Brighter than the sun, p.4
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       Brighter Than the Sun, p.4

         Part #11 of KGI series by Maya Banks
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  to provide you with all the entertainment you could possibly want. I’ll make sure the guys take care of the rest.”

  Marlene looked startled and then opened her mouth to argue. “But—”

  “No buts,” Rusty broke in, already herding her adopted mother in the direction of the nearest lawn chair.

  The look on Marlene’s face was priceless and applause broke out over the gathering. Zoe flinched, not realizing that everyone had obviously been privy to the entire exchange. Not only that, but they’d all gathered closer to Zoe, Rusty and Marlene and now stood only a few feet away.

  “Wow, Rusty,” a large, muscled man who had to be one of Rusty’s brothers said. “It’s always been Ma who instills fear in all our hearts, but now I’m beginning to think the real tyrant is you and that we should all be shaking in our boots.”

  Rusty rolled her eyes. “Oh please.”

  Then Zoe suddenly found herself thrust forward so that she was facing the impossibly tall, very muscled man.

  “Garrett, this is Zoe, a friend of mine from college. Zoe, this is Garrett, the second-oldest brother in the cult.”

  He laughed and then extended his hand to her. Trying to control the betraying tremors that seemed to pervade every muscle in her body, she tentatively slid her hand into his grasp. To her surprise, his grip was extremely gentle and his smile was genuine.

  “Glad to meet you, Zoe. And welcome to the family. I’ve no doubt that Ma has already indoctrinated you into the cult, as Rusty so irreverently deemed us.”

  “Glad to meet you too,” Zoe murmured. “Rusty has told me so much about you all that I feel as if I already know you.”

  She instantly gave an inward groan. Way to go, idiot. Do exactly what Rusty said not to do. Open yourself up for more than you bargained for. But to her relief, Garrett’s teeth gleamed all the more and he cocked an eyebrow in his sister’s direction.

  “I hope it was all good things. Like how I’m the best-looking and smartest brother.”

  There were muffled and some not-so-muffled choking sounds made in the group now surrounding Zoe and Rusty.

  “I believe she mentioned that Donovan was the brains of the operation,” Zoe said, unable to help herself, relaxing and returning his tease.

  “That I am,” another man said as he stepped forward.

  To her surprise, he didn’t shake her hand, but instead enfolded her in a gentle hug and then turned and introduced her to his wife and then to their two children, though Rusty had explained they were actually Eve’s half siblings, Travis and Cammie.

  Soon it became a muddled confusion as Zoe attempted to commit each name and face to memory. She had the names already, but now she needed to make sure she remembered which face went with each family member. Even before the introductions were complete, she was all but wilting. Never had she been made to feel so welcome or at home by complete strangers. Well, by anyone, anywhere, for that matter. It only brought home the fact that she was utterly ignorant of something as simple as family dynamics, and it brought an unassuageable ache to her heart.

  But then she noticed another man standing just off to the side, one she hadn’t been introduced to yet. She searched her overwhelmed brain for who this might be, but all the family names—and God, there were a ton—blended together and she could barely recall the last few people she’d been introduced to, much less the ones who had come first.

  On cue, the man stepped forward, his expression more intent than those of the others had been. Almost as if he’d been studying her and had found a discrepancy. His welcome didn’t seem to be as automatic as all the others’, and she immediately tensed in an effort not to give in to the overwhelming jitters that threatened to make her muscles quake.

  “And this is the last of my brothers,” Rusty said cheerfully, oblivious to the turmoil unleashed inside Zoe. “Joe is Nathan’s twin, the older of the two by a few minutes or so.”

  His hand slid over her outstretched palm that she hadn’t remembered extending. She was besieged with sudden awareness, an odd sensation snaking through every single muscle in her body. Though his expression was indecipherable, his touch was exceedingly gentle, almost as if he could sense her terror. And when he spoke, it was all she could do to suppress a full-body shiver.

  “Welcome to our home, Zoe,” he murmured.


  “WHAT exactly does anyone know about Rusty’s friend?” Joe asked with a frown as he and Donovan stood to one side, watching Rusty and Zoe.

