Brighter than the sun, p.17
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       Brighter Than the Sun, p.17

         Part #11 of KGI series by Maya Banks
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  “Rusty, what the hell?” he demanded. “Are you just trying to get shot? What the fuck are you doing? And put your damn clothes back on,” he said in a strangled voice.

  She smiled to herself. His gaze had been trained to her body ever since discovering who was in his bedroom—or bed, to be more exact—and his eyes were focused on her breasts to the exclusion of all else.

  “Well, if you insist,” she said innocently, throwing back the sheet to fully uncover her nudity.

  Sean looked as if he had just swallowed his tongue, and then he closed his eyes, his jaw tight, and she could see it tic in agitation. His hand shook as he replaced his gun in his holster. Well, at least he wasn’t unaffected, which had been her worst fear.

  “For God’s sake, Rusty, what the hell are you doing in my bed? For that matter, how the hell did you get in?”

  She smirked. “Your security system sucks.”

  Sean rubbed a tired hand over his face. “What’s really going on here, Rusty? And why are you . . . naked . . . in my bed?” He almost choked over the word naked.

  “If I have to spell it out for you then there really is no hope for you.”

  He sat on the end of the bed, torment and clear indecision reflected in his eyes. He suddenly seemed so unsure when he was always nothing if not certain of himself.

  “What is it you want?” he asked softly.

  “You,” she said bluntly. “We’ve been dancing around each other for years, Sean. I refuse to believe my attraction is one sided. And it’s obvious you aren’t going to make the first move, so I did. This seemed to be the best way to get your attention, and judging by your reaction, I’d say it worked.”

  “You know this can’t happen, Rusty,” he said gently.

  “Do I? Do you, for that matter? Your words say one thing but your eyes say something quite different,” she said quietly.

  “You’re a beautiful woman, sweetheart. No man with a dick is going to ignore you.”

  “Except you, apparently,” she said, suddenly feeling the need to yank the covers back over her. But she’d be damned if she’d back down now. “You kissed me, remember? Because I remember every second of it. I’ve never forgotten it, Sean. Did you? Can you look me in the eye and tell me you forgot? Maybe it meant nothing to you, but it meant everything to me. And I never got to kiss you.”

  She crawled to the end of the bed, ignoring the alarmed look on his face, focusing instead on the blaze of desire that sparked in his eyes. She wrapped her arms around his shoulders, noting the rigidity with which he held himself in check. Then she pressed her lips to his and sighed, melting against him, her breasts pressing to his hard, muscled chest.

  He let out a groan that sounded like a mixture of protest and raw desire, and she took the opportunity to trace the inside of his mouth with her tongue. To slide the tip over the rough edges of his. For one glorious moment, he gave in and took control of the kiss, and the mastery in it made her quiver from head to toe. Then he abruptly grasped her shoulders, setting her firmly away from him, his expression hard. A quick glance down confirmed he was hard elsewhere too.

  “This can’t happen, Rusty. Damn it. Just stop.”

  “You can’t deny your response to me,” she whispered.

  “I think it’s safe to say that I’d have the same reaction if any beautiful, naked woman wrapped herself around me,” he snapped.

  She flinched as if she’d been slapped, recoiling and ducking her head to hide the sudden surge of tears. Never had she felt as devastated as she did in this moment. Not the torment of her childhood. The humiliation heaped upon her by her mother and then her stepfather or the constant mockery and shame leveled at her in high school.

  She’d sworn when she was little more than a child that no one would ever see her cry again.

  “Rusty, honey,” he said gently.

  “I’m nothing to you, not good enough for you,” she said tonelessly. “You’ve made that abundantly clear for years. I guess I’m just too dumb and too fresh from the trailer park for someone of your standing. Apparently I needed someone to beat me over the head with it. Well, you just did. Congratulations. I get it.”

  Sean swore long and viciously. “Goddamn it, Rusty, that is not what I meant. Would you listen to me, please? The last thing I want is to hurt you.”

  “Too late,” she said, choking back tears.

  She wrapped the sheet around her and then scrambled to retrieve her clothing, ignoring his repeated pleas for her to listen. She was done subjecting herself to rejection and being treated like a fucking charity case. Sean Cameron could go fuck himself because she was finished putting herself on the line when he was too big of a coward to do the same.

  Sean’s cell rang and he swore as he picked up his phone.

  “Cameron,” he clipped out. “What?”

  The way he said what sent a prickle of apprehension down Rusty’s spine.

  “I’m on my way. I’ll get Rusty and bring her. Give me five minutes.”

  He closed his phone, his face a wreath of concern. “Get dressed,” he said tersely.

  “Sean, what’s wrong?” she asked, hating the fact that her voice trembled.

  “Zoe’s gone missing and it doesn’t look good. You’re going with me because it would seem you’re the only one who has any real answers.”

