Brighter than the sun, p.15
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       Brighter Than the Sun, p.15

         Part #11 of KGI series by Maya Banks
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  ZOE’S stomach was full of butterflies as she finished applying the sheer lip gloss and smacked her lips together as she surveyed her reflection in the mirror. No messy bun tonight. Instead she’d brushed out the long strands, leaving them loose down her back. Despite her earlier concerns about lengthening her hair, she had to admit she liked it. A lot.

  When this was all over with and the extensions came out, she had a goal to grow out her hair just as long as it was now. Embarrassment forced her gaze downward as she was unable to even meet her own eyes in the mirror. It was humiliating to admit that she’d worn her hair to a precise length because that was what her father had required. He was very exacting in his requirements. Right down to manner of dress, precise wardrobe, hair, makeup and even jewelry and accessories.

  “What you are is a wuss,” she accused the reflection staring back at her. “A spineless jellyfish who’s scared of her own shadow and possesses absolutely no gumption.”

  “You’re awfully hard on jellyfish,” Rusty commented dryly from the doorway.

  Zoe spun around, horrified that she’d been overheard talking to herself.

  “Relax, Zoe. You look frozen stiff. You have to relax, and for God’s sake, cut yourself some slack.”

  Zoe sighed. “My life is a mess. It’s always been a mess, and the fact that I’ve never done a single thing to correct that or stand up to my father is beyond mortifying.”

  Rusty lifted an eyebrow. “Is that not what you’re doing now? I’m pretty sure dear old dad doesn’t have a clue where you are, what you’re doing or who you’re doing it with.”

  A smile glimmered on Zoe’s lips. She fought it but it continued to tug at her mouth until she let out a laugh. “Very true.” Then she giggled harder. “Can you imagine bringing Joe home to meet my dad? My dad would be all pompous and condescending and Joe would be like, ‘I don’t really give a fuck what you think.’”

  Rusty broke into laughter, her eyes sparking in merriment. “What’s bad is I can totally see it. I could see it with any of my brothers. Especially Garrett.”

  “Is it also bad that I suddenly feel one hundred percent better about tonight’s date?”

  Rusty grinned. “You have a liking for rebellion, do you?”

  “I guess,” she murmured. “Who knew I’d become such a wild child. I swear for the entirety of my life until now I was a study in obedience and subservience.”

  “You had reason,” Rusty said gently. “It’s not a crime to want love and acceptance. Especially from the people who are supposed to give it freely and without condition. I’m not too ashamed to admit that I would have done anything to please my mother and even my shithead stepfather until I finally realized it was pointless and the only thing that had been successful was the deterioration of my self-respect.”

  “I know that feeling,” Zoe said glumly.

  Rusty checked her watch. “Joe should be rolling up any time now so you need to finish up and head downstairs. If you make him wait tonight, I’m worried he’ll come up the stairs and carry you out over his shoulder. Cut him some slack, Zoe. He was all out of sorts when you had your meltdown after he kissed you. The poor guy was too pitiful even for me to give shit to.”

  Zoe rolled her eyes but hurried to complete her makeup. A few minutes later, she stepped back from the mirror.

  “That’s as good as it’s going to get.”

  “You look perfect,” Rusty said warmly. “And I hear Joe, so not a moment too soon. Let’s go.”

  Zoe allowed herself to be herded down the stairs, but she refused to meet Joe’s gaze. It was too embarrassing after freaking out on him the night before. She whispered good-bye to Rusty, Frank and Marlene and then walked out to Joe’s truck with him. He opened her door for her and helped her up before walking around and getting in the driver’s seat.

  He cranked the engine but didn’t immediately drive away. He reached over and curled his hand around hers then picked her hand up and pulled it to his mouth to kiss each finger. She stared at him in shock.

  He smiled. “Finally. I wasn’t sure if you were going to avoid looking at me all night.”

  She blushed furiously and ducked her head. But he tucked his fingers underneath her chin and nudged it back up so their gazes met again.