  The two women were conversing quietly away from the others, but Zoe frequently allowed her gaze to travel over the rest of the assembled people, and it was what Joe could see in her eyes that bothered him. What he couldn’t see reflected in her gaze bugged him even more.

  Something seemed off, but he couldn’t put his finger on what. It was obvious she was checking Rusty’s entire family out, but instead of idle curiosity or even genuine interest being the most probable reasons for her scrutiny, he could swear he saw worry and fear. It was almost as if she were literally looking over her shoulder expecting some sort of surprise attack, which would be absurd given that Rusty would most assuredly have given her friend at least basic background information on her brothers. Then again, he might be seeing what he’d expected to see. What apparently, he, and only he, was projecting onto Zoe’s skittish behavior judging by the fact that none of his brothers or the hodgepodge smattering of team members present from both his and Nathan’s team as well as Steele’s seemed to share the nagging in his gut, which was becoming more aggressive by the second. And if any one of his brothers or his teammates thought for a minute that there was a danger to the family, their wives, children and friends, they wouldn’t stand idly by or wait for the appropriate time. Which meant that Joe was on his own with his scrutiny and suspicion of Rusty’s friend.

  Donovan chuckled and elbowed his brother. “Worried this is another one of Ma’s plots against you?”

  Joe made a sound of exasperation. That hadn’t even crossed his mind, though now that Donovan had mentioned it, could that be all it was? Was this a setup? He nearly shook his head in denial. No, that wasn’t what was going on here. That wasn’t at all the vibe he was getting from Zoe.

  “Can you be serious for once? From all accounts, no one has ever heard Rusty even mention this friend, and then suddenly she calls Ma and says she’s bringing her to visit for an indeterminate amount of time. I don’t know, man. Something’s not right. She’s skittish and seems extremely nervous. She barely managed to make eye contact during introductions, and if she’s supposed to be my downfall, she didn’t seem in the least interested. In fact, she couldn’t back away fast enough once she got through all the names and faces.”

  Donovan snorted. “Hell, can you blame her? Our family intimidates the hell out of me on a good day. Have you considered she’s shy and overwhelmed by being besieged by the entire Kelly clan all at once? It wasn’t as if she was eased into this. I feel sorry for the poor woman. She was all but thrown to the sharks just a couple of days after she arrived.”

  Joe grunted. “I can’t put my finger on it, but something isn’t sitting with me very well.”

  “That wouldn’t have anything to do with the fact that she’s a beautiful woman, with a stunning smile, the few times she’s let go of her terror at being surrounded by a horde of really big men, not to mention seeming to be utterly bewildered by all the children clamoring for her attention. To me, she just looks like a fish out of water. She’s probably scared shitless, bro. Cut her some slack.”

  At his brother’s soft reprimand, Joe felt like a first-class asshole. Van was probably right. She’d literally been thrown to the wolves with no advance warning. And Van was correct about another thing too. His family was intimidating. Loud, boisterous. Irreverent, and at times, downright obnoxious. But he wouldn’t have them any other way. A stranger wouldn’t likely feel as the rest of the family did and likely wouldn’t deem this the average, normal family.

  His th
oughts turned to the observations he’d made—was still making—about her, even as his gaze found her once more in the crowd. She drew him like a magnet, and already he had an uncanny way of finding her, of knowing just which direction to look in order to see her again.

  She was beautiful in a quiet, understated way. She looked natural, not made-up as someone she wasn’t. Even the faint freckles that dusted her flawless skin added to her appeal. She appeared wholesome, innocent even, and as Van had inferred, way over her head. What was Rusty thinking tossing her into the deep end to sink or swim?

  For some reason, she intrigued Joe, his curiosity piqued, not that he’d ever admit that to any of his brothers and especially not to his mother. They’d be all over him to move in, seal the deal, settle down, get married and start producing yet more grandchildren to add to the already growing numbers.

  But it was the sadness in Zoe’s eyes when she thought no one was observing her that made his chest tighten. The way she seemed to duck her head and attempt to remove herself from the focus of attention each time it was directed her way. No, this wasn’t some scheme hatched by his matchmaking mother, because Zoe hadn’t so much as looked in his direction the entire time she’d stood around, her body language broadcasting her discomfort.

