Brighter than the sun, p.18
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       Brighter Than the Sun, p.18

         Part #11 of KGI series by Maya Banks
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  “Oh, I see what’s under my nose,” she said softly. “I see it very well. I’m sure you have better things to do than taunt me with my childish, adolescent whims, so why don’t you go make yourself useful and help clean up my fuckup while I see myself the rest of the way to Marlene’s.”

  “It’s home, Rusty,” he said in frustration. “Your home. And whether you choose to believe it or not, there are a hell of a lot of people who love you if you’d just let them.”

  She shrugged. “It doesn’t really matter what I call it now, does it? I believe the saying goes ‘home is where the heart is,’ and let’s just say my heart isn’t here anymore. And if the one you love doesn’t love you back, there isn’t much point, is there?”

  She turned and began running at full sprint, and Sean watched helplessly as she reached the gates of the compound. He closed his eyes and curled his fingers into tight fists at his sides.

  It was always that way with Rusty. Like trying to hold water in a hand with fingers spread open. And he’d fucked up any chance he’d ever had of being able to prevent her from sliding even further away because she had him twisted in so many knots that nothing he ever said or did came out the way he intended.


  “WHAT the fuck am I going to do?” Joe demanded, despair filling his voice. “God, I didn’t even have the chance to tell her I loved her or that I wanted forever.”

  “Stop it,” Garrett said harshly. “You can’t talk like that. We’ve all been there. We’ve all felt exactly what you’re feeling. You have to have faith, man. We’ll get her back.”

  “The question is, who the hell has her?” Ethan muttered. “We’ve got two angles to explore. Asshole number one—her father. Or asshole number two—this Sebastian dickhead who used her and then planned to kill her.”

  “Or a third angle—any number of the many enemies her father has made over the years,” Donovan added. “If Sebastian didn’t realize at first that Zoe’s old man didn’t give a shit about her, chances are a lot of other people didn’t either.”

  God, the possibilities seemed endless, and Joe felt like beating his head against the wall. Why hadn’t he made the time to talk when Zoe had wanted to? She’d looked so hesitant and worried, and now he knew, goddamn it, he knew what she had wanted to tell him, and he’d blown her off for a fucking meeting that was so unimportant in the scheme of things that he wanted to hit something.

  “She tried to tell me,” Joe said hoarsely. “This morning she said we needed to talk and she was so nervous and hesitant, but I put her off because of that fucking meeting. I asked her to stay, said we’d have breakfast and then talk about whatever she wanted. Fuck me! Why didn’t I just put her first?”

  Sam’s phone rang and he snatched it up, putting it to his ear. “Talk to me.”

  After a moment of silence, he said, “We’ll be right there.”

  “Steele pulled all the surveillance. He has something we need to take a look at,” Sam said. “Y’all go on. I’ll round up the others and we’ll be right behind you.”

  Joe was already running for the door, his brothers right behind him. They roared into the compound, skidding to a halt outside the war room.

  “What you got?” Joe demanded as soon as they entered.

  Steele punched in a series of commands and brought up surveillance footage of Joe’s cabin. A few seconds into it, Joe froze when he saw an unconscious, bloody Zoe being hauled out of his cabin by a man, closely followed by an accomplice. Rage boiled in his veins and he pounded his fist into the planning table.

  Sam burst in, followed by the rest of the KGI team members minus Rio’s team, who were guarding the rest of the family at Frank and Marlene’s house. They all watched in horror as Zoe was tossed without care into the backseat of a black SUV while one man climbed in the back with her, the other getting into the driver’s seat.

  “Freeze that,” Donovan ordered. “Back up one frame and hold. Can you zoom in and get a clear read of the license plate?”

  Joe held his breath as Steele zoomed, and then impatiently, Donovan took over the controls and cleared the image until finally the numbers were visible and more easily read. Sean walked into the war room and Joe immediately barked a command to the sheriff to call in the plates and put out a BOLO for the entire state of Tennessee. The bastards couldn’t have gone that far yet. Unless they were flying Zoe out.

