Brighter than the sun, p.19
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       Brighter Than the Sun, p.19

         Part #11 of KGI series by Maya Banks
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  all clear.”

  Sam’s gaze wandered over Nathan, as if he knew his brother wasn’t going to like his next order. “I need you to fall back and stay with Shea.”

  “Now wait a damn minute,” Nathan protested.

  “She has to be protected at all costs,” Sam said quietly. “This isn’t about taking you out of action. She’s our only means of communication with Zoe. If she’s hurt or captured, we’re fucked. I need you to make sure that doesn’t happen. Plus, if things go bad, you’re our best chance at reaching Shea before she’s too far gone.”

  Nathan reluctantly conceded the point.

  “The rest of you split up. We’ll converge from all directions, gain access as soon as Allie and Baker have set off the explosives. It needs to be a quick in and out, and I don’t give a fuck about casualties unless they’re our own. I don’t want there to be so much as a scratch on any of you.”

  “Donovan, Garrett, you’re with me. The rest of you fan out. Joe, Shea believes Zoe is being held underground in a cellar. Rio, Ryker and Terrence will take your six and go down with you. As soon as we achieve our objective, we’re out of here. We have ten minutes, starting now.”

  “We’re ready when you are,” Sam said softly into the mouthpiece to Allie and Baker. “Time to show us what you’re made of, girl.”

  In response, a series of explosions rocked the earth, shaking it like an earthquake. Outcries and yells erupted as men started scrambling from the building.

  “They always gotta make it so easy,” P.J. grumbled as she began picking them off one by one.

  “Hey, save some for us and don’t be a hog, Mrs. Coletrane,” Cole complained.

  Joe ignored the typical banter he usually enjoyed on their missions. Never before had one been this personal to him. He didn’t know how his brothers had survived the times when it had been the women they loved that they were going in to save. His heart couldn’t take it.

  Rio and Terrence flanked him, with Ryker falling in behind, taking out any threat as soon as it appeared, and Joe flipped on a floodlight to illuminate the hallways that looked like something out of a sixteenth-century dungeon. Jesus but it was dank and musty and smelled of death and human decay down here. Imagining Zoe—his Zoe—imprisoned in this nearly sent him right over the edge.

  How’s she doing, Shea?

  His anxious call to his sister-in-law was more to keep him from losing his mind than anything else.

  She’s gone quiet, Joe. She’s scared out of her mind and is more worried about all of you than she is herself. She’s resigned herself to not surviving this and it breaks my heart.

  You tell her we’re coming for her and you tell her not to give up, Joe demanded, the knot in his throat and the ache in his chest nearly paralyzing him. You tell her I’m getting her the hell out of here and to do whatever she has to do to survive until I get to her.

  Joe! They’re moving her! Shea’s anxious intrusion into his mind caused him to freeze. She’s so terrified that her thoughts are in complete chaos. I’ve lost my connection to her. I don’t know if she shut me out or if she’s just so panicked that she’s incapable of reason.

  Rio, Ryker and Terrence automatically held up when Joe halted abruptly, gazes warily scanning the area for any possible threat.

  “What’s up?” Rio asked in a low voice.

  “Shea says they’re moving her but can’t get a good read on Zoe because she’s fucking scared out of her mind. For us, goddamn it. She’s more worried about us and has resigned herself to dying but doesn’t want any of us to be killed.”

  “Fuck,” Terrence rumbled. He wasn’t a man of many words, but he always managed to cut to the heart of the matter.

  “That’s fucked-up,” Rio growled. “Jesus, she doesn’t deserve the shit life she’s had when she represents everything good in this world.”

  “You don’t have to tell me that,” Joe bit out.

  Gunshots erupted in the distance, and yelling and the sounds of physical fighting could be heard.

  “Zoe’s on the move,” Joe barked into his mouthpiece. “Use extreme caution when targeting. Make sure she’s not caught in the cross fire.”

  “Spread out,” Sam barked. “I want a complete perimeter check. No one gets on or off this property until Zoe is found.”

  Radio communications went silent. Then suddenly P.J. came over the radio. “I’ve got a bead on two men. One is carrying Zoe, I’m sure of it.”

  “Where?” Joe demanded.

  But their communication was interrupted by gunfire, and then a round of curses filled Joe’s ear and terror seized him. He began running, forgetting his training, caution, everything but getting to the woman he loved.

  “Get down, Joe!” Ryker barked, flattening him with a tackle.

  “What the fuck?” Joe roared.

  Bullets peppered the wall just where Joe’s head had been moments earlier.

  “Don’t be stupid,” Terrence growled. “You dying does nothing for Zoe.”

  “Man down,” P.J. said urgently. “East wing. Double time. Get a chopper in the air, STAT.”

  Chaos ensued. Rio went pale as he received a transmission, and then he and Terrence sprinted away, leaving Joe and Ryker to follow behind.

