Brighter than the sun, p.14
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       Brighter Than the Sun, p.14

         Part #11 of KGI series by Maya Banks
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  pictured quiet and sweet Evie glaring at Donovan and refusing to have sex with him, and he doubled over, holding his stomach as he howled.

  “You mock my pain,” Donovan said in a wounded voice. “Just wait, Mr. Sensitive. Your time is coming. Laugh it up now. Enjoy it while you have the chance. Your time is so limited it’s not even funny. The hell of it is you won’t mind one fucking bit. You’ll be walking around meek and ball-less with a big ole smile on your face, swearing you love it.”

  Joe grinned. “As long as the right woman is in possession of my balls, then nope, I won’t mind one damned bit.”

  Donovan’s lips twitched and he slapped him on the back, ending the torture session. “Jesus, man, you take all the fun out of mocking you into oblivion. Geesh. You’re pathetic. You were supposed to be more of a challenge than this. It was your duty as last man standing.”

  Joe gave him a two-finger salute and then joined his team, who were all looking at him strangely. Except Nathan, who knew all too well how much his twin’s life was changing—had already changed. He sighed. He only prayed he’d be able to make an announcement to his team soon. That would mean that Zoe was on board and that his relationship with her was a sure thing.

  “Everything okay?” Nathan asked under his breath.

  Joe sighed and ran his hand through his hair. “Yeah. I think so. I hope so. Hell, I have no fucking clue, and I won’t until tonight.”

  “What happens tonight? Anything I can do to help?”

  “Made a date with Zoe to have dinner at my house. Then I kissed her when I took her back to Ma’s yesterday afternoon. You know, after we’d already made dinner plans for tonight.”

  Nathan cringed. “Uh-oh. This doesn’t sound good.”

  Joe let out his breath. “Yeah. Tell me about it. She freaked. Started babbling a bunch of shit about not being good enough for me. That I deserved better. That she’d been sending mixed signals and that it was all her fault. Fuck. Even worse, she kept apologizing over and over. Every other statement was I’m so sorry. I felt about two fucking inches tall, man. And before I could correct that load of crap, she bolted and ran into the house. Jesus.”

  “Damn,” Nathan said quietly. “Y’all still on for tonight?”

  “Oh yeah,” he muttered. “Rusty promised me no matter what she had to do she’d have Zoe ready to go when I got there. I’m taking her at her word. Speaking of Rusty. You know of anything going on with her?”

  Nathan sent him a puzzled look. “What the hell are you talking about? What makes you ask that?”

  Joe sighed. “Just asking. I can’t put my finger on it, but something’s up with her. She’s not herself. Not acting like herself. But that’s all I know and I didn’t want to raise the alarm when it could just be my overactive imagination. I’m so mind fucked over this thing with Zoe that who knows what the hell I’m seeing.”

  Sam called for attention, interrupting his conversation with Nathan. It was just as well since there wasn’t anything more to say, and if he had to speculate or worry any further on Zoe’s state of mind or on the state of their relationship, or lack thereof, he was going to lose his fucking mind and start barking at the moon.

  “Allie’s got the floor for the next hour,” Sam announced. “She’ll be going over the steps in defusing three of the most common bombs used in domestic terrorist threats and attacks. Pay attention, boys and girls, because there will be homework, and there will be a test on this in a few days,” he said with undisguised amusement. “And we’ll meet back up tomorrow for the field lecture and demonstration part of this exercise. I’m being easy on you, cupcakes. Oh nine hundred sharp. It won’t take long, and yes, this is mandatory. You miss and your salary gets docked and you get sidelined. Just in case anyone is thinking of giving it a pass.”

  There was a series of grumbles, flipping the bird and name-calling, and curses echoed through the war room. It was probably one of the very few times Garrett wasn’t threatened over his use of an F-bomb—or rather repeated uses of the F-bomb. For that matter, it was hard to separate out who was dropping the most since it came from so many directions.

  “Jesus, what got up his ass?” Ryker grumbled. “I don’t remember him being such a tight-ass. I may be rethinking my employment.”

  “Oh, I’ve got a good idea what got up his ass,” Skylar muttered, casting a look guaranteed to shrivel a man’s balls on contact in Allie’s direction.

  Joe stifled his laughter and tried to adopt a stern look befitting a team leader. He failed. Miserably.

