Brighter than the sun, p.3
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       Brighter Than the Sun, p.3

         Part #11 of KGI series by Maya Banks
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  “And,” Sam said, a smirk forming on his lips, “I have a special treat for all of you. Allie will be heading up a training course on explosives: dismantling and disabling, how to tell when you’re fucked and when you’re not. Baker, you of all people should appreciate that.”

  “Oh, fuck you all,” Baker growled. “For fuck’s sake. It was one time and it was forever ago! Let it go already.”

  Allie’s eyebrows lifted in question.

  “I’ll tell you all about it later,” P.J. promised with an evil grin in Baker’s direction.

  “Hey, it wasn’t all bad,” Renshaw defended. “It did finally get boss man and Maren together.”

  “Why do I get the feeling this is going to be one long-ass story?” Allie asked in resignation. “Are you guys ever serious about anything?”

  The room filled with laughter.

  “They’re all long stories,” Skylar said, her eyes twinkling with merriment. “And I haven’t even been here as long as most.”

  “We’re serious,” Joe said in an even voice directed at Allie. “We’re serious about not fucking up and dying. That should be all the serious you need.”

  Her eyebrow went up and he could swear she sniffed at him in disdain. Skylar noticed the interaction and her expression darkened. P.J. caught Skylar’s eye and the two women stood in silent communication for a long moment, their displeasure evident. Shit. If Joe was Allie, he’d be pissing himself right about now. Having one of the two women on his ass would be intimidating enough. But both Skylar and P.J.? If a grown man wasn’t shaking in his boots over that double threat then he was a fucking fool. He hoped for Allie’s sake that she lost the chip—or rather boulder—on her shoulder pretty damn fast or things were going to get ugly.

  “Rio, you bringing Grace and Elizabeth for a visit?” Donovan asked with a grin.

  Rio gave him a look that suggested he was an idiot. But then he didn’t even dignify it with an answer. He motioned for his team to fall in and they simply walked out of the war room.

  Joe chuckled. “You can’t ever accuse Rio of not being consistent.”

  “She’s good,” Garrett mused, his gaze still on the closed door where Rio and his team, with their newest recruit, had exited just seconds before. “Damn good. She’ll be a perfect fit for Rio’s team. If the chemistry is right. When we hire a new recruit, it’s a crapshoot as far as how well they mesh with their team. Their skills aren’t in question—otherwise they wouldn’t be hired. It isn’t all about skills. A recruit has to fit seamlessly into their team or shit’s going to go south damn fast. But I swear it’s like fate or some hokey shit I don’t understand because we couldn’t have found a better fit for Rio and his team than Allie even if we’d created an entire checklist, personality profile, whatever. It’s like a fucking gift got dropped right into our laps, and as freaky as it is, I’m not going to waste time pondering the statistical improbability of ever finding a recruit that would fit into a team that has no fucks to give and does it their way or no way but gets the job done every damn time regardless and just savor that we scored in a huge way. Like hitting the badass, take-no-prisoners lottery or something.”

  A series of chuckles rose and Joe rolled his eyes. “Um, dude? You just did waste a fuck ton of time pondering the statistical improbability of finding Allie.”

  Garrett scowled. “Fuck you. Are we done yet? I’d like to spend what’s left of the day with my wife and daughter. She’s already walking. Can you believe that shit? She’s a genius. Clearly takes after her mother. Not a smarter baby in the world.”

  Groans replaced the earlier chuckles and several gazes rolled upward as if pleading for mercy. Joe was also ready to roll out, but not for the reasons everyone else was eager to race home. There was only so much home, hearth and domesticity laced with a fuck ton of mushy, embarrassing rhetoric a single man could take in a day. And yet the prospect of going back to the house he now was the sole occupant of held no real appeal. Maybe he’d go grab a beer, but then again, he’d be flying solo because all his brothers, not to mention the majority of the other members of KGI, were quite happily off the market and preferred ridiculous baby talk and boasting about their progeny being the most brilliant babies ever born to going out with the guys and having a drink. Or three.

  Maybe Skylar and Edge would be down for a break from the display of grown-ass men losing their fucking minds during a meeting. And if not Skylar and Edge, Dolphin was always up for a good time. Like Joe, Dolphin was single and showed no signs of settling down . . . ever. Joe wasn’t much of a party animal, preferring to spend his time with his family, even if they drove him crazy about his single status, but Dolphin’s exploits were legendary and he kept his team, as well as the rest of KGI, regularly amused by his nights out.

