  “What happened?” Zoe asked softly.

  Rusty sighed and then flopped backward onto the bed, spreading her arms outward.

  “He’s making me crazy. I told you about The Kiss.”

  “Yeah.”

  “Well, ever since The Kiss, he’s spared no opportunity to put as much distance between me and him as possible. The length he goes to to avoid me is ridiculous, not to mention childish and beneath a grown-ass man who’s an elected sheriff.”

  Zoe frowned. “It didn’t seem to me like he was avoiding you at the barbecue. In fact, it looked like you were the one doing the avoiding.”

  “Yeah, well, that’s because all of a sudden he stopped avoiding me and I was merely giving him a dose of his own medicine. Turns out he doesn’t like it very much. Imagine that.”

  Zoe burst out laughing. “Oh, I get it. So you’ll jump all over me about sacrificing my wants and desires out of misplaced guilt, but you’re sacrificing your wants and desires out of petty revenge?”

  “It’s a good enough reason.” Rusty sniffed.

  “Okay, I’ll give you that one. He has been an ass ever since The Kiss.”

  “Damn straight.”

  “So, when are you going to let him off the hook?”

  Rusty lifted herself up to prop up on her elbows. “Huh? Who said I was doing any such thing?”

  Zoe rolled her eyes. “Come on, girlfriend. Like you haven’t had serious fantasies about ‘the copper’ ever since you were a teenager?”

  Rusty flushed and ducked her gaze. “I seriously regret ever telling you just how long I’ve had this stupid crush on Sean,” she muttered.

  “Crush? I’d think you were well beyond that stage by now,” Zoe said gently. “Admit it. You’re in love with him.”

  Rusty grimaced. “You ever tell anyone that and I’ll kill you myself. Joe may never forgive me, but I can live with that.”

  “It seems to me that you need a dose of your own medicine,” Zoe pointed out.

  “What’s that supposed to mean?” Rusty grumbled.

  “You’re over here giving me advice on not letting go of love and just putting it all on the line. So take your own advice. He’s decided to stop avoiding you. Aren’t you curious as to why? Stop avoiding him and confront him in a place at a time where he can’t possibly back away from you and lay it out. Don’t take no for an answer or let him dodge the question. What have you got to lose?”

  “Everything,” Rusty said softly. “Right now I can imagine all kinds of reasons why he’s avoided me at every turn after giving me the most scorching, toe-curling kiss of my life. But imagining and knowing are two different things. What if he doesn’t feel the same way about me?”

  “I’d like to point out here that you may think you know how Joe feels but we don’t know for sure, and yet you want me to put everything out there and risk getting shot down. And that’s what you’re afraid of, isn’t it? Him shooting you down.”

  “Bingo,” Rusty said, her voice so low Zoe could barely hear her.

  “I get it,” she said, reaching for Rusty’s hand. “But wouldn’t you rather know one way or the other? That way if he does give you the brush-off then you can close that door for good. Move on with your life and get over him and find someone who will appreciate you for the wonderfully awesome, insanely intelligent, beautiful woman you are.”

  “It’s hard to imagine ever feeling for another man what I feel for Sean,” Rusty said, tears forming in her eyes again. “Oh God, Zoe. If he rejects me again, it’ll crush me, and nothing has ever been able to crush me and keep me down in my life. Not my bitch of a mother. Not my shithead of a stepfather. None of the other assholes who tried to take advantage of a barely teenaged girl. But him rejecting me could.”

  “What do you plan to do if you don’t confront him? Make him talk to you and make him acknowledge you?” Zoe asked sympathetically.

  “Grow old, become a cat lady, paper the entire property with ‘no trespassing’ signs and run everyone off my property with a shotgun,” Rusty mumbled.

  Zoe snorted. “You’re way too young and far too smart, talented and gorgeous for that. No man’s worth that kind of life.”

  Rusty sighed. “You’re right. I know you’re right. As much as it pains me to admit that, since I’m the one who’s supposed to be on your ass about shit like this.”

  “Then maybe we both ought to put it all on the line, and if we both get shot down then we can become old cat ladies together, but I’ll leave the handling of trespassers and the shotgun to you.”

  Rusty burst out laughing even as she wiped a stray tear from her cheek. “God, I love you, Zoe. You honestly are the sister I never had but always wanted. And I have a gazillion sisters-in-law, not to mention all of Mama Kelly’s adoptees, and I love them all dearly, but I could never share with them everything I’ve shared with you.”

  “Same goes for me,” Zoe said quietly. “I love you, Rusty, and no matter what happens with Joe, you’ll always be my sister in my heart. I hope you know that.”