  “He’s probably worried about Allie sticking around since we haven’t exactly had a lot of action in the last four weeks,” Edge murmured, interjecting his opinion. “So maybe this is his attempt to show her how serious we are. You know, because we can’t be cracking jokes when we have downtime. That would be highly improper.”

  Swanny choked and then covered the sound with a cough, covering his mouth to also hide the not-so-straight face behind it. Nathan pressed his lips together but they still twitched suspiciously. Skylar snorted and rolled her eyes. Ryker emitted a chuckle that got him looks from the rest of the room.

  “Oh for fuck’s sake,” Skylar muttered. “Give me fifteen minutes in the ring with her and I’ll show her how fucking serious I am.”

  Ryker’s eyes widened and he looked like he was about to drop to his knees and worship at the altar of Skylar. He even put one hand over his heart as if reciting his pledge of allegiance to his teammate.

  “Holy fuck, that would be hot,” Edge breathed, his eyes widening in exaggerated fashion. “Oh wait, my sincerest apologies for my unfortunate, extremely inappropriate response, Ms. Watkins. The more appropriate response would be, that would be very educational and an excellent example of just how serious-minded this extremely serious organization of serious special forces operators is. And of course how serious we take the serious matter of opening up a can of whoop ass, er, uh, I mean the matter of seriously training our new recruits, how seriously we take respect, particularly when it comes to the serious issue of humor. We, of course, have no senses of humor and take serious offense to the supposition that the nonexistent senses of humor are in any way inappropriate.”

  Skylar lost it, bursting into laughter and shaking so hard that she began wheezing. She held her ribs, choking each time she tried to form a word. Swanny’s eyes were huge as he stared in shock at the big man who’d just spoken more words in a minute than he had in the entire time he’d been a member of KGI. Nathan and Joe exchanged amused glances, each shaking his head.

  “Wow,” Ryker whispered. “That was righteous. Shit, I had no idea what an irreverent bunch I had fallen in with. I think I’m in love. In a completely platonic, heterosexual way, of course.”

  “Jesus,” Nathan muttered. “We’ve got mutiny on our hands. We’ve got a temper worse than P.J.’s, with more than enough to back up the bravado, and then we have a guy who makes my other brothers look like two-year-olds in the sarcasm department. And then the new guy over here egging them all on. You deal with them, Joe.”

  Joe snorted. “I’m kind of scared of Skylar. I think I’ll just stand here and keep my mouth shut or she might decide to give me fifteen minutes in the ring. I like my good looks just the way they are. But Edge, dude, gotta say, that’s the funniest fucking shit I’ve ever heard in my life. Will you write that up for me so I can hang it up in the team room? I’m thinking about making it our new mantra. And something to aspire to, you know? We should all strive to be more . . . serious.”

  The others groaned. Swanny rolled his eyes. “Leave the humor to Edge, man. You just killed the buzz.”

  “Which one of you cares to share what’s so funny?” Sam asked tersely.

  “Uh-oh,” Edge murmured so only his team could hear. “The serious nanny is about to give time-outs because somebody laughed while school’s in session.”

  Skylar and Swanny made choking sounds again, Ryker had his face turned up toward heaven while mouthing thank you, God, and N
athan looked frozen in place while Joe fought with his lips as they tried to fidget right off his damn face. Ah fuck it. Edge was right. Skylar was right. This serious bullshit was just that. Shit. If the rookie couldn’t deal with a little morbid humor, then she didn’t fucking belong on any KGI team to begin with.

  “Things were getting a little too . . . serious,” Joe said, causing his teammates to groan as they fought another round of laughter. “Just trying to break up the monotony. Anyone got a problem with that?”

  He scanned the room as he made the challenging statement, his gaze lingering on Allie a little longer than the others. Yeah, he was calling her out. It was obvious, but his team was right. Everyone needed to lighten the fuck up. When his gaze found Allie again, she flushed and then glanced down, realizing his team’s pointed message. Joe felt a twinge of guilt. He didn’t want to embarrass her, but for fuck’s sake, she’d embarrassed herself enough at the last meeting when every single person had tried to make her feel more at ease in her surroundings.

  “Not like you to let someone other than Sophie keep your balls for you, Sam,” Joe drawled. “Any particular reason why you’re allowing it now?”