  He didn’t even realize he was shaking his head until he caught Nathan staring inquisitively at him before asking, “Everything okay with you, bro? Why are you shaking your head looking like you want to go fuck up an entire terrorist organization?”

  Right now taking down a terrorist group held more appeal than being subjected to the epic display of emotional meltdowns he’d just witnessed. Never before had he felt like an outsider in the organization founded and run by his three oldest brothers. He’d always known that after his final tour in the army was up he would join his brothers and had looked forward to it. He’d loved his time in the army. It had prepared him well to be on the level of the other members of KGI, but he’d been ready to move on to the next part of his life.

  Now? He felt distinctly uncomfortable, and once again, a nagging sensation that felt strangely like envy tugged relentlessly at him. He wasn’t jealous of his brothers. He was happy as hell for them. He didn’t even want to settle down anytime soon. He had time. When he was ready, he was ready. All his brothers had known when they’d found “the one.” Before that, they, like him, were perfectly content to be single and focused exclusively on making a difference and bringing justice to assholes who’d long escaped it. But the moment their wives had entered their lives, everything had changed.

  Joe hadn’t met “the one.” Sure, he dated. His sex life didn’t make him a man whore, but neither was he lacking for companionship when the mood struck. But none of the women he’d dated had stirred the fierce response he’d witnessed time and time again when his brothers had found their soul mates.

  Sweet baby Jesus. Forget the beer. He needed something a hell of a lot harder. And he needed to get the hell out of here fast because he was actually standing around contemplating shit like soul mates and the fact that he hadn’t found his. That wasn’t even what he wanted right now. Was it?

  CHAPTER 4

  “ARE you sure this is a good idea?” Zoe asked Rusty in panic as she peeked from the upstairs window to see the dozens of people gathered below in the backyard.

  When Rusty had told her that the entire Kelly family, even those considered family outside the bonds of blood, would be attending a barbecue at Frank and Marlene’s home today, Zoe had been riddled with anxiety and . . . fear. She’d come here to hide, to be as unnoticed as possible. To be in a place where she wouldn’t have to worry over discovery until she and Rusty came up with a plan for her next move.

  Now she faced what looked to be at least thirty people, if not more, standing around smiling, laughing, having a good time. Children playing. Just what a real family looked like, or at least what Zoe imagined a real family to be. But what did she know? She’d had none of this growing up. Rusty was the first real friend she’d made, the first person who’d seemed to genuinely care about her, and Rusty had certainly gone to great extremes, with a great possibility of endangering her own life.

  Not only did she feel terror over being exposed to so many people, she was also instilled with a fierce envy, something she hadn’t thought she could even feel after long ago accepting her circumstances. What would her life have been like if she’d had . . . this. A loving, devoted family. Happy. Loving. Smiles and laughter. A far cry from the st
erile environment she was accustomed to.

  Rusty slid her hand over Zoe’s shoulder and then turned her, pulling her into a hard hug.

  “Stop stressing, Zoe. You know I’d never do anything that would put you at risk. This is my family. They’re loyal to their bones. They aren’t gossipers, nor do they pry into other people’s business. You’ll be welcomed as a guest, as a part of the family. No one will interrogate you, nor will anyone talk to outsiders about you or anything that happens within our family. We’ve well learned the necessity of discretion and keeping family business just that. Family business. By now everyone knows I’ve brought a friend home and it will be far more suspicious for you to spend the entire afternoon holed up in our room than if you come down and join in and, God forbid, actually relax and have fun for once. You need this, Zoe. You need to see that the way you were raised isn’t normal—it isn’t how families work. I can’t think of a better way for you to see that than to spend the afternoon with my family, who will do nothing more than welcome you with open arms.”

  Zoe sighed. “I know you’re right. It’s just that I’m not sure I can pull this off without having a complete meltdown or looking so scared that everyone will immediately be suspicious of this ‘friend’ you brought home with you.”

  Rusty laughed. “Everyone is well acquainted with my . . . well, let’s just say I had a rebellious streak a mile wide in the early years, and I’ve always gone my own way. The difference is I always had a safety net to fall back on. And that’s what I want you to have,” she added in a more serious tone. “There isn’t a person down there who wouldn’t protect you with their life.”

  Zoe gave her a skeptical look. “I’m a stranger, Rusty. Not family, though you keep insisting otherwise. Why on earth would they risk anything for someone they don’t even know?”