  Rusty leaned up and the two women hugged again, just holding tightly to each other.

  “So . . . about Sean?” Zoe ventured.

  Rusty sighed. “I’ll make you a deal. You go to dinner with Joe as planned tomorrow night and tell him everything. Sean works tomorrow night; however, I happen to know how to get into his house. His security system is total shit considering he’s a cop. And maybe I’ll just be waiting on him when he gets home after work.”

  Zoe’s eyes widened. “Seriously?”

  Rusty nodded. “I can’t let you one-up me. We sisters have to go for the gusto. Go get our man. Or some other schmaltzy saying like that. If I sit around and wait on Sean’s stubborn ass, I will end up growing old with only dozens of cats to keep me company.”

  “No matter where I am, what I’m doing or who I’m with, you have to swear to call me the minute it’s done with Sean,” Zoe said adamantly.

  “Same goes for you after you spill to Joe. Deal?”

  Zoe smiled and then hugged Rusty one last time. “It’s a deal, sister. I love you, you know.”

  Rusty smiled. “Back atcha, Zoe. If we’re lucky, Joe and Sean will never know what hit them.”

  But doubt—and fear—were both reflected in their eyes as they drew away.

  CHAPTER 17

  “SHE’S here!” Shea Kelly squealed as she dashed for the door.

  Nathan shook his head, smiling as he followed his wife to greet her sister Grace; Grace’s husband, Rio; and their adopted teenage daughter, Elizabeth. Though the two sisters could speak telepathically at will, on a daily basis, they didn’t see each other in person all that often because Rio lived in Belize in a fortified compound, away from the prying eyes of the public. More importantly, off the government’s radar, since Grace had been declared dead a few years earlier.

  When he got to the door, he saw Shea and Grace in a mad hugging marathon while Rio stood to the side with an amused look on his face. Rio exchanged glances with Elizabeth and then they both rolled their eyes.

  “Hey, man,” Nathan called out as he ambled down the steps of the porch. “Hey, Elizabeth. God, girl, look at you! I swear, every time I see you it’s like looking at a stranger. Rio, are you sure you don’t need a team assigned to you just for her protection? You probably have a boy problem around the clock.”

  Elizabeth blushed, but she looked pleased with Nathan’s teasing compliment.


  Rio put his arm around his daughter’s neck and hauled her into his side in a headlock. “I’ve had to kill two just this week,” he growled. “Pretty soon I’m going to need a new dumping sight if she keeps attracting them like flies.”

  “Da-ad!” she complained, drawing the word out into two whiny syllables.

  Rio grinned at her but Nathan didn’t miss the warmth that entered his eyes at her manner of address. Elizabeth had been left an orphan at twelve after her father, the ruthless head of a worldwide criminal empire, had been killed by the same man who’d kidnapped Grace so she could heal Elizabeth, who at the time was dying from a pervasive form of cancer.

  It had taken time and Rio and Grace’s constant, unwavering love for Elizabeth to adjust and come to terms with what her father was, her own guilt and the worry that Rio and Grace couldn’t possibly love her after her father had nearly caused both of their deaths. For a few years after they had taken her in, she had always called them by their first names. And then one year earlier while eating dinner, she had quietly asked Rio if he minded if she called him Dad.

  Grace had sent Elizabeth a tearful, knowing look, as the two had discussed Rio’s probable reaction earlier in the day when she had first approached Grace about calling her Mom. Rio had later confided in his KGI teammates that next to the day Grace had become his, it was the single best day of his life.

  Finally, the sisters pulled away, both wiping tears from their faces. Nathan winced, because even though it was obvious the tears were of joy, he hated to see Shea cry. It was a well-known fact he was useless if she shed so much as one tear. A lot of women would take advantage of that, but Shea didn’t. But then she didn’t have to resort to manipulation to get what she wanted. Nathan would give her the moon if she asked.

  “Hello, Nathan,” Grace said, moving in to hug him as Shea exchanged hugs with Rio. “I’m so glad you’re taking such good care of Shea.”

  “More like she takes care of me,” Nathan said with a grin. “But I’m happy to take the credit.”

  Grace laughed.

  “You ready to shove off?” Rio asked Nathan.

  Nathan nodded and pulled Shea into his arms. “You girls have fun. We won’t be long. Standard meeting and check-in.”

  Grace, Elizabeth and Shea waved as Nathan jumped in with Rio and the two drove the short distance from Nathan’s house to the war room.

  Shea dropped her hand then turned to her sister and niece. “Come on in, you two. We have so much to catch up on. I don’t see you two enough.”