  “Contact all local landing strips or any location a chopper could take off from,” Joe added.

  To the shock of everyone present, the war room door opened again, admitting Rio and Diego, but the room exploded in chaos, with Nathan losing his fucking mind when it was realized that Shea was tucked solidly between them, their bodies forming a protective barrier around her.

  “What the fuck?” Nathan demanded.

  His furious gaze found Rio, demanding without words an explanation as to why his wife wasn’t safely ensconced with the other wives.

  Shea pushed forward, rushing to Joe, throwing her arms around him and hugging him tightly. “I’m so sorry, Joe. I had to come.” She cast an apologetic look in her husband’s direction, pleading silently with him to understand. “I think I can help,” she said quietly.

  For a moment Joe couldn’t breathe as hope seized him by the throat. Tears burned his eyelids at his sister-in-law’s unselfish act. An act he knew could cost her dearly.

  “No! Damn it, Shea. No! You aren’t doing this. I forbid it,” Nathan said heatedly. “You’re pregnant, baby. You can’t take that kind of risk!”

  The others were clearly at a loss as they stared back and forth between Nathan, Shea and the sudden hopefulness and relief that spilled into Joe’s eyes.

  “Will someone tell me what the hell is going on here?” Garrett demanded.

  “You all know my telepathy, or rather my ability to connect to people, is random,” she said, not meeting Nathan’s furious, panicked eyes. “The day of the barbecue, the first time Zoe met us all . . . I heard her. Or rather I felt her,” she quickly amended. “Her fear was overwhelming. It nearly suffocated me. For a long moment I couldn’t breathe, it was so gut-wrenching. I thought I would pass out.”

  “Jesus,” Donovan muttered.

  “And you think you can connect to her now?” Sam asked gently.

  “I don’t want her to even try it,” Nathan snarled. “You have no idea what’s going on with Zoe, what her situation is, what you’d be exposing yourself to. I won’t allow this, Shea. You’re already fragile enough with this pregnancy kicking your ass on a daily basis. I don’t even want to contemplate what this might do to you or our baby.”

  Part of Joe agreed with Nathan. The risk was great. But the other part wanted to scream at his brother that if the roles were reversed and it was Shea enduring God knows what and someone might be the key in finding—helping—her, he’d be just as adamant about doing whatever was necessary to help her.

  It’s exactly why I’m going to do everything I can to help her—and you, Joe.

  Shea’s soft voice echoed in Joe’s mind and he gathered her close, hugging her tightly as he buried his face in her hair.

  You’ll never know how much this means to me, baby girl. I love her so damn much. I can’t lose her now that I’ve finally found her.

  Joe saw Nathan sigh in resignation and realized that he and Shea had been having their own telepathic conversation.

  Everyone looked at Shea in concern and a flush turned her cheeks pink at being the object of so much scrutiny.

  “You tell us how you want to do this, Shea,” Garrett said gently. “If you prefer to only have Nathan and Joe with you, then the rest of us will clear out until you give us the all clear.”

  Shea smiled shyly. “That’s sweet of you, Garrett, but I think everyone should be here. I’m not always cognizant of what I relay, and if we have everyone’s ear then we run the least risk of missing important details.”

  “Promise me,” Nathan said fiercely. “If this causes you any pain or distress, prom
ise me you’ll break away.”

  Shea pulled away from Joe and went into her husband’s arms. “I’ll be fine, Nathan. Promise. I need to get started. We’re wasting time Zoe may not have.”

  Joe stiffened, his face spasming in pain. Shea sent him a look of apology but he shook his head. “You’re only speaking the truth. We don’t know what we’re up against—what she’s up against, so yes, we need to hurry. Just tell me what you need. Anything at all.”

