Brighter than the sun, p.22
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       Brighter Than the Sun, p.22

         Part #11 of KGI series by Maya Banks
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  “Sophie’s father, when he was still alive, was the second or third—I forget where exactly he ranked—most wanted man by the CIA.” He watched as she processed that information, her eyes widening in surprise. “And Sarah? Her half brother was also someone the U.S. wanted to take down very badly, and he shot Garrett when Garrett was still in the Marines. In fact, Garrett and Sarah met because at the time, Garrett was using her to get to her brother and bring him down for good. And then there’s Eve’s father. He was an abusive pedophile, a complete monster who murdered Eve’s mother and was making creepy-as-fuck overtures toward Eve’s half sister, who at the time was only four years old. For that matter, neither one of Rusty’s biological parents were worth a damn, and I know you don’t think she’s tainted or unworthy and that you love her as much as she loves you.”

  Zoe stared at him in utter bewilderment, her expressive eyes flashing a rapid-fire exchange of hope versus defeat. Much the same war he’d been waging since the day she’d been taken from him.

  “But most of all, I love you,” Joe said, emphasizing each word. “I want forever with you and no one else. I don’t give a shit who and what your mother and father were. You’re who I care about. You’re who I love, and I’ll never love anyone else. You’re who I want to marry and have children with.”

  He cupped her cheeks with both hands, framing her beautiful face with his palms as he stared down into her eyes. “Love me back,” he whispered. “Take a chance with me—on me. I won’t let you down, Zoe. I’ll never let you down. I’ll spend the rest of my life loving you if you’ll let me.”

  She reached up and curled her fingers around his wrists and held on as she bowed her head in his grasp. He felt the dampness of her tears against his thumbs and he ducked down so he could meet her gaze once more.

  “Hey, what’s this?” he asked softly.

  “I love you too,” she said on a sob. “I love you so much. I want forever too. I want it more than anything. I’m so tired of dreaming, Joe. Just once I want something real that’s mine. You.”

  Sweet relief swept through him with so much power that it momentarily weakened him. He closed his eyes and then pressed his mouth to the top of her head.

  “Thank God,” he whispered. “Thank God.”

  She slid her hands up his arms and over his shoulders, wrapping her slender arms around him. He caught her to him and held on tightly, burying his face in her hair, savoring holding everything that was important to him in his arms.

  “I want to be better than my parents were,” she said tearfully. “I want my children not to just feel loved but for them to know they’re loved. And I want their father to be you.”

  He smiled, tugging her hair gently, pulling her away so that their noses nearly touched.

  “It’s a damn good thing, honey, because I wouldn’t be very tolerant of another man fathering your children.”

  He trailed a finger down the bruise on her right cheek and then traced the split in the corner of her mouth that was still red and tender looking.

  “How are you doing?” he asked quietly. “I’m so goddamn sorry I left you unprotected. It’ll never happen again, baby. I’m starting construction on our house inside the compound just as soon as you pick out the plan you want. And until it’s finished, when I’m not around, you’ll be inside the compound where I know you’ll always be safe.”

  “It was my fault—”

  He pressed his finger over the uninjured side of her mouth. “Shhh. It was not your fault, and I don’t want you saying it. Ever. Deal?”

  “Only if you never apologize to me again,” she said, tilting her chin upward in defiance.

  He chuckled and pressed his lips to hers again, eager to taste her, to glory in the simple act of finding the woman he’d spend the rest of his life with and to be so blessed as to have her love him back.

  “Only if you marry me as soon as it can be arranged,” he challenged in a husky tone.

  Her eyes went glossy again as she stared silently into his. Then sadness replaced her earlier joy.

  “What’s wrong, baby?”

  “Rusty’s gone,” she said, a sob escaping. “I love her and miss her so much. It’s my fault. It is!” she insisted when he issued a soft growl. “I got her into this mess and as a result it damaged her relationship with her family, and I hate that. She’s the best friend I’ll ever have and I’m the reason she couldn’t stay.”

  Joe sighed and brushed his fingers over her cheek. “No, honey. You didn’t fail her. We did. Her family. That’s on us. We completely crossed the line when every single one of us would have done the same damn thing.”

  She scowled. “Sean’s the main reason she left.”

  Joe looked at her in confusion. “Sean? What the hell does he have to do with anything?”

  Zoe rolled her eyes. “I swear, men are so thick. You’re incredibly dense, all of you.”

  “You lost me, baby.”

  “Never mind,” she said in exasperation. “She’ll be okay. She’s strong and she’s a fighter.”