  Grace smiled. In fact, she was all but beaming. And glowing like a star. She looked like she’d swallowed the sunshine and her smile was so happy that tears pricked Shea’s eyelids. Not so long ago the two sisters had been desperate and running for their lives, unsure if they’d ever see each other again. Now everything was perfect.

  They plopped down on the couch and Shea bit her lip to suppress her own goofy grin. Sometimes? Life just kept getting better. She peeked up at Grace to see Grace looking kind of funny at her. Shea licked her lips just as Grace’s lips parted.

  “I—”

  “Have—”

  “News!”

  Both women stopped then stared back at each other in shock and then they burst into laughter. Elizabeth rolled her eyes, but Shea noticed how close she stayed to Grace and the fact that she’d slipped her hand into Grace’s and held it tightly.

  “Okay, so we both obviously have news,” Shea said as she finally gained her composure. “You go first.”

  Grace was fidgeting with excitement. She glanced at Elizabeth, and Elizabeth gave her an encouraging smile. Grace’s return smile was soft and full of love. Then she turned glowing eyes on Shea.

  “I’m pregnant,” Grace said in a tear-clogged voice.

  Shea’s mouth dropped open. “Are you serious? Really?”

  “Really!”

  Shea fell back on the couch, holding her stomach as she laughed. She struggled to right herself but was wheezing when she tried to say something.

  She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and grinned like a fool over at Grace and Elizabeth. Then she shook her head. “It would seem we really do share everything. I’m pregnant too,” she confessed shyly.

  Grace looked thunderstruck. Elizabeth squealed and dove for Shea, latching on to her and hugging as she shook with excitement.

  “Oh my God! Two babies!” Elizabeth said, clapping her hands when she pulled away from Shea.

  “Shea?” Grace asked in a concerned voice. “Are you happy about this? I thought you and Nathan were waiting awhile.”

  Shea sent her a smile that couldn’t be construed as anything short of absolute delirium. “We did wait, silly. It’s just that in the past several months, we’ve started talking about it. It’s something Nathan wants more than anything, but I think he’s worried about pressuring me and that it’s not what I want, so he doesn’t say much about it now.”

  “So you being you, you took matters into your own hands,” Grace said dryly.

  Shea grinned. “If we waited around on our men to get things done, we’d wait forever.”

  Grace sighed. “This is true. So you’re happy, Shea? Really happy? And this is what you want?”

  “Oh, yeah,” Shea breathed. “It’s been a regular baby factory around here the last few years. I swear I’m the only one who hasn’t been popping babies out. But one thing I have noticed is that it does seem to be catching. I wouldn’t be surprised if there wasn’t a sudden rash of pregnancies in all the wives. Maren’s already pregnant, so we can blame it on her if anyone tries to blame us for an oops baby.”

  Grace sucked in her breath. “She is? Oh, that’s wonderful! Steele with two babies. God, I have to have a picture of that.”

  “You and me both.” Shea giggled. “Nathan said he was all out of sorts the day he found out. Said he was freaking out at a KGI meeting.”

  Grace smothered her laughter with a hand. “Poor guy. Oh well, this is Rio’s first rodeo, so that should take the heat off the Ice Man. They’ll have fresh blood to torment now that Rio will be drowning in diapers and bottles and sleepless nights. Maybe I shouldn’t tell him for a while. That would keep everyone off his case for a few extra weeks anyway, right?”

  Shea held up her hand. “Whoa. Wait a minute. He doesn’t know? You haven’t told him?”

  Grace made a face. “I only just found out. Yes, I could have told Rio before we left the house in Belize, but if I had, he probably wouldn’t have let me come. In fact, he’d likely keep me under strict lock and key for the duration of my pregnancy.”

  “He so would too,” Elizabeth muttered.

  The two women laughed.

  “Well, I haven’t told Nathan either, but I only found out this morning and didn’t want to tell him two minutes before you guys got here and then shove him out the door. The poor man wouldn’t be able to remember his own name after news like that.”

  Grace nodded. “This is true. So I guess we’ll both be giving our husbands some news tonight, huh?”

  “Looks that way,” Shea said with a grin.

  Grace smiled at her, tears shimmering in her eyes. “I can’t believe we get to share this. I can’t think of anything more perfect.”

  • • •

  JOE strode into the war room hoping no one looked too closely at him. He looked—and felt—like shit. He hadn’t slept worth a fuck the previous night despite gaining Rusty’s assurance that Zoe would be at his house tonight. He was too focused on the one hundred and one other things that could go wrong, resulting in him not having a chance in hell with Zoe.

  A day ago he would have said he was only two inches from pathetic. Today? He’d long since surpassed pathetic and gone straight to desperate.