  “Just be here and try to be calm so I can give my entire focus to trying to establish the link between me and Zoe. It may take a while because it’s a lot to grasp that you can suddenly hear someone talking in your head, and she’ll wonder if she’s going crazy.”

  Nathan led Shea over to one of the couches in the war room and sat down next to her. She reached her hand out to Joe to pull him down next to her and then sat between the two men, their hands clasped in hers.

  She sucked in a deep breath and closed her eyes, her brow puckering with strain. The entire room fell silent as all attention was focused on her.

  Shea blanked everything from her mind as she closed off every path except the narrow, faint fingerprints that led her to Zoe.


  ZOE lay numbly on the floor, her hands tied behind her back, her ankles bound so tightly together that the rope cut into her skin, which was smeared with blood. She blinked in an effort to clear her vision, obscured by blood and swelling, but her head had incurred the most injury. The pain was so overwhelming that nausea was ever present, and she swallowed rapidly to prevent vomiting.

  Sebastian stood a short distance away with two accomplices she couldn’t identify. He wore a smug expression of victory, and every so often he leered openly at her, seemingly amused at the damage he’d inflicted.

  “The old man really doesn’t give a fuck about you,” he said with a laugh. “He sounded quite bored when I listed my demands. I wonder if he’ll say the same when I call his bluff and send him footage of his daughter’s head being blown off.”

  He bent down and ran his fingers suggestively over her breasts, and she shrank away, nearly moaning at the pain the motion caused her. He laughed and then backhanded her across her already bruised cheek.

  “I plan to have a taste of that pussy again before I hand you back over to Daddy. If you give me any trouble, I’ll let my partners have a turn as well, so if I were you, I’d be a very good girl.”

  Tears trailed down her cheeks, mixing with fresh and drying blood from her nose and mouth. There was no hope for rescue. No one knew where she was, and even if Rusty told Joe and his brothers everything, Joe wouldn’t want her anyway. Her father didn’t give a shit about her—he never had. Once . . . before her mother left, he had been a different man. He’d been an actual father. She had vague memories of a loving family, of his tossing her into the air as she squealed in delight. Him tucking her into bed at night after reading her a bedtime story.

  All of that had come to an end after her mother had left without so much as a good-bye, a letter or an I love you. One day she was there and then she wasn’t, and her father had turned into a cold, heartless man she didn’t recognize. Did he blame her for her mother leaving? Did he hate her for that? What kind of father placed blame on a five-year-old child? And even if he didn’t blame her, didn’t he realize she was hurting every bit as much as he was? She hadn’t only lost one parent. She’d lost both the day her mother left them behind.

  And now Sebastian was taunting her, knowing full well her father didn’t give a shit about her. She knew she wouldn’t come out of this alive. She’d heard the phone call and his plan to kill her that had prompted her to flee in the first place. What kind of monster toyed with her when she knew the eventuality of her fate? It seemed Sebastian and her father were cut from the same cloth.

  She closed her eyes, replaying every single moment with Joe, Rusty, the Kelly family. For a short period of time she’d known what it was like to touch the sun, to understand what unconditional love and loyalty felt like.

  And Joe, how she wished she’d told him she loved him. If only she could have that beautiful night back, the most wonderful night of her entire life.

  Pain assaulted her again when Sebastian slapped her bruised cheek, causing a fresh trickle of blood to leak from the corner of her mouth.

  “Open your eyes, bitch. Yeah, that’s right. Look at the man who’s going to fuck you while Daddy listens.”

  He rubbed his hands in glee and she looked at him in horror. The man was insane. A complete sociopath. To her relief, one of his accomplices called him over and the two conversed across the room out of the range of her hearing. She had no desire to hear more of the atrocities he had planned for her. She closed her eyes, biting into her abused lip in a futile attempt to staunch the flow of tears and the vicious grip of helplessness that besieged her.

  Zoe? This is Shea, Nathan’s wife. Please don’t react in any way. I know you likely think you’re crazy. You’re not. I’m telepathic and I can talk to some people this way over great distances. Joe is with me and he’s scared out of his mind. He’s desperate to find you. We’re all desperate to find you, but I need you to help me help you.