  It riled his protective instincts, and at that realization, he went rigid.

  “Fuck me,” he muttered under his breath.

  He was attracted to her. And not just in a sexual way. His interest was more than simple curiosity. She was a puzzle, and he didn’t like mysteries, especially one that existed in the midst of his family. Not to mention, his attraction was pointless since she’d barely spared him a glance and a timid hello when it had been his turn to be introduced.

  What was her damage? Her story? She had the look of someone who’d seen the worst humanity had to offer, and God knew he’d seen that look often enough in his years in the army and now with KGI to know what stared him in the face. One thing he’d learned was that it wasn’t the women one only had to look at to know they’d been broken who’d endured far worse than others. No, it was those who covered it up that broke his fucking heart. The ones who held themselves together only by sheer will and desperation and the vow to themselves never to give in that kept them from crumbling in front of the world. Women who looked a lot like Zoe, who from the outside one would never guess was anything but a beautiful, intelligent young woman with her entire life ahead of her. But it was those few glimpses into her eyes—they’d been a window straight to her soul—that told him this woman had been to hell at some point in her life.

  Denial rose sharply within him. No, he wasn’t in the least interested in her, beyond wanting to make sure she wasn’t a threat to his family. He was simply curious. When the opportunity presented itself, he’d pull Rusty aside and ask what Zoe’s story was. Then his sudden fixation would be resolved and he’d go back to exactly the kind of life he’d outlined just a few days earlier when his twin was giving him shit about being the next to fall. He barely held back the snort over the absurdity of the idea that he was in any way attracted or even emotionally invested in a woman he knew absolutely nothing about.

  So why the hell was he besieged by the urge to pull her into his arms and offer comfort and reassurance? Let her know that she was safe here? No one would ever hurt her as long as she was firmly ensconced in the bosom of his family.

  Clearly he’d been subjected to his brothers’ nauseating adoration for their wives and the fact that they were utterly captive to their every whim and would move heaven and earth—making complete asses of themselves in the process—to make the women they loved happy. He wasn’t ready to sign on to that kind of commitment yet. He wasn’t ready to give up his freedom for any woman yet, but then again, no one said displaying mild interest in a female or even contemplating what it would be like to kiss her was akin to his bachelor days being over.

  Kiss? Jesus. Now he was fantasizing about kissing a woman he’d met mere minutes ago? He needed to separate himself from this veritable lovefest going on around him. That shit might be contagious. Once Ethan had gotten Rachel back and then Sam had fallen head over ass, it had been a domino effect with every one of his brothers, not to mention a good many of his teammates, quickly following suit.

  He’d just make sure to steer clear of Zoe until her visit was over, and problem solved.

  But there was still that nagging sensation that something was off—that things weren’t at all as they seemed—and that bugged him. What if they had a threat in their midst? Separating himself and making himself scarce was pretty damn stupid if he so much as suspected anything was up with Rusty’s friend.

  Maybe he should make it a point to hang around more often. Hell, maybe even ask her out. A date hardly constituted a freaking marriage proposal, and well, in the meantime he could get Van to do a little digging on Zoe Kildare. Just in case any red flags popped up. After all, his first duty was to his family and their protection.

  He glanced back in Zoe’s direction to see that she was now standing alone, and though it wasn’t glaringly obvious, she was agitated, panic flaring in her eyes as she turned her head in all directions as if searching for Rusty. Come to think of it, Rusty hadn’t left her side for the entirety of the barbecue. So where the hell was Rusty now, and why had she abandoned her friend, who clearly wasn’t at ease with standing alone among strangers?

  For that matter, why did he even care? As soon as the thought occurred he was besieged by guilt. If it was one of his sisters-in-law or one of the team members’ wives, he wouldn’t have thought twice about walking over to ensure she wasn’t standing alone. He’d ask her if she was okay or if she needed anything and then he would have busted ass to get her whatever she wanted.

  But those women were taken. Off-limits. And he felt genuine love and affection for each and every one of them. Just as their husbands would, Joe would do anything in the world for any one of the women KGI claimed as their own. Was he such an asshole that he could only bring himself to care about a select group of women and treat all other women with such indifference and disdain?