  He nodded at his older brothers but didn’t stop to talk as he made his way to where his team was standing.

  “Hey, hold up a sec,” Donovan called.

  Joe stopped and turned around to see Donovan jog to catch up with him. He had a con
cerned look on his face. Fuck.

  “What’s up, Van?” he asked lightly.

  Donovan’s eyes narrowed in a don’t-feed-me-that-line-of-bullshit manner. “Everything okay with Zoe?” he asked, lowering his voice so they weren’t overheard. Joe appreciated that at least.

  “I don’t know. Yet,” Joe added. “I’m getting there, though. I should know what I need to know tonight,” he added vaguely.

  Donovan frowned, studying his younger brother a long moment. “Anything I can do?”

  Joe sighed. “Did you dig anything up on her family? Parents? Siblings? That sort of thing? You didn’t mention them so I assumed she didn’t have any, but I didn’t verify that with you.”

  Donovan slowly shook his head. “She was an only child. According to my report, her parents died in a car accident when she was seventeen years old. Didn’t find anything about foster care, but it’s not unusual for a seventeen-year-old to be emancipated by virtue of being ignored instead of a court order. Could be she didn’t pursue help and just went it alone. The hell of it is, she was likely smarter to do that. There are a lot of great foster care providers out there, but there are also a fuck ton of leeches in it for the check every month too. It appears she was smart and resourceful and made it on her own. She has grit, and that’s admirable.”

  “She shouldn’t have had to go it alone for so fucking long,” Joe said around his tightly clenched jaw. “Admirable or not, it sucks not to have anyone to lean on or be there to help pick you up if you fall.”

  “You planning to be that person in the future?” Donovan asked casually.

  “Bet your ass, I am,” he snapped.

  Then he realized just how neatly his brother had baited the trap and how quickly he’d fallen right into it. He scowled darkly at Donovan and stepped into his space, his finger up and pointing.

  “You say one fucking word or smile even one fucking smug smile and I’ll rearrange that smile for you,” Joe growled. “Furthermore, you say shit to anyone, and that includes the other clowns I call brother, and it gets back to Zoe or it causes a problem for her, then there’s going to be a serious problem between you and me. The last thing I need right now is yet another reason for her to push me away, not let me in or run the hell as fast and as far away from me and everyone here as possible. You got me?”

  Donovan barely managed to stifle his laughter but it was there, gleaming in his green eyes. But instead of needling Joe any further, he surprised him by dropping the smirk and adopting a look of complete seriousness.

  “Meant what I said, man. You need anything, anything at all. Don’t care what time of day it is, where I am or where you are, you call me. I’ll be one pissed-off big brother you ignore me on this. We clear?”

  Joe nodded, not trusting himself to speak around the knot in his throat.

  “How’d you get Eve to trust you? In the beginning, I mean,” he said when he’d regained his composure.

  Donovan’s gaze softened at the mention of his wife. “I didn’t give her any choice,” he admitted. “I was an ass, if you want to know the truth. But I was a desperate ass. She was going to—hell, what am I saying—she was running. From me, from everyone else. And there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it other than to press my advantage and use every tool available to me, including coercion and manipulation.”

  He winced but continued on. “Not proud of the way I handled it, but neither do I regret it, because however I accomplished my goal, Eve is here. Travis and Cammie are here. Safe. Loved. Taken care of. Not out there still running or, God forbid, if her bastard stepfather hadn’t been taken out and she were still on the run, she could, right this minute, be in his hands, under his control.” Donovan shuddered, his eyes going dark with anger and . . . stark fear and pain. “So no, I don’t have any regrets, because at the end of the day, they’re all safe. Sometimes . . . well, it has to be said. Sometimes the caveman approach really does work the best.”

  Joe burst into laughter. “This is rich. You, who always lectured me and the rest of our brothers on the correct way to treat a woman. Who was always critical of our caveman, knuckles-dragging-the-ground methods and the fact that we weren’t sensitive enough to women’s needs. And now suddenly when it’s your woman we’re talking about, you’re practically beating your chest while grunting and growling my woman. I’m surprised you don’t drag her around by the hair. Or that you allow me and the rest of the men in the family to even look at her, much less talk to her.”

  Donovan shot him a disgruntled look. “I may have strongly considered not letting any of my boneheaded brothers so much as breathe the same air as my wife, but she informed me that my Neanderthal thinking, however endearing, simply wouldn’t fly with her. And then she threatened to withhold sex from me until I saw the error of my ways.”

  Joe choked and sputtered, his eyes watering as he hooted with laughter. He
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