  Rusty’s somber expression disappeared as laughter escaped, her eyes twinkling in merriment. “Girlfriend, that’s what they do. They risk their lives for people they’ve never even met before. I went over this with you already. The organization they formed is all about rescuing and protecting, exacting vengeance. They’re the real deal, honey. But you won’t know that unless you come out of hiding and join the festivities. And, well, I hate to pull out the big guns, but if you don’t come down with me, then Marlene is just going to come up and drag you out, and trust me, no one tells Marlene no. She won’t be mean—God, that woman is a saint—but suddenly you’ll find yourself doing exactly what it is she wants and afterward you’ll be puzzled because you won’t even remember how she accomplished it, but you’ll find yourself falling into line, just as the rest of the family does, and doing exactly as she determines.”

  Zoe’s eyes closed a brief moment and then she squared her shoulders. “You’re right. I’m being stupid, scared and unreasonable. I’m tired of being a timid little mouse. God, I hate the person I’ve become.”

  “It’s never too late to change, honey,” Rusty said, her expression softening with love and understanding. “I know that better than anyone. You can become whoever you want. You just have to take that first step in taking your life back. Make yourself into whoever you want to be. It’s never too late to achieve your dreams and to live the life you’ve always wanted. You just have to let go of the past and stop letting it control the present. And your future. You’re smart, funny and beautiful. You’re compassionate, kind and selfless. You can’t tell me that your father or that asshole who fucked you over are responsible for those traits. You made that choice, despite being shown no other way. You’re your own person and nothing they’ve done will ever change that. Unless you let them.”

  “I think you can mark ‘intelligent’ off your list of my virtues,” Zoe said with a grimace. “I’m an idiot. A complete idiot. And you’re right. I just wish I had you as a friend growing up. Or maybe not, since that would have meant you were exposed to the life I had. But I’m glad we’re friends now. I don’t know why you haven’t washed your hands of my whiny ass and walked away. You’ve taken so many risks to help me and I’m acting like an ungrateful child.”

  Rusty’s eyes narrowed and Zoe could feel her about to launch into a stern lecture about being so hard on herself. So she just held up her hand to stop the inevitable tirade and then raised the other in surrender.

  “I’m coming, I’m coming. Give me a minute to at least make myself presentable?”

  Rusty eyed her doubtfully. “Okay, but you get five minutes. If you aren’t down by that time, then I’m sending Marlene up after you, and God help you then. She won’t care if you’re in your underwear. She’ll drag you down the stairs kicking and screaming and then proudly introduce you to every single member of her extended family and decree that you’re family now.”

  Zoe’s face must have reflected her horror because Rusty laughed. “I’m only slightly exaggerating,” Rusty said between giggles. “She would at least give you time to get dressed. Everything else? Not so much, and she would drag you down in the sweetest way possible, but you would be incapable of resisting, so I suggest you get to it. Besides, with the new you, all you have to do is pull on a pair of jeans, a cute top and brush your hair. See how much easier I’ve made your life? No more hourlong makeup marathons, perfectly arranged hair and looking like a Wall Street broker’s wife. You should be done in three minutes, tops!”

  “Get out of here before I strangle you,” Zoe muttered. “I said I’ll be down.” Then anxiety tightened her chest and she bit into her bottom lip. “You’ll wait for me, right? There’s no way I want to just walk into that crowd on my own acting as if I belong. I’d have a heart attack.”

  Rusty’s eyes shone with understanding and compassion. “I’ll wait for you at the bottom of the stairs, but if one of us doesn’t present ourselves stat, Marlene is going to come up here to see why the heck we’re up here when everyone else is down there.”

  “Okay, get down there, pacify her. I swear I’ll be down in the three minutes you say it will take me to make myself presentable. I refuse, however, to look in a mirror, because if that happens, I’ll go into meltdown mode when I don’t recognize the person staring back at me.”

  “The person staring back at you is beautiful, Zoe,” Rusty said softly. “You have a natural beauty that just shines and stands out in a crowded room. The person you were before was fake. A role you were playing, never allowing the real you to be seen. I’ve seen that person and she’s gorgeous. Besides, no one here has ever seen you in full-on designer- chic mode. Trust me. I wouldn’t let you make a fool of yourself in front of my family. I wouldn’t let you appear in a way that embarrassed you or made you feel ashamed. Will you please just trust me on this? You’re not the emotionless, perfectly made-up doll your father insisted you be molded into.”