  Before thinking better of it, Joe surged forward, grabbing a cup of lemonade as an excuse to approach her since she was no longer holding a drink in her hand. She didn’t even notice his approach because she was so engrossed in studying her surroundings. Study was hardly an appropriate descriptor since studying implied interest or at least the desire to learn more about the goings-on around her. Zoe was constantly flitting her gaze over the crowd, moving quickly between groups, only to return seconds later, almost as if she feared missing something important.

  He wondered if others could see the fear that seemed permanently etched in her brow and reflected in her eyes as easily as he could, or if he was the only one who’d bothered to look beyond the transparent mask she’d donned. Her entire body was a study in unease, and she was tense. Her fingers were curled into tight balls, pressed against her denim-clad thighs, and she appeared as though she were battling her fight-or-flight instinct. His money was on flight. She appeared far too fragile to fight anyone, and judging by the dismay in her eyes when she’d been introduced to all the hulking Kelly brothers, she realized that flight was her only viable means of escape.

  Oh yeah. Joe was going to have a serious come-to-Jesus meeting with Rusty, but first he was going to do everything he could to assure Zoe that they—he—wasn’t some monster lying in wait to blindside her.

  His steps were slow and measured as he drew closer, and yet she still didn’t register his presence. He frowned, because for a woman as terrified as she appeared, she was frighteningly unaware of the potential threat to her. She was too worried about the ones far enough away that she could possibly escape and was paying no attention to the fact that Joe now stood a mere foot away from her.

  He cleared his throat, not wanting to startle her too badly. He instantly regretted not being more obvious in his approach. For not calling out to her when he was several feet away. Color leeched
from her cheeks, leaving her deathly pale, and she flinched, stepping back so quickly that she nearly stepped right off the deck and into nothing but air.

  Joe let out a string of curses even as he lunged to grab her arm before she plummeted to the ground below. It wasn’t a huge drop, but she was so damn tiny and fragile-looking. Such a fall could easily result in a broken bone or bones. His relief was palpable when his fingers managed to curl around her wrist and he squeezed, hating her soft cry of pain, knowing he was the cause, but no way in hell was he letting go.

  He hauled her back to safety, refusing to let go until both her feet were planted on the deck once more and he had positioned himself behind her, a barrier to any chance of her taking a fall again.

  She looked at him in bewilderment even as she cupped the wrist he’d manacled and rubbed as if trying to alleviate the discomfort. He frowned, hating the thought that he’d been too rough, but damn it, she could have been hurt far worse if he hadn’t caught her.

  Slowly, so as not to alarm her, he reached for her wrist, and at first she resisted, her eyes going wide, but he persisted, gently tugging it free. He turned it over to see his fingerprints red against her pale skin. Already a shadow of a bruise appeared and he cursed violently under his breath.

  “I’m sorry I hurt you,” he said in a low voice even as he rubbed his thumb soothingly over the marks. “I wouldn’t hurt you for the world, Zoe, but I couldn’t let you fall.”

  She blinked in surprise and then slowly relaxed, her shoulders sagging slightly, and the tension left the wrist he held so carefully.

  “It’s nothing,” she said huskily. “Just caught me off guard. I didn’t even realize what I’d done. Thank you for not letting me fall.”

  Joe smiled. Really smiled. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d actually smiled the way he did when looking at her. Her eyes widened a fraction as she studied his reaction and a light shiver stole over her body, chill bumps erupting beneath his fingers that still stroked her soft skin.

  “You’re more than welcome. You’re safe here, Zoe. No one, especially me, will let you fall. I hope you believe that. If not, then I guess I’ll have to prove it to you.”

  Her brow furrowed. “Why wouldn’t I be safe?”

  “That’s a very good question,” he murmured. “Perhaps a question only you can answer.”

  She frowned and withdrew her wrist from his grasp. He barely managed to suppress his protest at the sudden loss of contact.

  “Have you seen Rusty?” she asked anxiously. “She’s been gone forever.”

  Joe glanced around and then grimaced when he saw Rusty and Sean a distance away. Judging by Rusty’s scowl, whatever the two were discussing wasn’t pleasant.

