Brighter than the sun, p.20
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       Brighter Than the Sun, p.20

         Part #11 of KGI series by Maya Banks
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  the dead” would displace her in Marlene’s affection. As a result, she’d always had a closer bond with him than with any of the other Kelly brothers.

  “How is she doing?” Shea whispered.

  Rusty grimaced. “Not good, but then what else could be expected? She’s been shit on at every stage of her life.”

  She very nearly winced because it sounded as though she were speaking of herself and not of Zoe, and Shea picked up on it.

  “It will all be okay, Rusty,” she offered.

  Rusty tried to smile but failed miserably. “It will never be okay again, Shea. But thank you.”

  She turned to walk out, ignoring Joe’s call to her. She quickened her step and, once outside, she all but ran to her vehicle and hurriedly got in, keying the ignition and reversing as Joe frantically waved at her to stop.

  Joe dragged a hand through his hair and closed his eyes in despair. The entire goddamn world had turned upside down. And he was helpless to do a fucking thing about it. He walked back into the infirmary determined to check on Zoe. He hadn’t been able to get close enough to even get a good look at her much less touch her, hold her, comfort her and tell her how much he loved her and that his heart was breaking for her.

  Enough was enough. This time he wasn’t taking no for an answer.

  When he returned, he noticed Shea was no longer beside Nathan, and he immediately sent his twin a questioning look.

  “Zoe asked to see her,” Nathan said quietly. “I’m sure she’s confused and has a lot of questions.”

  “I’m going in there,” Joe said, turning toward the exam room only to find Steele standing in front of him, barring his way.

  “You need to calm down,” Steele said. “The only way I could get Zoe to cooperate and allow me to take her to Maren to get the medical attention she desperately needed was if I swore you wouldn’t see her. I gave her that and I’m not breaking my promise.”

  “Give her some time, Joe,” Donovan warned softly. “She’s been through hell. She’s not herself right now, and who can blame her? Be patient. You’ll see her soon.”

  “But why won’t she see me?” Joe asked, agony in his voice. “Rusty’s been in there. Now Shea. Is it because I failed her?”

  “Sit down before you fall down,” Sam ordered.

  Steele sighed. “She doesn’t think she’s good enough for you.”

  Joe stumbled back toward one of the chairs and sank down, burying his face in his hands. He was worried out of his mind. A dozen reasons had floated around in his head as to why Zoe was so adamant that he—or anyone else—not see her, the worst of which was that more had happened to her than they were aware of. Never in a million years had he dreamed that she would have the fool-headed notion that she wasn’t good enough for him. He was the one who’d failed to protect her. It was him who’d left her vulnerable to kidnapping and being terrorized by those assholes.

  Steele’s jaw was tight with anger. “Look, Zoe’s thinking some pretty fucked-up shit right now, and it has nothing to do with you failing her. Just the opposite. She believes she failed you—all of us. She begged me not to let you see her.”

  Joe flinched, unable to breathe through the pain.

  “She was ashamed,” Steele said, his expression one of fury. “That woman is convinced that she’s damaged goods. Tainted. Not good enough for you or anyone in this family or organization. The only way I could convince her to let me get her medical help was to promise to take her to Maren. I had to wrap her in a blanket because she was shamed by what some asshole did to her, the bruises and blood on her body and face. I have to tell you, man. I’ve pretty much seen it all during my time in the military and with KGI, but this . . . This makes me fucking sick. You’re going to have to be very careful with her, but at the same time you can’t let her go on thinking that messed-up shit in her head.”

  Joe stared at him in shock and in answering fury.

  “Not good enough for me? This family?” he choked out. “What the fuck?”

  “Look at it from her perspective,” Steele said. “She’s been surrounded by and used by assholes her entire life. Rusty was her first and only friend, and through her, she met all of us and for the first time learned what acceptance—and love—was like. And she thinks that she brought all of this down on our heads. She doesn’t realize if Rusty hadn’t done what she did that she’d be dead. None of you seem to realize that.”

  Joe’s brothers exchanged worried glances but remained silent, their expressions ones of regret.

  Joe’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t blame Rusty for anything.”

  “Not the way it appears to me. More importantly, it’s not the way Rusty sees it either.”

  “Fuck!” Joe exploded. “I wasn’t angry at Rusty for helping her. Or even for not breaking Zoe’s confidence. I knew Rusty knew more than she’d let on. We even talked about it. I just wish that she had confided in me once she knew what Zoe was to me, because other than Zoe, she was the only one who knew the kind of danger Zoe faced.”

  “All I know is that two women are suffering because both feel like failures and that they aren’t good enough, and that is fucked up and we both know it.”