  She went pale and her lips trembled. “Oh God,” she whispered. “No. He couldn’t have found her. He couldn’t have,” she moaned.

  “Save it for Joe, who’s out of his fucking mind,” Sean snapped. “You’ve got a hell of a lot of explaining to do, like the he in question finding her, but none of which entails me finding you naked in my bed.”

  “Oh, don’t worry, Sean. I’d never humiliate myself any more than I already have. You have my promise that will never happen again.”


  THE last of the testing had just been completed and Allie was visibly stunned that every single KGI member had not only passed but had done so with speed and accuracy she clearly wasn’t expecting. She also seemed surprised that there seemed to be little doubt among her team members that they would pass so easily. She’d fully expected them to rub it in her face, but she’d been wrong about that as well. She was puzzled by the entire situation.

  Shame swept through her, through every judgmental bone in her body. She’d been so convinced that her position in the KGI organization was provisional, that somehow she was a second-class citizen, the rookie who had to prove what a badass she was so she’d fit in with all the other badasses that surrounded her. Worse was the fact that there were already two female warriors who were obviously as qualified as their male counterparts and treated as equals. She’d seen nothing but respect leveled at P.J. and Skylar. She wanted that same respect and yet had done nothing to earn it except act like a bitch with an ax to grind and a bad attitude. Hardly the team player she professed to wanting to be. It was she who had a hell of a lot of learning to do, not the others.

  It embarrassed her that she had been the one coming in with preconceived notions, not her new teammates. She was the one with a chip on her shoulder and she’d made a complete ass of herself when she had nothing to prove to anyone.

  Was it any wonder the others weren’t exactly extending their friendship? Loyalty? Absolutely. Backup? She had no doubt there. But camaraderie, friendship and a true sense of belonging? Not so much, and that was on her.

  A loud buzz interrupted her somber thoughts and she glanced sharply around as the entire room came to attention, gazes intent and tense, ready for action. A few curses rent the air and someone muttered, “All good things must come to an end.”

  Donovan was the first to reach the phone she realized was the secure line, which never meant a social call or someone calling for a friendly chat. It was a call to arms.

  “Kelly here,” he said tersely.

  There was a long pause.

  “What the fuck? Slow down, Joe. Tell me what happened.”

  The entire room surg
ed closer to Donovan, concern etched on every single person’s face, most especially that of Nathan, Joe’s twin.

  “Fuck!” Donovan exploded. “Keep your cool, man. We’ll be there in two.”

  He hung up amid a chorus of demands to know what the hell was wrong. He ignored the outcry and began issuing orders.

  “Nathan’s and Steele’s teams with me. Rio, your team stays here to organize communications and act as backup. Until we know what we’re up against, I need every available man at the ready.”

  Allie frowned. “He’s one of our own. Shouldn’t we all be going?”

  Nathan and his team turned to Allie, their expressions not the friendliest. Even P.J., Cole and Dolphin closed ranks with Nathan and the rest of his and Joe’s team.

  But it was Sam who held his hand up to silence the others before they had time to respond.

  “We live and die as a team, and thus far you haven’t proven to be a team player. And this concerns one of our own, so I only want those who are committed one hundred and ten percent to this family to be involved in this mission. Because we are family, not just some fucking organization that collects a paycheck and calls it a day. Now, we’ve wasted enough fucking time while my brother obviously needs our help. Donovan can give a report on what he knows on the way. Now move out. Double time.”

  “I was unfair to you all,” Allie said in a low voice. “I owe you all an apology, but as you said, right now one of our own needs our help, and my wrongs can be righted later if I’m given that opportunity.”

  “Rio? It’s your call,” Sam said to the team leader.

  Rio simply nodded. “Fall in and let’s get the fuck out of here.”

  Ninety seconds later, four vehicles roared to a stop outside Joe’s cabin. Nathan led the charge inside and his heart sank when he saw Joe sitting on the couch, his face buried in his hands. He looked up when he heard the others enter and Nathan winced at the raw agony and grief reflected in his twin’s eyes.

  Nathan sank onto the couch next to him while the others stood by, tense and ready to go to fucking war if that’s what it took.

  “What happened?” Nathan asked softly.

  “I left her here,” Joe said painfully. “I left her here unprotected. I told her I wouldn’t be gone long. Asked her to stay and we’d have breakfast when I got back.” He gestured at the living room that looked as though a tornado had hit it. “This is what I came home to. And the bedroom . . .” He broke off, choking on the words, once more burying his face in his hands

  Sam gestured to Dolphin and Baker to check the bedroom.

  “What was in the bedroom?” Nathan pressed quietly.

  “She fought hard,” Joe said painfully. “Her blood is on the floor, Jesus, even the wall. Splattered like some asshole hit her hard enough to spill her blood. I left her here, goddamn it!”