  “Don’t do that, beautiful. Whatever you’re thinking or feeling, let it go. Can you do that for me tonight?”

  She smiled, slowly relaxing in his presence. “Yeah, I can do that.”

  His eyes were warm and tender and his smile was gentle. His smile broadened with her agreement.

  “Yeah? Good deal. Let’s go eat then. Fish are all cleaned and prepped and ready to fry. Even the hush puppies are mixed.”

  “Sounds good. I’ve never been able to eat fish I’ve caught myself,” she said ruefully.

  “Well, thanks to you, we both get to eat tonight,” he said, giving her a warm smile again.

  She found herself seated on a bar stool at the kitchen counter where Joe poured her a glass of wine before instructing her to sit back and relax and keep him company while he cooked.

  She sniffed appreciatively as the smell of frying fish and hush puppies soon filled the air. She’d been so petrified about this evening after the debacle of last night, but she felt none of the unease she’d imagined. It was as if last night hadn’t even happened. Joe was still . . . Joe. The same guy he’d been over the last three days. He was funny and sweet and unfailingly conscientious of her every need. And the way he looked at her sent the already present butterflies into flight mode as they scuttled round and round in her belly and chest.

  When he was finished taking out the last of the fish and hush puppies, he set the tray down on the counter before refilling her wineglass and filling his own, and then he walked around to slide onto the stool beside her.

  He reached for one of the headless fish—thank God it was headless—and put it on her plate but held on to it.

  “There’s a little trick to eating it but nothing difficult,” he assured. He pinched his thumb and forefinger over one of the fins while holding the rest of the body steady. Then he lifted and easily removed the fin, creating a horizontal dividing line in the meat of the fish. Then he turned the fish over and repeated the process with the lower fin as well. “Now you’re ready to peel off one of the filets,” he said triumphantly.

  He carefully pulled down with his thumb, sliding a thin slice of meat that was breaded on one side but bare on the inside. Steam rose from the white flesh and Zoe noticed little tiny black squiggly markings through it.

  “Now, just because I peeled away the filet doesn’t mean there might not still be a few tiny bones around the edges, especially toward the top where the ribs were located. You have to chew carefully and if you feel anything hard or sharp, maneuver it onto your tongue and simply reach in and pluck it out or spit it into a paper towel,” he added with a grin.

  Her eyes narrowed suspiciously at him. “Is this an attempt to dupe me into some fish-out-of-water city-girl trip where I do or say something completely ridiculous that results in you laughing yourself silly over how totally out of my depth I am?”

  His brow furrowed and he looked confused at first. A rush of shame and regret washed over her, heating her skin and reddening her cheeks until they felt like they were on fire. He stared intently at her, his eyes seeming to penetrate right through her barriers so he saw to the heart of her. As if he saw how much she feared being the butt of his—or anyone’s—joke.

  “Zoe, sweetheart, that seriously pisses me off,” he said in a growl-laced voice. “Not that you questioned my intentions. You’re absolutely allowed to do that anytime you want. I’ll always be honest with you about my intentions. I swear it. What pisses me off is whatever bastard trained you to expect the worst from people. And it pisses me off even more that you’re speaking from personal experience.”

  She shifted uncomfortably, fingering the still-hot piece of meat she hadn’t even tasted yet. The last thing she wanted was his pity. And
she had a feeling if she apologized it would only piss him off all the more, so she said nothing and instead gingerly bit into the fish, blowing around the edges of her mouth so it didn’t burn her tongue.

  Paying heed to his warning, she chewed carefully, feeling for anything that felt like a piece of bone. The delicious flavor burst onto her taste buds and her eyes instantly widened.

  “This is really good,” she blurted.

  He smiled. “Would I lead you wrong?”

  She took another bite, chewing quickly. Then she picked up one of the hush puppies, noticing that Joe was dipping his into ketchup. She frowned, but he hadn’t been wrong yet. So she followed suit, dipping her hush puppy into his ketchup since she hadn’t poured any onto her plate yet, and then tentatively took a small bite of the fried cornbread.