  Steele turned and walked back to where his team was standing, effectively ending the conversation. Joe closed his eyes and reached out to Shea.

  Shea, honey, I have to know. How is she? How is she really?

  There was a brief pause and then, She’s broken, Joe. She’s despondent and bears the blame for things she had no control over.

  Joe could hear the tears in Shea’s voice and it gutted him. He wanted to tell Shea to tell Zoe he loved her, but Zoe deserved to hear those words for the first time from him.

  If he could only have the chance.

  I don’t know that I ever thanked you for what you did for her, baby girl, but I love you for that.

  You have to know I’d do anything for you, Joe. I love her too. She’s good for you. I’ve prayed for someone exactly like her for you. You look good happy and in love.

  Keep praying then, Shea. Because I don’t have her . . . yet.

  CHAPTER 27

  JUST when Joe thought things couldn’t get more difficult in his hope to gain access to Zoe, his mom hurried into the infirmary and was greeted by Maren, who’d just come from the exam room.

  His frustration must have been evident because when his mother saw him, her features softened with sympathy and love and she rushed over to enfold him in a hug. He held on to her for a long moment, grief enveloping him like a fog.

  “Don’t worry, baby,” his mom whispered. “It’s going to be okay. I promise. I’m taking Zoe home with me. Just give her time. What she needs most right now is time, patience and above all else, love.”

  “I do love her, Ma,” he said in an aching voice.

  “I know you do. And she loves you. Believe in that and hold on to it. Don’t give up.”

  “I’ll never give up on her,” he said fiercely. “Take care of her, Ma. Please.”

  She pulled away and patted him on the cheek. “You know I will, and I’ll update you often. I give it a day or two at most. I’ll smother her with so much love and acceptance that she’ll forget all this nonsense about not being good enough for this family. She’s just what this family—and you—needs.”

  “I couldn’t agree more,” he said gruffly.

  “Now listen, son. I know you want to see her—you need to see her. I get that. But she’s not in a good place right now. I think you should go so I can bring her home. She’s horrified over the thought of you seeing her right now. You’ll only make it more traumatic for her if you stay.”

  Tears burned the edges of his eyelids. He wanted to do more than just see her. He wanted to cradle her in his arms and never let go, but he didn’t want to put her under any further stress. His shoulders sagged and he knew the bleakness he felt was reflected in every part of his body.

  “I’ll go, Ma. But can you please just call me and let me know how she’s doing
and when or if she’ll agree to see me?”

  Tears shone in his mother’s eyes as well. “Of course, baby. Now go get some rest if you can. I hate to see you in so much pain. I’ll cover her up with love until you get the honor of doing so yourself.”

  He hugged her again. “Thank you.”

  “Go now so I can get her home so she can rest. She has to be in terrible pain.”

  He didn’t think it was possible to feel more tortured than he already did. Slowly, feeling a hundred years old, he turned and trudged toward the door. Donovan followed him out.

  “Come on. I’ll give you a ride,” Donovan said quietly. “I’ve got an errand I need to run anyway.”

  Joe sent him a questioning look as they walked out to Donovan’s SUV. “I figured you’d be in a hurry to get back to Eve and Cammie.”

  “I need to go talk to Rusty first,” Donovan said grimly. “I owe her an apology.”

  Joe’s heart ached a little more because he and Zoe weren’t the only two people suffering.

  “Give her my love, will you?” Joe asked softly.

  “Will do. Now let’s get you home so you can get some sleep. You look like hell.”

  “I feel like hell.”

  • • •

  DONOVAN pulled up to his parents’ house and got out, heading to the door. Rusty’s Jeep was there so he didn’t bother knocking. He wasn’t sure how well a visit from any of his brothers would be received at the moment. Rusty had every right to be pissed. And feel betrayed.

  He let himself in, noting the silence within. His dad would have ridden over with his mom to get Zoe, and after a quick check of the downstairs, he knew Rusty must be upstairs in her bedroom. Not wanting to barge in and invade her privacy, he instead stood at the foot of the staircase and called up to her.

  “Rusty?”

  There was prolonged silence, and just as he was about to call her name again, she appeared at the top, her expression inscrutable.

  “Donovan? What are you doing here?”

  “Can we talk?” he asked.

  She hesitated but then slowly descended the stairs, and it was then he could see the grief dulling her usually vibrant, mischievous eyes.

  “What’s up?” she asked nonchalantly when she reached the bottom.

  “Come into the living room and let’s sit,” he said, cupping her elbow in a gentle grasp.

  “Is Zoe all right?” she asked anxiously.