  Zoe shook her head, hysteria rising fast. Oh God, she was losing her mind.

  No, Zoe. You’re perfectly sane. I don’t have time to explain it all but I swear to you your mind isn’t playing tricks on you. I know you’re in pain and you feel hopeless, but I can help you. Please let me help you. Don’t shut me out, and don’t speak aloud. Just think of what you want to say. I’ll hear you.


  Zoe’s tentative response convinced her that she really was out of her mind. But she was so numb that even if her mind was playing tricks on her, it beat the alternative, which was living in reality.

  I’m here, came Shea’s soothing response.

  What do I do? What am I supposed to do? Fear edged the desperate pleas. Oh God, I’m crazy, aren’t I? I’ve lost all touch with reality. I really am going to die.

  The oddest thing happened. She felt Shea’s concern and compassion. She had a pathway into Shea’s mind and it was consumed with fear for her. For Joe. She could even sense Shea trying to calm Joe down and had to swallow back the sob that welled in her throat.

  No! Zoe, please, I’ll explain everything to you later, but I swear, this is very real and I can help you. Do you understand? I can help you. We can save you but you have to help me. Can you do that?

  After a long hesitation Zoe whispered a mental yes even as tears pooled in her eyes. What did she have to lose? She was going to die, and if there was even the slimmest of chances that she wasn’t hallucinating, she had to take it.

  Can you tell me where you are? Where they’re holding you? Any detail no matter how small. What do you remember? What have they said? Anything you can give us that would help in locating you, Zoe. Don’t leave a word out.

  It’s not that far from the compound, or at least I don’t think I was out that long. It’s a silly name, the town, I mean. Frustration beat along with the ache in her head, and she felt Shea dig her fingers into her temples and forehead in an effort to ward off the pain. Was Zoe causing her pain? Was she able to feel what Zoe felt? The temptation to break away, to ignore Shea’s offer of help, was strong.

  No! Zoe, I’m fine. You can’t give up and you can’t ignore me.

  And then the oddest thing happened. The pain that was so prevalent in Zoe’s battered body simply faded as if it were never there. But she felt Shea’s suffering, and it brought tears to her eyes.

  No! If you do this I won’t tell you anything, Zoe said fiercely. You won’t suffer this for me. I won’t let you.

  She felt Shea’s sigh of frustration and oddly the faint trail of Nathan’s anger and fear for Shea.

  What did you do? Zoe asked in wonder. How did you make the pain stop?

  I don’t have a lot of time, Shea said weakly. Holding a pathway like this saps my strength, and soon I’ll be insensible. You have t
o tell me how to find you before it’s too late.

  I saw a sign that said Bucksnort. Am I crazy? I was woozy and just coming to consciousness but we turned off an exit that said Bucksnort. I swear that’s what it said.

  How many of them are holding you, Zoe? What are we up against and what are they waiting for?

  My father. They think he’ll care that they have me, she added sadly. They have no idea how wrong they are. If he doesn’t come, they’re going to kill me. If he does come, they’ll kill me. It doesn’t really matter.

  She didn’t tell Shea of the other threats Sebastian had made. That he planned to rape her regardless of whether her father came or not. But then she realized how ridiculous it was since Shea was in her head and knew exactly what Sebastian had threatened and what he’d done already.

  That’s not going to happen, Shea said fiercely. Do you hear me, Zoe? You hold on and do whatever you have to do to stay safe and survive. The men will be there. They’ll get you out of there just like they once did for me.

  They’re coming back, Zoe said fearfully. What do I do?

  I’ll stay with you, Zoe. I’ll be here the entire time. I won’t leave you.

  Shea’s quiet vow comforted her as she stared up into the eyes of her captors that gleamed with triumph.