  Again she was stunned.

  “Good?” Joe asked in amusement.

  But she was already stuffing the rest of the hush puppy into her mouth, waving him away imperiously with her free hand.

  He burst out laughing and then quickly deboned a few more pieces of fish and piled them onto her plate along with several hush puppies. He even squirted a generous amount of ketchup onto her plate and then sat back, watching as she continued to eat with enthusiasm.

  She halted when she realized he wasn’t eating. He was just staring at her. She paused in the act of putting more into her mouth and turned to look at him.

  “What? Why aren’t you eating?”

  He smiled that bone-melting, heart-wrenching smile that made her want to cry and smile all at the same time. It was a smile that had the most confusing effect on her. Her knees went weak and her nipples immediately puckered. How could he make her think of sex simply by smiling?

  He was dangerous to all women. God, if this was all it took, he had to have women in his bed every freaking day, or at least anytime he wanted them. A man like him didn’t need to settle down with one in particular and embrace a life of monogamy. He could play by any set of rules he wanted, and Zoe doubted women would even care.

  So why was he focusing so much of his attention and charm on . . . her? It didn’t make any sense. Zoe wasn’t being pitiful or woebegone. She was matter-of-fact about her assets, features and appearance. She was just mediocre. She wasn’t ugly, but she was far from beautiful. Definitely average. Someone who blended with a crowd, never standing out. She wasn’t the type to ever stop traffic, and she was grateful for that fact. It had enabled her to disappear and remain out of notice thus far, so she had to be doing something right.

  “What the hell are you torturing yourself about now?” Joe murmured, stroking his fingertip lightly down the curve of her cheek.

  Such a simple caress had the power to rob her of speech and make her completely forget herself and what she was doing. What had she been doing? Other than staring at him like an idiot. She opened her mouth to respond but found she couldn’t think of a single thing to say.

  “I have no idea,” she finally admitted. “Every time you look at me that way or touch me, my mind goes to mush.”

  Oh God, had she just admitted that? Could the floor open up and swallow her . . . like now?

  But he didn’t laugh or make fun of her. No, he was as serious as someone could get.

  “I’m glad I’m not the only one in way over his head here,” he said quietly. “It would suck if I was the only one feeling that way about you looking at or touching me.”

  Her mouth fell open as she gaped at him. Then she snapped it shut and quickly returned to her meal. Eat. Just eat and pretend he hadn’t said something that outrageous or that the result of him saying that had her heart fluttering so wildly that she couldn’t catch her breath.

  She ate robotically, afraid to glance his way again in case he had any other mind-blowing revelations guaranteed to tilt the earth on its axis. But he remained quiet until she had finished. She pushed her plate back with a sigh and then flashed him a smile without directly looking at him.

  “That was fantastic, Joe. I really enjoyed it.”

  “I’m glad,” he said simply.

  He lifted one leg over the stool and grabbed their plates before heading to the sink to dump them. Then he simply returned to where she was sitting and laced his fingers with hers before pulling her up and guiding her toward the living room couch.

  He settled her onto the plump cushions and then eased beside her, pulling her into the crook of his shoulder. She tensed for a long moment before gradually relaxing into his embrace. His arm was wrapped around her shoulders, resting on her opposite arm, his fingers lazily tracing lines up and down her skin.

  He was seducing her with nothing more than the lightest of touches. Already she was ready to squirm off the couch, and she could kick herself for overreacting so badly the night before when he’d kissed her. Now, he’d never kiss her again. But she could kiss him, couldn’t she?

  She licked her lips before realizing what she was doing. He groaned softly and closed his eyes, strain evident on his forehead. He sucked in a deep breath and then turned his head toward her, their noses just inches apart.

  He reached up to touch her face, tracing her cheekbone with the gentlest of caresses.

  “Tell me something, Zoe,” he said quietly. “If you could have anything you wanted in the world, have any wish granted, what would you wish for?”