  “She’s fine, honey. Or at least she’s doing as well as can be expected. Ma is bringing her over shortly.”

  She shot him a confused look. “What do you want to talk about then?”

  “Have a seat,” he said, motioning toward the couch and taking the space next to her. “I owe you an apology, honey. I—we—were way out of line, and we had no right to say the things we said to you.”

  She shrugged. “I deserved it. I lied to all of you.”

  “No,” he said emphatically. “You did the right thing. You were a good friend and you saved Zoe’s life. Hell, I was flabbergasted at all you managed to pull off. You even fooled me, and my ego took one hell of a beating. You’re a genius. I never suspected a thing when I did a background check on her. You impressed the hell out of me, Rusty. I always knew you were brilliant. I just didn’t realize the extent of your tech skills.”

  She stared down at her hands, not responding to his compliment.

  “I’m sorry for what happened, Rusty. I’m not going to offer excuses. It never should have happened. You’re family, and that’s not how family should be treated. But offering you an apology isn’t the only reason I came to see you, though it’s the primary one. I want to offer you a job.”

  Her head came up at that and her forehead furrowed in confusion. “What?”

  “You know about the foundation and that the wives help out to the best of their ability, but the technical aspects are handled by me. New identities, documents, birth certificates, basically everything you did for Zoe, only you did a far more superior job than I ever pulled off. I want you to take over and manage the foundation. The wives would still help, but you’d head everything up and take over the technical aspects. And don’t think this is a pity offer or an apology of sorts. The foundation is my baby and I take it very seriously. If I didn’t know for sure you could do the job and do it well, I wouldn’t ask you to take it over.”

  Her smile was sad and didn’t reach her eyes. “Actually, I’ve had other job offers. I was taking the summer off and spending it here at home to decide which opportunity I want to pursue. I’ve narrowed it down to two and plan to make my decision soon.”

  Something in her tone and expression made Donovan hesitate to believe her, but he’d never call her on it. She’d already been given too much disrespect by her family.

  “Are you sure I can’t persuade you to turn to the dark side?” he teased. “Not only would you be paid a very generous salary, but it would be a load off for me. Eve and I are talking about having a child, and with KGI already being a full-time job, the foundation would take even more time away from my family and eventually a baby.”

  “I think Eve would make a great director of operations,” Rusty countered. “She knows what it’s like. She would be a great advocate for these women because she’s been where they’ve been. And if not her, what about Eden? She rarely takes modeling assignments anymore.”

  Donovan was frustrated by the subdued Rusty sitting beside him. Conversing as if they were strangers. He had a sinking feeling but couldn’t put his finger on what bothered him. Maybe she just needed time to get over the hurt his brothers had inflicted when emotions had been so volatile in the wake of Zoe’s disappearance. And he didn’t know what to do and he hated that kind of helpless feeling of not knowing how to repair the damage done.

  She obviously hadn’t said anything to Ma or Pop or they both would have torn a strip off all their sons’ hides. But then Rusty wasn’t malicious. She’d been greatly misunderstood all those years ago when she’d first entered their lives, but she had the biggest heart of anyone he knew.

  Knowing he wouldn’t get anything else out of her, he forced a grin and reached over to ruffle her hair affectionately.

  “Okay, well if you change your mind, you know where to find me. Or if you’re holding out for a bigger salary, I’m sure we can come to a mutually satisfying agreement.”

  She smiled faintly and for a moment he could swear her eyes glistened with moisture, but it was gone so quickly he must have imagined it.

  “Thanks, Van. If the other possibilities don’t pan out, you’ll be the first person I call.”

  Again, he had the feeling she wasn’t remotely telling the truth but rather saying whatever she had to in order to get him to back off. Impulsively, he stood and pulled her to her feet and enfolded her in a huge hug.

  “Love you, girl. Hope you always remember that.”

  She hugged him just as fiercely for a moment and then carefully disentangled herself from his embrace. He could swear he saw relief in her features when they heard the sound of a car pulling up outside.

  “That’ll be Zoe,” she said. “I’d better go help get her settled.”

  Just like that he was summarily dismissed. As he watched her hurry to the door, something inside him twisted just a little tighter and he frowned, worried about what his gut was trying to tell him.

  CHAPTER 28

  ZOE sank into the fluffy, overstuffed reading chair in the room she shared with Rusty, which afforded her a prime view of the lake that spread out over the horizon. She wrapped the old quilt more firmly around her, one that Marlene had given her, stating that it had belonged to her mother.

  Zoe had objected to the gift, asserting she had no right to a family heirloom. Marlene had merely hugged her and informed her that she was family.