  Allie was sprawled on the concrete helipad, blood pooling beneath her. Diego was tending her as Donovan ran up with a field kit to start an IV and attempt to stop the bleeding.

  P.J. rushed up, a grim expression on her face. “She took a bullet meant for Zoe,” she said quietly. “The assholes panicked when they figured out they weren’t getting out alive, so they were going to shoot Zoe, leave her on the helipad and take off in the chopper. Allie came out of nowhere, drawing their fire and telling Zoe to run like hell.”

  Terrence knelt beside Allie, and Diego and Donovan worked on her. “You hang in there, Allie girl. We aren’t letting you off that easy. You have to get shot at least twice before you get special treatment around here.”

  Allie tried to laugh but ended up coughing, the movement causing her pain. “Did I ever tell you guys how wrong I was about you?”

  “No, but you’ll get around to it, I’m sure,” Rio teased.

  “How bad is it?” she asked, pain creasing her forehead.

  Diego grinned. “Nothing that will keep you out of any beauty pageants.”

  “Allie, which direction did Zoe go?” Joe asked gently. “I have to find her.”

  “She ran for the woods. I told her to get out, that someone would find her but to get as far away from the gunfire as possible.”

  “You saved her life. Thank you,” Joe said gravely.

  “Just doing my job,” she said faintly. “Provided I still have one after the ass I was to you all.”

  “You’ll do, Allie,” Rio said with a smile. “You’ll do.”

  • • •

  ZOE ran in no clear direction, cringing and ducking when she heard distant gunfire. She wiped at the blood smearing her vision and kept running, but then she stepped in a hole and painfully twisted her ankle, going down in a painful heap on the ground. She tried to push herself up but her strength was utterly sapped. She curled into a ball, moaning as the pain she’d tried so valiantly to suppress hit her with a vengeance.

  She huddled there, shaking violently, tears mixing with the blood smeared on her cheeks and mouth. The metallic taste sickened her and she dry-heaved, her stomach rebelling at the violence that surrounded her like a thick fog.

  This was who she was. Her legacy. How could Joe possibly want this—her? She’d never even been able to tell him the truth herself, and now it looked as though she had used him, purposely deceived him and his entire family. Dragging them all down with her to her level of subhumanity.

  “Zoe! Zoe! Where are you, honey?”

  The unfamiliar voice made her tense all over and she held her breath, praying she was hidden among the dirt and rubble she was lying in. And then . . .

  “Zoe! Honey, are you all right? Don’t be scared. I’m one of
the good guys.”

  She opened her eyes to see an unfamiliar set of ice blue eyes belonging to a tall, imposing man with blond hair and hard features. She shivered at the intensity in his eyes and shrank back involuntarily.

  “My name’s Steele, ma’am. I work with KGI. I’m one of the team leaders like Joe. My team is made up of P.J., Cole, Baker and Renshaw. I’m here to take you back to Joe. How badly are you hurt?”

  Tears filled her eyes as he gently wiped some of the blood away from her face.

  “I can’t go back there,” she whispered. “I don’t belong there. I’m not your kind.”

  He cocked his head, obviously confused by her statement. “And what kind is that, honey?”

  “The good kind,” she choked out. “I’m . . . dirty. Tainted. My entire life I’ve been surrounded by corruption and filth. My father heads a vast criminal empire. That’s who I am, what I come from, the kind of person I am. My mother didn’t even love me enough to take me with her when she left my father. Please, just let me go. I can’t go back there. Not like this. Please just let me go. I’m begging you.”

  Steele’s hard face softened with lines of understanding. He cupped her cheek, dabbing at more of the blood seeping from the cuts on her face, his expression going cold as he examined the damage done to her.

  “How about I bring you to my wife. She’s a doctor and she can see to your injuries. You need medical attention, Zoe. You’d like her. She’s one in a million.”

  “You won’t let Joe see me like this?” she asked fearfully.

  His face softened again. “No, Zoe. I won’t make you do anything you don’t want. But I need to take you now. We don’t know how badly you’re hurt or if you broke anything. I’ll call ahead to Maren and let her know we’re coming in so she’ll be waiting to examine you. Deal?”

  “O-Okay,” she said shakily. “Do you . . . do you have a blanket? I don’t want anyone to see . . .”

  She broke off, ducking her head in shame.

  Steele reached into the pack he was carrying and pulled out a blanket. Then he simply wrapped it around her, lifting her into his arms so he could tuck the corners up around her chin so that only her face was visible.

  “I’m bringing Zoe in. Have the chopper ready for transport. I’m taking her to the infirmary to see Maren,” he said into his mic. “And tell Joe to stand down,” he said in a warning voice.