  Zoe gave Rusty one last hug, holding on to her tightly, tears burning the edges of her eyelids. “You’re the best friend I’ve ever had,” she whispered.

  “Same goes,” Rusty said, pulling back, her eyes suspiciously bright, though she quickly averted her gaze as if embarrassed for Zoe to see her emotion.

  But then Zoe knew enough of Rusty’s own past to know that Rusty had endured a much harsher life growing up, and it made Zoe ashamed that she was putting up such a fuss and acting as if she’d been sorely abused. It was rare that Rusty’s true emotions were ever evident in her eyes or expression, but Zoe knew just how deeply her friend felt, how big her heart was and how loving and compassionate she was.

  “Shoo,” Zoe scolded, suddenly reversing roles and ushering Rusty out so she could finish dressing. “We don’t want Marlene dragging us both down the stairs by our ears.”

  Rusty laughed but she didn’t dispute that Marlene would do just that.

  “I’ll be waiting downstairs and I won’t leave your side when we go face the firing squad, er, I mean family,” Rusty hastily amended with a grin on her face.

  Seconds later, Zoe was alone and she picked frantically through the clothes Rusty had bought for her. Then she thought back to what
Rusty herself was wearing. They were roughly the same age, Zoe being two years older but close enough that she would be expected to wear what every young twentysomething would wear. Or at least she hoped.

  It was sad that she had no real idea what to wear when so much of her wardrobe and appearance had been dictated for so long. She finally settled on a pair of jeans decorated with embellishments and embroidered designs and a modest top that was a step above grunge wear, as Zoe called it, meaning a T-shirt worn around the house when one wasn’t expecting company. Then she slid her feet into a sparkly pair of flip-flops that she had to admit she liked.

  Her toes were freshly painted, thanks to a late-night girl talk and nail-painting session between her and Rusty, and they gleamed a hot pink color that made her feel a little . . . daring.

  She brushed out her much longer hair now, opting to leave it flowing down her back since she didn’t have time to do one of those cute messy buns Rusty had taught her to fashion, and she chose a simple pair of cheap hoop earrings, laughing silently at the thought of the outrageously expensive jewelry collection she’d pawned to pad her stash of money, since leaving a paper trail, in Rusty’s words, was just stupid.

  When Zoe would have simply taken the items to a local pawn shop, Rusty had given a long-suffering sigh and then explained to her how easily her location could be found out and how identifiable the jewelry was since it had all been given to her by her father. Instead they’d made the long drive to Atlanta where they’d pawned the jewelry, and in an effort to further confuse anyone tracking Zoe, they’d bought her a bus ticket to New York, the opposite side of the country from the destination where they’d purchased the plane ticket in her name to. Rusty had explained that it would be a piece of cake to determine that Zoe had never been on that flight but it would delay her pursuers a little. However, her presence on a bus, especially given the fact Rusty had made her present her ticket and board the bus, only to slip off before it departed, would be a lot harder to determine, hopefully leading anyone looking for her to New York.

  Zoe had to admit, Rusty had her shit together. She’d long thought the other woman to be a freaking genius, but this cemented it. Rusty wasn’t just street-smart or even academically smart, both of which she’d certainly proven to be. The woman had a computerlike brain, calculating every possibility and preparing for as many as possible.

  Zoe considered herself an intelligent woman, even if current evidence proved that she was the dumbest woman to ever live, but she couldn’t hold a candle to Rusty’s sharp mind and impressive tech skills. Maybe she could learn by osmosis, absorbing as much of Rusty’s knowledge as possible before it was time to move on.

  The thought filled her with instant sadness. She hadn’t even met Rusty’s massive family, but already the thought of leaving her best friend and Marlene and Frank, who’d been so very kind and generous to her, made her feel alone and afraid.

  Knowing that if she didn’t get her ass down the stairs right now Rusty and Marlene would likely burst into her room to drag her down, she hurriedly gave herself one last glance in the mirror, despite her vow not to, and was stunned by the result. No, she didn’t look like herself—her old self. She looked almost . . . pretty.

  Wiping the shocked look of realization off her face and then planting a serene smile that gave nothing of her inner turmoil away, she hurried down the stairs, where she found Rusty impatiently tapping her foot.

  “Thank God,” Rusty muttered. “I’m only able to put Marlene off for so long, you know. Thankfully, another of her grandchildren just arrived, so that gave us a few moments’ reprieve before she rounded up the last of the holdouts.”