  Sam’s glare was murderous. Garrett looked like he was about to burst a blood vessel as he fought to keep a straight face. Donovan didn’t even try. He covered his face with one hand and looked upward as if praying for guidance, deliverance or strength. Joe couldn’t tell which. Or maybe he was praying for Joe to disappear before Sam did burst something. One thing was clear, though. Joe’s team wasn’t the only one that had problems with Allie’s judgment and disapproval. They were just the only ones who’d had the guts to say anything.

  Sam crossed his arms over his chest and then leaned back against the planning platform as he stared Joe down. “What exactly is that supposed to mean?” he asked in a dangerously quiet voice.

  Skylar cleared her throat. “He doesn’t mean anything, Sam. He’s covering for comments I made, and while you’d probably find those comments inappropriate, I stand by them.”

  Joe held up his hand. “Stand down, Sky. And that’s an order.”

  Skylar lifted one eyebrow but went quiet. She shot Edge an inquisitive look. Joe couldn’t blame her. He and Nathan didn’t give orders and they definitely didn’t voice one in the way he had, like he was on some power trip. They were a team. A well-organized, well-oiled and damn efficient group that did what was needed, no questions asked.

  “My team stands by statements and opinions expressed by my team,” Joe said, an edge to his voice. “We wouldn’t be having this conversation had you not butted into what was clearly team communication in an attempt to micromanage and suppress any hint of a goddamn sense of humor. Get a clue, Sam. No one on my team is offended by humor or opinions, so look somewhere else for your problem. Now if we can get this over with, I’d appreciate it, and I’m sure everyone else would too.”

  Allie’s lips were pressed together and guilt shadowed her eyes. Rio didn’t look pissed nor did he look pleased. He was as unreadable as ever, though he said something, obviously to Allie, because she nodded and faded back into the stronghold of her team. Fine. Let her team protect her. That’s what they were there for. And let her team deal with the stick up her ass while they were at it. Her issues didn’t mean that the entire KGI organization had a problem, and Sam needed to get that memo pretty damn quick before P.J., who was more outspoken than Sky, peeled an inch of hide off Allie’s ass.

  Joe’s gaze darted over to where Steele’s team was posted to get their reaction, but he didn’t even bother looking at Steele. The man wore the same expression twenty-four-seven. Except when learning his wife was pregnant, Joe mentally amended. P.J.’s eyes were dancing with laughter and she was staring at Sky. When Sky glanced in P.J.’s direction, P.J. gave her an exaggerated wink and a thumbs-up behind Cole’s back so it wasn’t witnessed by the entire room.

  Cole met Joe’s expression with a pained one as he dipped his head toward P.J. and then gestured subtly in Sky’s direction. Joe nearly laughed. Cole was clearly praying for mercy. He’d probably had to bear more than one of P.J.’s pissed-off diatribes after both P.J. and Skylar had gone to great lengths to smooth things over with Allie the first time Allie had demonstrated concerns with levity in the workplace. Allie obviously hadn’t been appeased, judging by the way the next meeting had gone and her ever-increasing ire. And after today? And Sam being a giant-ass stick-in-the-mud to match Allie’s brand of stick up the ass? Joe was very glad he didn’t have to go home with P.J. or Skylar. Or Edge for that matter. Edge didn’t get pissed at much. He was too much of a live- and-let-live guy, short on words but big on action. But it was obvious Allie had rubbed him the wrong way and equally clear which side his loyalty was aligned with, given that Sky was his best friend, roommate and coworker.

  “You and I will talk later,” Sam said icily.

  Fuck no they wouldn’t. Joe had bigger fish to fry than listening to a goddamn lecture from his big brother. Besides, Sam really didn’t want to fuck with him right now. His temper was on a short fuse and his patience was in shreds. One wrong word from Sam and he would tell him where he could shove KGI and his job.

  Not the best idea to enter a new relationship unemployed.

  Joe turned back to his team and rolled his eyes, but Skylar looked at him with big, blue, unhappy eyes that shone with apology. Edge looked worried, and Swanny was just staring strangely at him. Nathan was the only one who seemed to be relaxed and unworried, but then he was the only one who knew the source of Joe’s short fuse and hot temper.

  “Let’s just suck it up and get through this,” Joe said in a low voice. “I don’t have time to deal with Sam or any of this bullshit right now, but I will deal with it, I swear.”