  “Yes, she is, but so are you,” he said, kissing her. Then he ensured she was looking directly at him as he became serious. “Zoe, you are not to blame or responsible for Rusty leaving, and she’d be the first to tell you so. I spoke to her the day before she left.”

  He couldn’t control the spasm of pain that rippled over his face and he had to stop talking momentarily because of the knot in his throat.

  “You did?” Zoe asked. “You knew? I don’t understand.”

  He shook his head, awed by his sister’s selflessness. “I didn’t know what she was doing. I called her because I was desperate and I was lost without you. I had to know how you were doing. Anything, any information, whatever crumbs she could give me. She had me completely fooled. Joked and teased then suggested I break and enter through your bedroom window and that she would make sure she wasn’t around tonight.”

  He glanced down briefly, the ache in his voice more pronounced. “She wanted you—and me—to be happy when she was desperately unhappy herself and knew she’d be going away.”

  “She’s pretty special,” Zoe said.

  He nodded but didn’t say anything as quiet descended around them. Zoe wrapped her arms around him and rested her cheek against his chest.

  “I love you,” she said, a soft ache to her voice when she finally broke the silence. “You were what I was searching for all along but never figured it out until I thought I’d lost it all.”

  As she had just done to him, he wrapped his arms tightly around her, anchoring her firmly to his body, and rained kisses down on her hair. “Hush, baby. You’ll never lose me. You couldn’t if you tried. I’m afraid I’m resigned to tagging along behind you for the rest of my life and soaking up every crumb of love and attention you feed me.”

  She smiled against his chest and squeezed him despite the fact he was being so mindful of not holding her too tightly after the injuries and bruises she’d incurred.

  “I hope you’re hungry then,” she said, tilting her head up to grin broadly at him. “Because I’ve got a lot of crumbs for you.”

  “Say it again,” he whispered.

  She smiled, not misunderstanding his request at all. And it was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen in his life. Followed by the most beautiful words in existence.

  “I love you,” she said.

  EPILOGUE

  WITH construction to complete on their house, plus three pregnant members of the bridal party, Joe and Zoe made the decision to wait until the house was finished and furnished and Maren, Grace and Shea had all delivered their babies to get married.

  Of course Zoe had to have a little fun torturing Joe when Rachel announced she was pregnant two months before the wedding day by pouting in an exaggerated fashion and saying that now they had to put off the wedding until Rachel had her baby.

  Joe failed to see the humor in the situation, citing that if they had to wait for every pregnant Kelly woman to deliver their ba
bies they’d never get married, because in a family this large, someone was always pregnant.

  And when Sarah glowingly announced that she was pregnant with her second child just a week before the wedding, Zoe had laughed and conceded the point to Joe.

  When the day finally arrived, Zoe was beside herself with joy and excitement. The entire contingent of Kelly wives had accompanied Zoe to Nashville to pick out her wedding dress, and that shopping trip had turned into an entire weekend marathon as they looked for the one.

  As Zoe carefully stepped into the cloud of satin and pulled the dress up so one of the other women could begin fastening the tiny pearl buttons in the back, she stared in awe at her reflection in the mirror, unable to believe the woman who looked like a princess was actually her.

  “Don’t you dare cry,” Shea warned. “Your makeup took an hour to do, and plus, if you start crying then I’ll start crying and then everyone will start crying, which means seven more hours of reapplication.”

  Laughter went up and Zoe smiled, her lips spreading so wide that she thought she might burst from happiness. Her entire face glowed and the light shimmer from the sparkly eye shadow added to the shine in her gaze. She felt like a fairy princess. Like royalty. Her hair, which was now extension free but nearly the length it was when the extensions were in, was coiled loosely atop her head with curled tendrils floating down her neck.

  The tiara the other women had insisted she wear sparkled atop her head, but what she loved the most, aside from the ginormous engagement ring Joe had given her, were the diamond chandelier earrings he had gifted her with the night before, after the rehearsal.

  He’d leaned in and whispered in her ear, “Every princess needs kick-ass earrings to wear with her tiara.”

  She managed not to burst into tears on the spot. Barely.

  A light knock on the door sounded and Zoe looked up, her brow furrowing. Everyone who should be in the bridal room was present and the men had been banned, so who on earth would be knocking?

  The other women exchanged huge grins and were practically jiggling with excitement. Zoe just shook her head, wondering what on earth they’d cooked up now.

  But when the door opened, Zoe forgot all about makeup, hair, her tiara or whether everything was perfect. Tears gathered in her eyes and then she ran, nearly tripping over the long train. She wobbled drunkenly and then hurled herself into Rusty’s arms.

  The two women hung on to each other, laughing and crying all at the same time.

  “I’m glad I told the makeup artist we’d be needing a major touch-up before go time,” Sophie said dryly.