  “You couldn’t have known, Joe,” Skylar said gently, taking the seat on his other side.

  She slipped her hand into his, holding tightly.

  “No, but if I hadn’t dragged my fucking heels about building inside the compound, if I had my house already built, she would have been there, safe, inside the compound where some asshole couldn’t get to her.”

  “The question is who?” Sam said.

  “I think Rusty probably has the answer to that question,” Sean said grimly from the doorway as he propelled Rusty inside.

  Joe was on his feet immediately, his expression pleading. Rusty rushed into his arms, tears running down her cheeks. He crushed her to him, holding her tightly.

  “You have to help me, Rusty. You have to tell me what you know. Everything. Don’t leave anything out. Someone has her. She’s hurt. Her blood is all over my bedroom.”

  Rusty drew away and hugged her arms around her middle as she faced the room full of people all staring at her for answers. She closed her eyes as more tears leaked down her cheeks.

  “Her real name is Stella Huntington.”

  “What the fuck?” Joe demanded.

  Donovan held his hand up. “Let her explain, Joe. We don’t have much time.”

  Rusty closed her eyes once more and her voice quavered as she made her next revelation. “Her father is Garth Huntington.”

  The room went utterly silent as shocked looks came at her from every direction. Then an explosion of responses echoed over the room. Joe was torn between shock and betrayal. He didn’t understand any of it. Zoe—Stella—whoever the fuck she was . . . Her father was a crime lord who headed one of the biggest criminal empires in North America?

  Rusty hurried back to Joe and hugged him tightly before leaning back and staring earnestly into his eyes. “She didn’t use you or betray you, Joe. She was running for her life. I created a new identity for her. An airtight one. One that couldn’t possibly link her to Stella Huntington. She had no idea who or what her father was until some asshole played her in an effort to get to her father, a father who never gave a shit about her, who spent her entire life telling her what to do, how to be, who to be, how to dress. He dictated every aspect of her life.”

  She sucked in a deep breath before anyone could say anything because everyone looked like they were about to erupt. She continued on breathlessly, the words tumbling out so fast even she had a hard time following her train of thought.

  “Sebastian, the bastard who got close to her, used her and played on her insecurities and her need to be loved for the first time in her life, did so in an effort to get to her father. When he realized her father didn’t give one fuck about her, his plan changed. Zoe overheard him on the phone with someone saying that she was no longer of any use because the old man didn’t give a shit about her, so using her as a pawn was pointless, and he planned to kill her.”

  A round of curses went up and Joe’s face tightened to the point of fury.

  Rusty put her hand on his arm, feeling the coil of muscles tense and spasm beneath her touch. “Please, let me finish,” she begged.

  “She panicked. She knew no one and had no friends. Except . . . me. We did meet when we were in college. That much is true. She attended UT. She came to me because she had no one else to turn to, and thank God she did. After a lot of hacking and long hours of mind-numbing work, I created an entirely new identity—a new life—and Zoe Kildare was born. It was the name of the imaginary friend she had growing up because she had no one else,” Rusty whispered painfully. “I created her entire life from birth to the present, complete with social media presences and contacts, an Amazon account with a history of purchases that matched her new persona. I got her a birth certificate issued in her new name, Social Security card and driver’s license as well as recorded attendance and graduation from DePaul University in Chicago.

  “We laid a lot of false trails to separate parts of the country, even opening a bank account on the East Coast. And since most people trying to disguise themselves can only cut, not grow, their hair, I not only dyed her hair from its original red color, I meticulously layered in extensions so they looked as natural as possible so her hair appeared a good six inches longer than her actual length. I created an entirely new look for her, so much so that her own father wouldn’t recognize her.”

  “Holy shit,” Donovan said in awe. “You managed all of that, Rusty? Shit, even I came up with nothing except what you created when I did some digging on her.”

  “Why the hell didn’t either of you tell me?” Joe asked painfully. “I would have never left her alone and unprotected. This would have never happened. I understand why Zoe wouldn’t—couldn’t—trust me, but why didn’t you, Rusty?”

  Her eyes filled with tears. “I couldn’t betray her, Joe. How was I to know you’d fall for her or even take an interest in her? If I betrayed her, if she even suspected I had confided the truth in any of my family, she would have run and she’d be dead right now.”

  Sam cleared his throat to get Joe’s attention. “I’m sending Rio and his team to gather the wives and hole up at Ma’s. We have no way of knowing what this asshole has
planned, if he’s still in the vicinity or off to parts unknown, but we’d be dumbasses if we took anything for granted. No one goes anywhere until we get this figured out. Steele, I need you to go pull surveillance footage of the cabin and surroundings, including the outside perimeter of the compound, but leave P.J. and Cole to provide cover here just in case.”