  “Uh, I think she’s pretty occupied at the moment. But I’ll stay with you, Zoe. We don’t even have to talk. I’ll just stand here until Rusty gets back. Whatever makes you comfortable.”

  She didn’t immediately say no but neither did she look thrilled over the prospect. Her gaze swept the area for about the hundredth time and she seemed relieved when she found that no one was paying her and Joe the slightest bit of attention.

  “So how long do you plan to visit?” he asked, purposely guiding the conversation into neutral territory.

  Or so he’d assumed.

  Once more her eyes grew wary, panicked almost, and she froze, going absolutely still. So still he wasn’t sure she was even breathing. What the fuck was going on with her? And why did any question, no matter how innocuous, seem to send her into meltdown?

  That conversation he planned to have with Rusty was going to happen immediately. Just as soon as he could maneuver his baby sister somewhere they wouldn’t be overheard, and then she was going to damn well spill. Everything. Because something was very wrong with this situation. A simple visit from a college friend? He nearly snorted aloud. Zoe was scared—no, she was terrified—of something or someone, and she wasn’t just staying a few days with her college friend. She was hiding, fearful of discovery at any moment, and that pissed Joe off.

  He wasn’t pissed at her. He was pissed at whatever or whomever had put terror in such beautiful eyes and made her jump at her own shadow. And he was going to find out the truth, the real truth, if it was the last thing he did.

  “I don’t really know,” Zoe said softly. “It’s been a while since I saw Rusty. I graduated ahead of her and we were so close at school. I missed her.”

  She said the last painfully. As though Rusty were her only friend and the only person who truly cared about her.

  “So I was so happy to get to see her again, and when she suggested I come home with her and spend time with her so we could catch up, of course I agreed, but we really didn’t talk about a timeline. I suppose we should have.” Pain creased her forehead and her eyes became sad. “I don’t want to impose or outstay my welcome.”

  “How about you and I spend the day together tomorrow,” Joe said impulsively.

  Even as the words escaped he cursed his lack of control. What the fuck was he doing? Had he seriously just asked her on a date? For fuck’s sake. His first priority had to be finding out the real story and if his family was in danger because of her presence. All of which he could do just fine without going out on a fucking date with her.

  But at the same time, something deep inside him seemed to settle and his initial reaction and rejection of his impulsive action subsided as peace spread through him.

  She yanked her head upward to meet his gaze, her eyes rounded with shock, her mouth similarly forming a surprised O.

  “What?” she croaked.

  “I could show you some awesome places here. This part of the state is beautiful. There’s a lot to see and enjoy. Ever heard of LBL?”

  Her nose wrinkled and she shook her head.

  “Land between the lakes,” he explained. “It refers to a piece of land between Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake. It’s a beautiful spot. A protected refuge for wildlife like bison and even elk. We could go swimming off my dock or just sit and dangle our feet in the water and be lazy. We have some great hole-in-the-wall places to eat where the food is to die for. And the scenery is absolutely beautiful.”

  Shock was evident in her eyes, as well as the fear she worked so hard to hide. He didn’t have the heart to tell her that she was a complete failure at maintaining a poker face. She’d get eaten alive in a high-stakes game.

  “Are you asking me out on a date?” she choked out.

  Taking a chance on her not immediately withdrawing and taking the fall he’d only barely managed to avoid the last time, he reached out and curled his fingers around hers, holding on loosely so she wouldn’t feel threatened.

  “I’d rather consider it taking the time to show you around the area we call home. You’ve been holed up in Ma’s house with Rusty ever since you arrived, and today is the first day you’ve actually ventured out. It’s obvious to anyone with eyeballs that you’re completely overwhelmed by my loud, raucous family. I thought it would be good for you to get away for a while. Just you and me. I promise to be a perfect gentleman.”

  He flashed his most charming grin, one that had proved effective many times in the past, but apparently it was lost on her because she continued to regard him with suspicion.

  “Zoe, I won’t hurt you,” he said gently. “No one here will ever hurt you. Every person here would protect you with their life.”

  She nibbled nervously at her bottom lip then briefly closed her eyes. “It’s
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