  She swallowed nervously. If that wasn’t a loaded question destined to get her into huge trouble, she didn’t know what was. But maybe he was tired of being the one making all the overtures. Was this his plea for her to meet him halfway? Had she sent the wrong message after all?

  Closing her eyes, she sighed and gathered her courage tightly around her, her hands trembling as she tried to work the knot from her throat. Then finally, she was able to form actual words.

  “You,” she whispered. “You, Joe. I’d wish for you.”

  Satisfaction and so much relief blazed in his eyes, telling her that she hadn’t in any way just made the worst mistake of her life. He cupped her cheek as he lowered his face to hers, his eyes half lidded and heavy with desire.

  “Then make both our dreams come true, Zoe,” he said in a gruff voice. “Make love with me. Let me make love to you. Let me show you how very perfect it would be between us. I’ve never wanted anything so much in my life. I’ve never wanted anyone as much as I want you.”

  She bit her lip as her heart hammered thunderously against her chest wall. Her mouth went completely dry and she had to unstick her tongue from the roof of her mouth so she could speak.

  “Do you really mean that?” she asked hoarsely.

  “If you give me the chance, I’ll show you,” he vowed.

  “Then make love to me,” she said in the softest whisper. “Please.”

  “That is something you never have to ask me for,” he breathed past her lips as their tongues met hotly.

  He delved deep, stroking his tongue over hers and then exploring the deepest recesses of her mouth until she was breathing him. Smelling him. Utterly intoxicated by his taste and touch. She shivered as his fingers danced lightly over her shoulders and then skated down her arms until they circled her wrists like bracelets.

  He entwined their hands as he pulled her to her feet and then began walking her backward toward another room. Even as she backstepped through the open doorway, one of his hands flipped the light switch while the other slid beneath her shirt, pulling the ends free from her pants.

  The hand that had left her ever so briefly returned, cupping and molding her breast through her bra and shirt, his fingers coming together to lightly tug at the rigid peak. She gasped, and he swallowed up the sound and then slid both hands beneath her shirt, lifting upward and urging her arms above her head so he could pull the shirt over her head.

  Wanting to touch him as badly as he seemed to want to touch her, she gave him the same treatment, sliding her palms over the light smattering of hair at his midline, pushing his shirt as she continued upward until he voluntarily lifted his arms an
d helped her free him completely of it.

  They went for each other’s pants simultaneously, fumbling, hands bouncing off denim, the rasping sound of zippers as each frantically tried to free the other. Then Joe went still, reaching for Zoe’s wrists and holding them as he slowed the pace.

  “Let me savor this moment—you,” he murmured, his eyes glowing warmly with need and desire. “This will be the most perfect night of my life, guaranteed, and I want to make sure it’s damn perfect for you too.”

  Her heart melted even further at the gravity in his tone, utter seriousness etched into his expression as he made love to her with his eyes alone. Heat crept up her neck and into her cheeks as he stood back, his gaze solidly fixed on her as he gently unfastened the clasp of her bra. He gave the straps a gentle tug and allowed it to flutter downward, landing on the floor between them.

  Then he turned his attention to finishing the job of sliding her jeans off, bending to one knee as he freed first one of her legs and then the other. She felt utterly exposed and vulnerable, standing before him in just the lacy panties she’d worn. His eyes once more fastened on hers, he hooked his thumbs in the thin band, resting his hands at her hips, and then tugged downward until finally she was completely bared to his gaze and his touch.

  She shivered at the predatory gleam in his eyes, at the heated way his gaze slid so sensuously over her skin. Palming her shoulders, he once more walked her back until the underside of her legs met the mattress of his bed.

  He coaxed her downward and then knelt in front of her, his lips closing over her nipple. Chill bumps erupted over her flesh and she quaked under the onslaught of his mouth as he tongued and sucked each nipple in turn, repeating several times before returning to her lips, his fingers thrust into her hair, angling her head downward to meet his mouth while he remained on his knees.