  But all of the women had tears in their eyes as they surrounded the two hugging women and then converged on them until it was one giant group hug. Finally Zoe pulled away long enough to examine her friend.

  “You came,” she said tearfully.

  Rusty waved a hand down the gorgeous dress and then pointed out the heels.

  “I’d never let my girl get married without me standing up for her,” Rusty said teasingly. “And . . . Joe made me promise to wear a dress to his wedding, and I told him I’d even wear heels if he actually got you to marry him, so here I am.”

  Zoe hugged her again. “I’m so glad you’re here. This day couldn’t be any more perfect now. I wanted you to be here so much. You’ll be my maid of honor, of course.”

  Rusty hugged her back. “You don’t think I’m wearing this getup for my health, do you?”

  “You look beautiful,” Zoe said truthfully as she examined Rusty closely.

  It had been eight months since Rusty had left, and she looked . . . different. She’d always been beautiful, but now she was gorgeous. Her hair was longer and fell in waves of soft curls down her back. She’d gained a little weight, filled out more, her curves more pronounced. A consistent complaint that Rusty voiced was that she had no hips, ass or boobs, but evidently she was an extremely late bloomer because her figure was absolutely lush now.

  Rusty blushed, and to someone who didn’t know her well it would appear she was happy, content, in a good place. But sorrow was engraved deep in her eyes. She was quieter and more resigned, a direct contradiction from the sarcastic, irreverent, ever-teasing girl who had somehow disappeared during her absence.

  Zoe squeezed her hand, trying her best not to do further damage to her makeup by crying again.

  “Does everyone else know you’re here? Oh my God, they’re going to be so happy to see you, Rusty!”

  Rusty looked away, guilt flashing in her eyes. “Mom knows,” she said quietly. “And Dad. And of course all the women,” she said, smiling in their direction. “But I swore them to secrecy and threatened not to come if they told anyone else.”

  She sobered as she once again took in the faces of all the women gathered. “I’m sorry for putting y’all in that position, but I just couldn’t . . .” She broke off, flushing with embarrassment.

  Rachel, who was perhaps the sweetest, most empathetic woman in the group, wrapped her arm around Rusty’s shoulders and squeezed.

  “Don’t apologize, Rusty. Let’s face it. Men are morons. Granted, some of them are bigger morons than others, but they’re all dense as a fog.”

  Laughter rang out, breaking the awkwardness. Even Rusty smiled and gave Rachel a grateful look.

  “There’s one other thing before we get this started,” Rusty hedged. “I have a favor to ask of all of you.”

  “Name it,” Zoe said with no hesitation.

  “I’ll stay for photos right after the ceremony, but then I want to make my exit as quickly as possible and I need you all to help act as a buffer.”

  Left unsaid, but understood by all, was that the buffer was meant for Sean. Since he wasn’t part of the actual wedding party, he wouldn’t be in the church while pictures were being taken, which granted Rusty the opportunity to dodge him as soon as the photo session was done.

  “Leave Sean to me,” Rachel said smugly. “We’re pretty tight and all I’ll have to do is pretend to feel a little ill because of my pregnancy and I’ll have his full attention. You can make a run for it while I try not to vomit on him.”

  The image was so hilarious that they all began laughing again, many wiping tears from their eyes, prompting groans as they realized the makeup artist was going to be very busy if they were going to start the ceremony on time.

  “Come sit with me while I get my makeup redone,” Zoe urged. “I want to know everything that’s gone on for the last eight months.”

  Rusty rolled her eyes. “Trust me, it’s boring.”

  Zoe snorted. “As if you could ever be boring.”

  • • •

  SEAN sat in the pew and shifted uncomfortably as he loosened his tie. He checked his watch, frowning, as were the men standing up for Joe and especially Joe himself, because it was already ten minutes past time to start. Joe looked nervous and edgy. Hell, he appeared to be sweating.

  He wanted to give Joe shit for being such a nervous wreck but he could well imagine his fear of Zoe changing her mind or something happening at the last minute that would cause him to lose her. He knew that feeling all too well. Joe would get his happy ending, though. Sean was still holding out for his.

  Relief was tangible in the sanctuary when the music began and the doors leading from the vestibule were opened. One by one, the Kelly wives plus Maren glided down the aisle, each holding a bouquet of purple irises. For the first time in his life, Sean envied his friends for the lives they had. The wives they came home to. The children they doted on.

  Being several years younger than the Kelly brothers, he’d been more concerned with establishing his career and remaining single than establishing families like his older mentors. But now he was the age they had been when they’d all started getting married. There was only one woman he was remotely interested in settling down with, and he’d fucked up his chance with her time and time again.