  Rusty gave her an assessing look. “You ready?”

  Zoe took a deep breath, positive that someone could see her heart beating rapidly against her chest, and nodded.

  Rusty took her hand and squeezed. “You look gorgeous, Zoe. You look like . . . you.”

  “Well thank goodness,” Zoe teased. “I’d hate to look like anyone else.”

  Rusty grinned and then tucked her arm underneath Zoe’s and steered her toward the French doors leading onto the back deck.

  “Remember everything we rehearsed. Keep it simple and light. Don’t deviate from the script,” Rusty murmured. “While you have nothing to fear from anyone here, they will pick up on any discrepancies in your story. That’s what they’re trained to do. They have an eye for detail and nothing gets by them.”

  Rusty had grilled her endlessly on the details of her new identity and made-up past. So much so that Zoe could recite them in her sleep. But now her confidence faltered as she listened to Rusty talk about how her brothers were trained to spot discrepancies, slipups, inconsistencies.

  “Oh God, I can’t do this,” she said, pulling Rusty up short.

  Her heart was racing, about to pound out of her chest. She could feel her airway constricting and knew if she tried to speak, all that would come out would be an inaudible wheeze.

  “What if I screw up?” she asked in a garbled, panicked whisper, her gaze darting left and right to ensure they weren’t overheard.

  “Relax,” Rusty said soothingly. “Keep it simple, remember? The more complicated you make it, the more likely you are to contradict yourself. Focus on generalities and no specifics. They value their own privacy too much to ever pry into anyone else’s. Now come on. People are already starting to stare. I need to introduce you around.”

  Her pulse still fluttering wildly, she allowed herself to fall into step next to Rusty, pasting the serene smile on her face she’d practiced countless times in the mirror until she knew exactly how it felt and could do it without seeing the results to know if it was convincing.

  Marlene hurried over, beaming as she enfolded first Rusty and then Zoe into a huge hug. Zoe closed her eyes, savoring Marlene’s hold and, for just a moment, fantasizing that this was her life. Her family. Her mother.

  One would think Marlene hadn’t seen them in weeks, much less an hour prior, but then she seemed to treat all her family the same and, well, with the stories Rusty had told her of all their family had been through over the last several years, Zoe couldn’t blame Marlene for making each moment count. Who knew when it would be the last time Marlene hugged one of her sons, daughters-in-law, grandchildren or adopted “strays,” as they’d been labeled, though Marlene vehemently disapproved of any of her “chicks” being called strays.

  The Kellys obviously cherished every single minute of their lives and celebrated their happiness. Before her entire world had crumbled around her—her entire fake world—she’d taken getting up the next day for granted. But then she hadn’t had much to take for granted. Not like this family did. She couldn’t imagine the devastation they would feel if even one didn’t make it back from a mission, much less several, and given the structure of their organization as explained to her by Rusty, it was certainly not in the realm of impossibility that an entire team could be killed. All it would take was one misstep, one wrong decision. An ambush or someone from their past with a grudge to bear.

  She gave an involuntary shudder even as Marlene gently disentangled herself from her arms. Zoe blushed and looked away, embarrassed that while Marlene had instigated the hug, she had taken it over and had clung far too long to the older woman.

  But there was only gentle understanding and a soft smile as Marlene took one of her hands and squeezed as if to tell her it was all right before turning her attention to Rusty.

  “I trust you’ll take care of introducing Zoe to everyone? I need to start bringing out the sides to put out on the table because Frank says the meat is just about ready to take off the grill.”

  “Oh, I’ll help you, Mrs. Kelly,” Zoe said eagerly before she realized that once again she was trying to avoid the sea of people all standing around in the backyard.

  “Thank you, dear, and please do call me Marlene or Ma. Anything but Mrs. Kelly, as I’ve already told you on a dozen occasions.”

  She softened the rebuke with laug
hter, her eyes twinkling.

  “But there’s no need. That’s what my boys are for. We’ve declared this women’s relaxation day and so all the wives are taking a well-earned rest while the menfolk watch the children and tend to the task of food preparation.”

  Zoe frowned. “Then why aren’t you taking a break as well? You’ve been working all morning preparing food and getting ready. If anyone deserves a break, it’s you.”

  “She makes a very valid point,” Rusty said smugly. “I know it slays the control freak in you, but you’re violating your own rule. Therefore, I’m going to point you to the nearest chair where I’m sure your grandchildren will be thrilled
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