  “You’re so damn beautiful,” he rasped.

  His hands continued to roam freely, touching and caressing every inch of exposed flesh he could find as he kissed her and fed on her lips, sucking the tip of her tongue into his mouth. Her hands flew to his shoulders when he started upward, levering her back as he moved up and over her.

  He left her for only as long as it took to free himself from his pants and underwear, and she boldly stared down the length of his body, taking in his highly muscled physique, broad shoulders, rigid six-pack and sizable erection. Her eyes widened and she made a uniquely feminine sound of appreciation.

  Unable to resist, she reached to slide her fingers down the length of him as he climbed onto the bed between her legs. He went utterly still, closing his eyes as he groaned in pleasure. If possible, he grew even harder and larger as she stroked and then went lower to cup his sac, running her fingers over the slightly rougher skin there.

  Moisture beaded the broad head and she wiped her finger over it, collecting it before bringing her hand to her mouth to slowly insert the digit between her lips, sucking before releasing her finger with an audible pop.

  Joe moaned again, the muscles in his neck and chest rigid and straining as he lowered his body carefully onto hers. His heat was a shock as he blanketed her, all the masculine hardness making her feel dainty and feminine. Desirable even. This was no man who found having sex with her to be a chore.

  Though the thought was triumphant, it also held a discordant note, but she refused to allow thoughts of Sebastian to intrude on the beauty of this moment with a man who made him look and sound like a complete wuss.

  His mouth crashed down on hers, hot, urgent, so passionate it took her breath away. His body covered hers, molded her softness to his much harder frame, and yet he cradled her protectively, making her feel more cherished than she’d ever felt in her life.

  His mouth moved hotly down her jaw to her neck, stopping to nibble and graze his teeth lightly over her ear before switching to the other side and starting all over again from the top. This time when he reached her ear, he swept downward, centering his lips and tongue on the hollow of her throat before kissing a path down her midsection, from the valley of her breasts to her navel.

  He licked the shallow indention before beginning a torturous path back up, this time veering to one breast, toying and teasing her nipple before finally sucking it firmly between his teeth, nipping with just enough bite to have her awash in pleasurable agony of the sweetest kind.

  Not having had much experience in the sex department, Zoe had no idea a man could be as patient as Joe. As undemanding and unselfish. It seemed he spent hours on her breasts alone until she was arching helplessly beneath him, responding to the exquisite sensations. The breathless pants and moans that filled the air were coming from her.

  “Joe!” she gasped.

  “Easy, honey,” he crooned, giving her nipple a long, lazy swipe just as his hand slid slowly between her splayed legs.

  She went rigid, her mouth forming an O as his fingers gently parted her folds, baring her ultrasensitive clit to his touch. He made her wait, stroking through her wetness, petting and teasing her opening, then moving ever closer to the pulsating, swollen nub.

  If he didn’t touch her soon, she was going to die. If he touched her, she was going to die. Either way she was going to explode.

  She whimpered deep in her throat. “Joe, please.”

  He rewarded her by stroking his thumb in a circular motion while sliding his middle finger just inside the mouth of her pussy. She went rigid, her mouth opening in a silent cry. He grew bolder, exerting more pressure on her clit and sliding his fingers deeper inside her, stroking her walls as she clutched greedily at them, clenching and spasming as he increased the speed and intensity of his movements.

  His head lifted from her breast, and for a moment, he fondled her and playfully teased her with only his fingers as he watched her every reaction.

  “God, you’re so beautiful,” he said, pressing a kiss to her navel as he slowed the rhythm of his fingers.

  She was so on edge, so close to the edge, that if he so much as breathed on her in just the right place, she’d see fireworks. And yet at the same time, she didn’t want it to end. She wanted to prolong it until she was crazy with anticipation. Who was she kidding? She was already mindless with an insane need for completion.

  She gazed at him with heavy-lidded eyes, loving the absolute focus she saw in his. Focus on her and her pleasure. She lifted her hand and slid it through his
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