  An entire week had passed since the day she’d escaped certain death at the hands of a man whose purpose she never knew exactly. Other than to wrest power from her father. It was laughable that he’d actuall
y believed, even for a minute, that her father would sacrifice anything for her, when that knowledge had been what prompted him to end the farce of his relationship with her what seemed a lifetime ago.

  In many ways, it had been a lifetime. Or at least another life. One that she realized she’d never truly lived but had simply survived. She hadn’t known what it was to live, laugh and love until Rusty, Joe and their family. Especially Joe.

  She closed her eyes against the sudden surge of emotion, determined not to be weak. Not to break. Somehow she had to learn to survive all over again after two decades of surviving.

  The house had been eerily silent since her return. Marlene and Frank were exceedingly respectful of her privacy and her care. Zoe and Rusty still shared a room and they conversed, but Rusty was distant and wounded, her devastation as evident as Zoe’s own.

  As thick as her own grief was, she wasn’t blind to Rusty’s, and each morning, she feared she would wake up to find Rusty gone.

  It was as if the entire community and network in the small Tennessee county adjoining Kentucky Lake was holding its breath in trepidation. Zoe purposely sought refuge in her bedroom, rarely leaving and only doing so when Marlene became insistent enough that guilt weighed too heavily on her.

  She felt . . . dirty. As if her very presence in a family like the Kellys was offensive and she sullied their name by association. Intellectually she knew how screwed up her thinking was. She knew her father’s sins were not her own. And yet she simply couldn’t get beyond the fact that she represented every single thing the Kellys risked their lives for on a daily basis to defeat. How could she ever expect to hold her head up in a family whose sole ambition was to make the world a better place? When her family was one of the very ones who polluted it?

  Was it any wonder her mother had left without ever looking back? She tried to feel sympathy for a woman she held such scant memories of, but she couldn’t consider a single circumstance in which she’d ever willingly leave her child, especially in the care of someone whose level of success was measured by how intimidating and feared he was.

  Anger welled in Zoe’s chest, bubbling like a cauldron. Not only at her mother, whom she’d resented ever since she’d been old enough to understand that she’d been deserted, but at her father, who could have—who should have—made different choices. Someone who should never have had a child if he wasn’t willing to sacrifice everything for him or her.

  It sickened her to her soul that she carried that bloodline and legacy. That was what tainted her. Springing from a gene pool of not one but two self-absorbed, irresponsible people who had no business procreating.

  Genetics don’t influence decision making. Only the people making the decisions do.

  The words of one of her college professors fluttered in her mind. She’d never really paid them much attention until now. It was all well and fine to say she could and would make different choices than her parents, but what of her offspring? Would they be influenced and shaped by nature or nurture?

  Zoe frowned. If either was worth a damn as a scientific argument, then she herself would be a complete miscreant.

  She stared moodily into the distance, watching as the sun dipped lower, seemingly sliding right into the lake in the distance. She was so lost in her thoughts that she didn’t hear Rusty come in. Didn’t realize she was even in the room until she quietly sat on the edge of the bed, the motion detected in Zoe’s periphery.

  Like Zoe, Rusty had holed up in Marlene’s house, refusing to venture out, especially after the third day when Sean had apparently decided he’d been patient long enough and had begun coming by the house, asking to talk to Rusty. Rusty, who’d never hidden from anything in her life, had feared that if she left the compound Sean would immediately corner her. Zoe felt so bad for the embarrassment Rusty had suffered, and she was furious for the way Sean had handled the entire situation. He was obviously an ass who didn’t deserve Rusty anyway.

  She turned and offered a half-hearted smile, not even bothering with an attempt at faking one. It still hurt too damn much to move her lips enough for a convincing smile. Today had been the first day she’d been able to tolerate chewing solid food after six days of broths and soups, eventually graduating up to pasta dishes and chicken and dumplings. She’d been convinced her jaw had been broken, but Maren had confirmed via X-ray that it was just severely bruised and no fracture was evident.

  “Hey,” Zoe said softly, when Rusty didn’t speak.

  For a long moment, Rusty didn’t respond. She simply looked back at Zoe, her eyes suspiciously bright. Zoe’s stomach lurched and then tightened.

  “No,” Zoe whispered, shaking her head.

  Rusty attempted a watery smile that resulted in more of a grimace. Then she lurched off the bed and bent down, enfolding Zoe in a tight hug. Tears ran unabashedly down Zoe’s cheeks as she held on to Rusty as tightly as she could.

  “Don’t go,” Zoe pleaded. “Or at least don’t go alone. I’ll come with you.”

 
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