  There was a pause as Sophie took her place in line with the other attendants and Sean turned, expecti
ng Zoe to make her appearance at any moment. But when he saw who walked down the aisle, back straight, eyes focused straight ahead, his stomach bottomed out.

  Rusty?

  He was bombarded by a host of contradictory emotions. Elation. Relief. Anger. Excitement. Betrayal. He sent accusing stares toward the Kelly men but they looked as shell-shocked as he did. Obviously they had no more forewarning of her return than he did. How could they not know? She was acting as Zoe’s goddamn maid of honor and even Joe looked flabbergasted.

  His eyes narrowed when his gaze shifted to the women, who didn’t look at all surprised. They looked ecstatic. And just as he was witnessing it, the men were also making the same observation.

  He turned rapidly as Rusty neared the pew where he was seated right next to the aisle. Her gaze flickered for the first time, dropping from the pulpit to where he was seated.

  “Rusty,” he said in a low voice. “Where the hell have you been? I’ve been worried out of my goddamned mind!”

  “Not here!” she hissed, lengthening her stride and nearly stumbling in the ridiculous heels she wore.

  His Rusty never wore toothpicks disguised as shoes. She was a flip-flop, combat boot, tennis shoe–wearing woman who didn’t give one fuck about makeup and girly froufrou shit and she rarely wore her hair in any way except a ponytail or a messy bun, and yet tonight . . . she looked so beautiful his teeth ached.

  She was different—looked different—and yet she was still his Rusty. Nothing would ever change that.

  As she increased the distance between them, he called out to her, uncaring of the scene he was making.

  She immediately halted and whirled around, bitterness burning brightly in her eyes.

  “I will never forgive you if you ruin Zoe’s wedding,” she said, emotion thick in her voice.

  Sean grimaced and then sent Joe an apologetic look. Goddamn but he could never say or do the right thing. He bowed his head, unable to look at Rusty, because if he did, he wouldn’t be able to overcome the urge to haul her out of the church, wedding be damned, and handcuff her to his bed for however long it took for her to listen to him. Or for him to finally get it right.

  Joe’s heart swelled with love and gratitude as he stared over at Rusty. Uncaring of protocol, since he planned to break it in just a few moments anyway, he walked over to where she had taken her place and pulled her into his arms, hugging her fiercely.

  “Thank you for being here for Zoe—and for me,” he whispered in her ear. “I love you, baby sister, and I’ve missed you so damn much. I hope this means you’re coming back where you belong.”

  Rusty smiled and returned his hug, mindful of the flowers she carried. “Love you too, big brother. Now get on with it before Zoe has a meltdown thinking you’ve changed your mind.”

  “Oh shit,” he breathed.

  Hurriedly he went to the microphone stand and nervously cleared his throat as he motioned for the doors to be opened. Once opened, they revealed Zoe, looking so beautiful that it hurt to look at her. She was clearly confused and her gaze found his in obvious question.

  He smiled tenderly at her and then spoke into the microphone for the entire gathering to hear.

  “I wanted to do something special for my bride to be. Something to let her know how very much I love her and how much I cherish the honor she’s bestowed on me by agreeing to spend the rest of her life with me. I know it’s typical to play the wedding march for the bridal procession, but I chose a song as my gift to her, as my message to her as she walks to me, escorted by my father.”

  Zoe’s watery gaze lifted to Joe’s dad, whose arm hers was firmly tucked under as he prepared to walk her down the aisle and give her away.

  Once again he motioned, and the song he’d picked—“I Swear” by John Michael Montgomery—began to play. He’d instructed his father to walk her very slowly, and when Zoe and his father reached the spot where Joe stood waiting, he’d take over.

  His gaze was riveted to her. He couldn’t look away if he tried. She was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen in his life. And she was his.

  As Zoe absorbed the lyrics to the song, a thin trickle of tears tracked down her cheeks and her smile was so big that it lit up the entire room. But what nearly brought Joe to his knees was the overwhelming love shining in her eyes for all to see.

  It felt as though he’d waited for this moment forever. The time it took his father to escort her to where he waited for her was interminable. When his dad finally stopped just in front of him, his heart was thudding so violently that he was convinced the beats could be heard over the music.

  Frank leaned down and kissed her on the cheek, his own eyes tearing up. “Welcome to the family, my girl.”

  Zoe squeezed his hand and released a shuddering breath in her effort not to completely break down into sobs. Then he formally transferred her hand to Joe’s and looked him in the eye, his expression one of utter gravity.

  “Take care of her well and love her always.”

  “I will,” Joe said, his voice cracking.

  His father stepped back to join his mother, who was openly crying and wiping
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