  “I’m sorry I ever opened my mouth,” Skylar said miserably, as she and the rest of the team tried to look like they were paying attention to Allie drone on about defusing bombs. “It was childish of me, and I won’t have you take the fall for my pettiness, Joe. You’re a great team leader and you don’t deserve this crap.”

  He smiled gently at her. “You don’t think everyone else here is thinking exactly what you said, but you were the only one willing to give voice to it? Look, if Rio wants to let her ruin the chemistry of his team, that’s Rio’s business, not ours. I doubt he or any of his men have a sense of fucking humor anyway, so they likely don’t give a shit about her uppity, holier-than-thou attitude. But she’s not fucking with or intruding on my team. And no one on my team is going to be given time-outs like a fucking preschooler for speaking his or her mind. Jesus, do you know how insane that is? When has anyone in this organization ever been censured for speaking his or her mind? Hell, until now, it’s always been encouraged. And who in this organization has ever bitched about cracking jokes at ‘inappropriate times’ or criticized this organization for not being serious or whatever the fuck she has up her ass?”

  “I’m not even navy, but that gets a serious hooyah from me,” Edge muttered. “Stupid serious pun intended.”

  “Gotta say, couldn’t have said it better,” Swanny murmured out the side of his mouth.

  Skylar’s lips quirked and her eyes sparkled with amusement. “We going rogue?”

  Joe covered his laughter with his hand, rubbing over his lips until the sound in his throat diminished.

  Ryker looked excited. “Man, have to say, my life was as dull as fuck before I joined up with you all. I’m guessing a normal day on the job is an alien concept to you folks.”

  Nathan leaned forward, pretending interest in the diagrams Allie was pointing to, eliciting another round of snickers from his team. “We’re not going rogue,” Nathan said, impressively keeping his lips still as he continued his act of ventriloquism. “Sky will challenge Allie to a bikini Jell-O wrestling match, and Joe will challenge Sam to a thumb-wrestling, best-of-three match.”

  “Oh hell yes,” Ryker said, his eyes hopeful.

  Edge snorted. “I was hoping for a P.J./Allie throw do
wn. Mud wrestling. Clothes optional. Sky’s like my sister, man. I’d have to bleach my eyeballs if I saw her naked or mostly naked.”

  “I’m oddly offended by that,” Skylar drawled. “God, y’all sound like assholes. Y’all know that, don’t you?”

  Joe grinned. “Of course we do. You didn’t think we were serious, did you? Jesus. And risk not only your ire but yours, P.J.’s and Allie’s? One of you is bad enough, but all three of you on my ass or anyone else’s ass? Like I said, I prefer my good looks intact. Not rearranged along with my balls.”

  “Besides, he’s practicing for the next time we’re all grouped together and not having to watch a boring as fuck bomb presentation,” Nathan offered. “He figures if he says all that shit in front of Allie, then anything else any of us says or laughs at will pale in comparison.”

  “An unexpectedly devious plot,” Skylar said admiringly. “I approve. Gotta admit, though, I had a moment of flash rage when you started spouting all that sexist-pig shit. You’re lucky you’re far enough away from me that I didn’t insta-react and put you on your ass and serve up your balls in my palm.”

  “And she wonders why I keep my mouth shut,” Joe muttered. “Well, most of the time.”

  The rest of his team’s laughter, snorts and snickers were muffled by a variety of measures, eliciting suspicious looks from the rest of the assembled KGI members.

  Joe?

  Joe was immediately alert, all earlier signs of laid-back and joking vanishing instantly. He struggled for a brief moment, trying to coordinate and direct all his focus down the narrow mental pathway that connected him and Shea.

  What’s wrong, sweetheart? Even as he asked the question, he glanced at Nathan in his periphery, but Nathan was completely relaxed, arms crossed over his chest as he watched Allie wrap up her instructional lecture. Do you need help?

  Her soft laughter set him at ease and he felt her hug of reassurance. He never could quite wrap his brain around how she did that. The communicating was weird enough by itself, but how the hell could she make it feel as though she were physically touching him when they were not even in viewing distance? It was as mind-boggling as her ability to not only block pain from the person she was telepathically connected to, but to also take it on herself, redirecting not only the injury but the actual wound and pain that ensued.