  Zoe closed her eyes and buried her face against Steele’s chest to avoid the scrutiny of the others as Steele strode toward the waiting chopper. She heard the distant protests of Joe and his brothers arguing with him to stand down. Only when she was safely inside the helicopter with Donovan and Steele and it took off into the air did she give in to the overwhelming pull of unconsciousness.

  CHAPTER 25

  “I think you should bring Rusty into the exam room,” Maren said quietly to her husband. “Zoe’s severely traumatized to the point I think she’s had a break with reality. She’s borderline catatonic, and at the mere mention of seeing Joe, she gets hysterical.”

  “Fuck,” Steele said, rubbing the back of his neck. “You should have seen her when I found her. She was so goddamn ashamed, and for what? Genetics? She’s convinced that she’s a bad seed because of who and what her father is. She’s shouldering enormous guilt for involving all of us when if she hadn’t gone to Rusty, she’d be dead.”

  “She’s refused to see anyone else. Even Marlene. I think Rusty is our best chance at getting through to her.”

  “She’s in the waiting room, silent and not talking to anyone. She’s shouldering as much guilt and blame as Zoe is, and that’s just bullshit. What her family did to her is unforgivable,” he said in disgust. “And I’m worried the damage can’t be undone.”

  “Go get her,” Maren said softly. “Tell her Zoe needs her. Rusty would never turn her back on anyone who needed her.”

  Steele gathered his wife in his arms and kissed her long and sweet. His hand automatically went to her still-flat belly as it always did when he held her. As terrified as he was at the prospect of her going through another pregnancy, he couldn’t imagine life getting any better. His wife and daughter were his entire world, and now they’d be adding another tiny life. It scared and awed him in equal measure.

  “I love you,” he said, because he took every opportunity to tell her so.

  She smiled. “Back at ya, Ice Man. Now go get Rusty so we can try to break through to Zoe. I’m worried about her.”

  He stole one more kiss and then left the exam room to where all the KGI members were assembled except for Allie and the rest of Rio’s team, who were with her at the hospital in Murray, Kentucky, where she was undergoing surgery to remove the bullet that had ricocheted off one of her lower ribs—breaking it—and embedded in her appendix, requiring it to be removed.

  Joe surged to his feet, but Steele shook his head as a signal to stand down and then walked over to where Rusty was huddled in the corner, knees drawn to her chest, gaze downcast, refusing to look at the rest of her family.

  Steele hunkered down and nudged her chin up in a gentle motion so she was forced to meet his eyes.

  “Maren wants you to go back with Zoe. She’s not doing well, Rusty. She needs you.”

  “I’m the one who got her into this situation,” she said bitterly. “I hardly think it’s me she needs.”

  “That’s where you’re wrong,” Steele said softly. “You’re a good friend, Rusty. You did the right thing. I don’t care what anyone says. You saved her life.”

  She looked stunned as she stared back at him, her eyes watering at his support. He simply rose and extended his hand down to help her up. She tentatively took it and allowed him to pull her to her feet. Ignoring Joe’s desperate demands to know what was going on, Steele guided her into the exam room, where Maren was carefully cleaning the blood from Zoe’s face.

  As soon as Rusty saw Zoe, she burst into tears and ran to the bed, carefully wrapping her arms around Zoe in a gentle hug. Maren discreetly stepped back and motioned Steele to follow her out of the room.

  Zoe stirred, some of the dullness receding from her eyes, and then tears began leaking down her cheeks as she pulled Rusty to her, hugging fiercely.

  “Thank you for coming,” Zoe whispered, clinging desperately to her friend.

  “Why would you thank me?” Rusty asked bitterly. “I almost got you killed. As it is, I got you kidnapped and abused.”

  Zoe reared back in shock, her mouth falling open, and then winced at the pain in her swollen mouth and jaw.

  “What are you talking about?” she asked hoarsely. “You saved me, Rusty. I’d be dead if it weren’t for you.”

  “Not according to my family,” Rusty said as a fresh torrent of tears flooded her eyes.

  “What? They’re blaming you? That’s bullshit,” she said vehemently. “What are they thinking? You’re the only friend I have in the world. You risked so much for me. I could have gotten you and your entire family hurt or murdered. I should have never asked you to do what you did and agreed to all you did for me.”

  “If I hadn’t lied to my family, you would have been better protected,” Rusty said in a dull voice. “You wouldn’t have been left alone even for a minute. They’re furious with me. And Sean . . .”

  Rusty broke off, her face crumpling. Zoe leaned up and wrapped her arms around her once more.

  “What happened?” Zoe asked quietly.

  “The better question is, what didn’t happen?” Pain and betrayal were bright in Rusty’s eyes. “I made an absolute fool of myself the morning I waited for Sean to get home. And if that wasn’t bad enough, he got the call that you’d been kidnapped right in the middle of my humiliation and then dragged me to the war room and had to tell everyone everything I’d done. After my family raked me over the coals, Sean spared no opportunity to tell me I was a selfish child who needed to grow the fuck up and that everything wasn’t about me and I needed to learn to be more responsible.”