  Joe shook himself from his terror long enough to issue orders to his team as well. “Sky, you and Swanny do a complete sweep of the bedroom and be careful not to contaminate any potential evidence. Edge, I need you and Ryker on the lookout around the cabin and search for any tracks, footprints or tire marks.”

  Then he turned back to Rusty, trying to wrap his head around the deception he’d become unwittingly mired in.

  “What was this asshole’s name again? The one who fucked her over in order to get to her father?”

  “Sebastian, but I doubt it’s his real name,” she said bitterly.

  “Damn it, Rusty, you should have come to us with this,” Sam said in frustration.

  His other brothers voiced the same nearly in unison.

  Rusty turned from Joe, but he saw the flicker of pain and betrayal in her eyes as she did and as she saw the accusation written on every one of his brothers’ faces. Even Nathan looked angry, which seemed to be the final straw for Rusty.

  She fisted her hands at her sides and exploded with rage and grief, lashing out at the people who considered her family and who she considered to be her family.

  “I was only doing what any one of you would do—what you always do—for complete strangers, much less someone you love and consider family or a close friend. If all of you would stop viewing me as a fuckup without brains, responsibility or regard for anyone but myself, you’d realize that everything I’ve done has been to overcome the stigma of my past so Mom and Dad could be proud of me. So all of you could be proud of me. So I could be worthy of being a Kelly. So I could be part of something I never had before. A family.

  “You’re such fucking hypocrites,” she raged in a voice that sounded like she was precariously close to tears. “Donovan lets all the wives help with his charitable foundation, which often necessitates one or more of them to be in contact with the person or persons who need help, and all of the victims they aid, that they help get out of shit situations, help move after getting new aliases, papers, money, housing and a new life in a new city, are involved in dangerous, often life-threatening situations. Have you ever stopped to consider the danger you’re putting your wives in? Your children? Your entire family?

  “What if one of these victims was found by the assholes they’re running from? The ones your wives help them hide from? Don’t you think that asshole might be a little interested in knowing how the victim was able to pull off something that elaborate? Where they got the money, the job, the new name and everything else you give them? If their lives were threatened, don’t you think those victims would throw every single person under the bus if it was the only way they’d survive? The only way their children would survive?

  “And don’t you ever stop to consider the possibility that one of these abusive bastards would want revenge against the people who helped their property, particularly other women who’d stuck their noses into his goddamn business and given his woman the idea that she was better off without him? Are you seriously going to stand there and lecture me in such a hypocritical manner when one of your wives could be seriously injured, raped or even killed in retaliation?

  “And if you don’t think it can happen then you’re fucking naïve, and men who do what you do and who’ve seen the shit y’all have seen shouldn’t damn well be surprised by anything.

  “If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this family, it’s that you’re all about doing the right thing and you’re all about family, and yet you don’t spare any opportunity to remind me that I’m not family, and furthermore you all lash out at me for doing exactly what you all do on a daily basis, but I suppose it’s different because apparently in this organization it’s do as we say, not as we do.”

  Tears coursed down her cheeks as she broke into sobs. The room was stunned into complete silence as the brothers exchanged remorseful looks. Oddly, Sean looked . . . pissed. Rusty wiped angrily at the tears and her blotchy face and then started toward the door.

  “Rusty,” Joe called.

  She stopped only long enough to look back, more tears escaping from her swollen eyes. “Don’t worry about me. Your focus needs to be on finding Zoe. I’m going home—to Frank and Marlene’s,” she amended. “Provided I’m still welcome,” she finished bitterly.

  A round of curses echoed in the room as she hurried away. When Donovan and Garrett would have followed, Sean, who had been standing silently in the back, held up his hand to stop them.

  “I’ll make sure she gets home safely,” he said quietly. “I’ll be back shortly. It goes without saying that you’ll have the full resources of the sheriff’s department to help in any way we can.”

  Sean stomped out of Joe’s cabin and then ran to catch up to Rusty, who was walking down the winding highway that led to the compound.

  “Rusty, goddamn it, hold up,” he shouted.

  She visibly stiffened, her spine going ramrod straight as she stood rigidly while he strode up. When she turned, he winced at the coldness in her eyes, but his anger was hot enough to melt any ice she managed to erect.

  “Were you just trying to get yourself killed?” he seethed. “You endangered not only yourself and Zoe but your entire family by not telling them the truth from the very start. Grow the hell up, Rusty, and stop acting like the world is still out to get you. That chip you’ve got on your shoulder has gotten so heavy that you’re staggering under its weight.”

  “I just have two words for you, copper,” she said in a voice so quiet and defeated that it sent chills down his spine. “Fuck off.”

  “Damn it, Rusty! Haven’t you figured out yet that there are people who love and care about you? You’re so convinced the world’s out to get you that you can’t see what’s right under your nose.”

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