  I’m sorry. I tried to think of the best way to talk to you without you thinking the worst but, well, there just wasn’t any. But I’m fine. I promise. I just wanted to know if you could do something for me?

  She sounded uncertain and a little hesitant as she said the last, causing Joe to frown.

  Of course I will, honey. You have to know that. You know, or you should know, that all you have to do is ask. Now what’s the problem and what do you need me to do?

  He felt as well as heard her little sigh of relief. Crazy woman. He was going to have a serious come-to-Jesus meeting with her later about coming to him when she needed something. No matter what it was.

  Her soft laughter invaded his mind again. You do know I can read your mind when we’re connected like this. You may as well have said it. Thinking and saying are the same thing.

  He mentally rolled his eyes. God help him with smart-ass women. It seemed he was plagued with them today.

  She giggled again. He glowered, making sure she was on the telepathic receiving end of it in the process.

  Nathan said he was going to be held up after the meeting for a while. Something to do with digging you out of a mess so you could go home and focus on your female problems. His words, not mine, she hastily amended. Anyway, any other time you know I wouldn’t mind, Joe, but I need him to come straight home. I have something . . . special . . . planned. There’s something I need to tell him, and I wondered if you could maybe make sure he didn’t hang around after y’all’s meeting today?

  With her words came a flash of insight, or rather a view into her thoughts. He felt her smiling and joy flooding him, or rather he was feeling her joy, and then the image of Shea with a protruding belly, her hand resting protectively over the swell as she whispered softly to her unborn child.

  Holy fuck. He glanced sideways at his brother again, barely able to contain the smile from taking over his face. Nathan was going to be a father! His twin was having his first child. Holy shit, this was epic!

  Then he sobered. Honey, are you happy about this? Was this planned? Were y’all trying? Left unsaid was the fact that Nathan had said nothing to Joe about the possibility and eventuality of Shea becoming pregnant. Wouldn’t Nathan have shared something that momentous with the person he was closest to on earth next to his wife?

  He didn’t tell you because it wasn’t final, Shea said gently. It’s difficult to put into words. She laughed at the unintended joke. Or rather thoughts, I suppose. We have talked about it, yes. But he was worried that I wasn’t ready and that he was projecting his own desires onto me, so he stopped talking about it completely. But he definitely wants a child—I want a child, she said, conviction lacing her words.

  I just want to make sure you’re both happy, Joe said warmly. After all, you’re my two favorite people on earth. Congratulations, little mama. I’m so happy for you and my brother. And yes, I’ll make sure he gets his ass home right after we finish up here, which should be in the next two minutes.

  Thanks, Joe. You’re the best. You’re going to be this baby’s godfather, you know.

  His heart swelled with a myriad of emotions. Love. Gratitude. Pride. And hope. So much hope. Not only for his brother and sister-in-law but for him as well, that in the not-so-distant future, this would be his life. With Zoe.

  You’ll get there, Joe. You have to believe that. If you love her, then never doubt her or you or the eventuality of a life with her.

  Thanks, baby girl. Thank God he wasn’t having to hold this conversation by speaking or he’d never be able to get the words out around the huge knot in his throat. Gotta run now. We’re wrapping up now so you have about ten minutes to prepare.

  Love you, Joe.

  Love you too, sweetheart. Take good care of yourself and my niece or nephew.

  On cue, Allie wrapped up her session and then stepped back, indicating to Sam that the floor was his. Already everyone else was shuffling, picking up stuff they had with them and starting to inch in the direction of the doorway. Sam sighed and merely said, “Dismissed. We’ll readjourn at oh nine hundred tomorrow morning.”

  Nathan hesitated, and Joe clapped him on the shoulder. “Don’t bother, man. I can read you like a book. You’re not taking on Sam in my place so I can get home and figure out my game plan for tonight. We’re both going out the back way. Fuck Sam. He can wait until fucking tomorrow.”

  Nathan grinned. “That’s not a bad plan. Shea said she had a surprise for me when I got back, and her surprises usually involve sexy new lingerie.”

  Joe groaned. “Dude, really? Can we not go there?”

  “Gladly,” Nathan said in satisfaction. “You are not getting any intel on how my woman looks in Victoria’s Secret shit.”

  Joe cast him a baleful look. “It was you who brought up her lingerie to begin with. Remember?”

  CHAPTER 18

 
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