  “And to think
I liked him,” Zoe said angrily. “I’m going to kill him for that. How could they, Rusty? How could they say those things to you? You risked your life for me. You helped me when I had no one else to turn to, and you never asked for anything in return. And they’re angry with you for that?”

  “Sean’s pissed. The rest are disappointed, I think. I’m not sure which is worse. The idea that I would ever purposely do anything to place the parents who adopted me, the only people who ever loved and accepted me, in danger makes me sick. I’d do anything for them. Anything,” Rusty said, choking back a sob.

  “It’s my fault. Not yours, Rusty. I won’t have you blame yourself. You’re the most selfless, caring person I’ve ever known.”

  Rusty smiled tearfully at her. “I had to see you. I had to tell you how sorry I was while I still had the chance. It’s the only reason I’ve sat with the entire family for the last several hours while Maren examined you.”

  Zoe frowned. “I don’t like the sound of this, Rusty. It’s too close to a good-bye, and I won’t let you leave.”

  Rusty gave her a sad smile. “I can’t stay. At least not right now. I have to get away. Get myself together. Get over Sean and move on. Figure out what I’m going to do with my life.”

  “Rusty, no,” Zoe choked out. “Don’t go. Please don’t go. I’ll go with you. I can’t stay here any more than you can. We can go together.”

  Rusty’s smile was genuine this time. “If you think Joe’s just going to sit back and let you walk away, then, sister, you don’t know the man very well. He’s about to lose his mind because he hasn’t been able to see you. To see for himself that you’re okay. He went through hell and he blames himself for leaving you unprotected.”

  Another tear slid down Zoe’s cheek. “I’ll never fit in here,” she said sadly. “It was foolish of me to dream. I’ve lived in my own head, creating my own fantasy my entire life, refusing to face reality. I can’t continue doing that.”

  “I need to ask you for a favor,” Rusty said, ignoring her statement.

  “Anything. We’re sisters, and time and distance will never change that.”

  Rusty’s lips trembled and she briefly looked away. Then she turned back to Zoe and grasped both hands in hers. “Don’t tell anyone that I’m going. I’m not just going to disappear. I’d never worry Marlene and Frank like that. I’m going to leave a letter for Marlene explaining everything—well, not everything. But it’s time to start living my life and stop wishing for the impossible. I need time to sort myself out and figure out what I want.”

  “Promise me you’ll stay in touch,” Zoe said, gripping Rusty’s hands tightly as tears rolled down both their cheeks. “No matter what. I’ll never betray your confidence, but please stay in communication.”

  Rusty nodded, shaking too badly to respond verbally.

  “And I have a favor to ask in return,” Zoe said, grief consuming her.

  “Anything,” Rusty said, echoing her vow.

  “Can you ask Marlene to come get me? I don’t want to see Joe—or anyone. I just need time. I guess, like you, I need some time to figure my life out. I just hope she’s not so upset with me that she won’t want me in her home.”

  Rusty hugged her again. “Consider it done. Marlene doesn’t have a judgmental bone in her body. And if I tell her you need her, then she’ll be here, and trust me, no one crosses her. Especially her sons. Joe may not like it, but he respects her word as law.”

  “Make me one more promise,” Zoe said, gripping Rusty’s hand once more. “Don’t leave without saying good-bye and without giving me a way to contact you.”

  Rusty smiled. “I won’t. Love you, sister.”

  “Love you too,” Zoe whispered.

  “I’ll go get Marlene for you now.”

  The fact that Rusty hadn’t once referred to Marlene as Mom or Ma wasn’t lost on Zoe. It broke her heart that she had brought so much pain to this family. Irreparable damage. She couldn’t change what was, but she could at least make sure of what was to be.

  “On your way out, could you ask Shea if she would talk to me?” Zoe asked hesitantly.

  Rusty squeezed her hand then hugged her in farewell. “Will do. Then promise me that as soon as you get to Marlene’s you’ll get some rest.”

  Zoe’s smile was faint. “That’s one promise I won’t have any trouble keeping.”

  CHAPTER 26

  RUSTY walked out of the exam room and felt every eye on her. She refused to meet anyone’s gaze, seeking out Shea only. She walked to the other woman and stiffly said in a low voice, “Zoe would like to see you.”

  Shea’s eyes were full of compassion and sympathy, so much so that it made Rusty squirm in discomfort. By now, the entire family would have heard of her betrayal. Nathan’s anger hurt the worst, though, because of all the brothers, he’d been the most accepting of her from the start. He’d been kind when she’d been an abrasive, defensive fifteen-year-old, afraid that Rachel’s “return from
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