  Shea? Joe, I mean they, need to know there are more than just the three men inside the room they’re holding me in. There are more. A lot more. Outside, keeping guard, and they’re heavily armed.

  Do or say nothing to raise their ire, Shea whispered into her mind. Be meek and mild. Don’t tip your hand. Let them think you’re terrified. Be brave and wait for us, Zoe.

  Shea? Can you do something for me, please?

  Anything, Zoe.

  If . . . if I die, will you please tell Joe that I’m sorry. Tell Rusty and the rest of your family I’m sorry. I never meant to endanger you all. And tell Joe . . . She paused a moment, battling a fresh surge of tears. Tell him I love him and that he was the best thing that ever happened to me.

  Shea was fierce, power surging into Zoe’s mind, giving her a burst of strength and a reprieve from the relentless pain in her head.

  Don’t even think it, Zoe. Don’t you dare give up. We’re coming for you. Joe’s coming for you.

  Zoe held tight to Shea’s firm vow. Maybe she was losing her mind, but the conviction in Shea’s voice was not imagined. Shea—and Joe—were her only hope.


  THE entire KGI organization converged on the small, rural town of Bucksnort, Tennessee, crawling like ants over the entire terrain, investigating every possible hiding place. Shea had insisted on going and wouldn’t back down. Her connection to Zoe was integral to the rescue operation, and so in the end, they had no choice but to include her as the point of contact with Zoe.

  Shea kept in constant communication with Zoe, though with each session Zoe seemed to grow weaker, a fact Shea kept to herself so Joe wouldn’t completely lose his already thin hold on his own sanity. But she worried for Zoe, because she knew that in addition to the abuse heaped on her by the asshole in charge, Sebastian, she had also suffered a head injury. While Shea could buffer her from the constant barrage of pain, she couldn’t heal the wound. Only Grace could do that, and Shea would never drag her pregnant sister into a situation where she or her baby could be seriously harmed by taking on the wound herself.

  By following the hazy images picked from Zoe’s mind, she was able to identify certain road markers and excitedly directed the way when she recognized one of the paths from Zoe’s memory.

  None of the KGI members liked that Shea, being pregnant, was even remotely involved in the situation, but had little choice in the matter when Zoe’s life hung in the balance. Allie had remained conspicuously quiet, absorbing the oddity of what she was witnessing with wonderment, not the skepticism one might expect.

  “Shit,” Shea murmured when she directed the convoy of vehicles to stop. A worried frown tugged at her lips and she looked at Nathan and Joe in alarm.

  “What is it, baby?” Nathan asked.

  “The place they’re holding her is a veritable fortress. I told you what Zoe said about there being many armed men guarding the perimeter of the building where they’re keeping her. She was in and out of consciousness when she was carried in, so the memories were jumbled and confusing to her. But I’m reading what she did see as more comes back to her, and it isn’t good. The outside is heavily fortified. There’s no way to get in there quietly or without a fight,” she added in a worried tone.

  Joe smiled and squeezed Shea’s hand in comfort. “Fighting our way in and out is what we do, sweetheart. Besides, we have a secret weapon. You.”

  She tried to smile, but it wavered and her face fell completely. “I don’t want any of you to get hurt,” she pleaded.

  Nathan kissed her softly. “Promise me you’ll stay back and out of the way. If I have to worry about you and covering my team, then I do you both an injustice.”

  The members of KGI all assembled a half mile from the abandoned factory where Zoe was being held prisoner.

  “Allie, I need you and Baker to set explosives around the most heavily reinforced sections of the building, away from where Zoe is being held so she isn’t caught in the blast. I don’t particularly care who else gets caught in it. And I need it done fast,” Sam ordered tersely.

  “Yes, sir,” Allie said, motioning for Baker to follow as they melted away, each carrying a pack with enough C-4 to bomb a small city.

  “P.J., Cole, Diego and Dolphin, I need y’all on sniper duty covering north, south, east and west wings. Take out any targets in your sights. Signal when it’s
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