Brighter than the sun, p.5
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       Brighter Than the Sun, p.5

         Part #11 of KGI series by Maya Banks
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  probably really stupid of me, but you know what, Joe Kelly? I think I believe you. So yes, I’d love to get a personalized tour of the area. I have been a bit stir-crazy cooped up in the house since I got here. A day out sounds nice.”

  He smiled then. “I’ll pick you up at eleven. If I know Ma, she’ll pack us a picnic lunch, so we’ll leave early enough to find the perfect place to eat whatever she fixes us. After that? We can do as little or as much as you feel like.”

  For the first time, she actually smiled in return, her eyes lighting up, the shadows that seemed so permanently ingrained lifting and fading away. He stared a long moment, at a loss for words at just how much her smile transformed her features. She wasn’t just pretty and wholesome and natural as he’d observed before. She was absolutely beautiful.

  Fuck. He had a bad feeling about this. A very bad feeling that he’d just landed in the same exact position that all his other brothers had, and the hell of it was, he could no longer give them shit with a straight face, because now he understood their reactions to the women they’d laid claim to.

  CHAPTER 6

  ZOE seemed relieved when Marlene bustled over to see how she was faring, a frown marring her face as she scanned the crowd, obviously looking for Rusty and likely about to give her daughter a solid dressing-down for leaving her guest unattended for so long. But when she saw Rusty and Sean in the distance, a scowl covering Rusty’s face and an exasperated expression on Sean’s, she rolled her eyes heavenward and muttered something indecipherable under her breath.

  “Thanks for keeping Zoe company, baby,” she said, beaming at Joe. “I can take things from here.” She made a motion with her head in Rusty and Sean’s direction, a silent plea aimed at Joe.

  He barely suppressed his smile but nodded and turned away before he made an even bigger fool of himself in front of Zoe, especially now that his mother would stand witness to the entire thing. Besides, Rusty and Sean butting heads was nothing new or earth-shattering. The day those two ever agreed on anything, the entire family might die of shock. Well, and he had his own motive for wanting to break up whatever spat the two were currently involved in.

  He wanted information that only Rusty could likely provide, and he’d pry it out of her or threaten to sic Sean on her at every opportunity. Rusty didn’t back down often, but when it came to Sean, she had no qualms about backing away as quickly as possible. He might be the only person on earth who actually managed to intimidate her, or at least infuriate her to the degree of her losing her composure, and she had learned at a very young age never to let her thoughts or emotions betray her. She was a lesson in stoicism. Joe admired her resiliency and her take-no-prisoners attitude but he hated the reason why those attributes had become necessary to her survival.

  More than once he wished her piece-of-shit stepfather hadn’t up and disappeared the minute Marlene and Frank Kelly paid him a visit and told him in no uncertain terms that Rusty was theirs now and if he ever attempted to get within a mile of her there’d be hell to pay. Joe—and his brothers, particularly Nathan—would have loved the opportunity to pay the bastard a visit and enact some old-school justice for all the abuse and neglect that Rusty, who’d been a mere child, had suffered.

  Sean’s back was to Joe as he approached, while Rusty was facing him, though she had yet to register his arrival. Her face was red, fury glinting from her eyes, and she’d just opened her mouth, no doubt about to turn Sean into a pile of ashes, when she suddenly looked up and saw him. She snapped her mouth shut but her stare was still mutinous as she glared at Sean, as if telling him they were not finished.

  “Hey, Rusty,” Joe called out, announcing his presence to the sheriff.

  Sean hastily turned around, color scouring his cheeks, and Joe noted he didn’t look any happier than Rusty had. He must have interrupted one hell of a pissing match. Not that it would surprise anyone present at the Kelly family gathering.

  “I hope I’m not interrupting, but I wondered if I could steal Rusty for a few minutes,” Joe said in an easy tone, as if oblivious to the obvious tension emanating from the two people standing a short distance away.

  To his surprise, Rusty looked relieved. And grateful for the reprieve. Surprising, since she wasn’t one to ever not have the last word. But at the moment she looked as though she wanted as far away from Sean as possible, while Sean looked pissed over the interruption.

  “Sure, Joe,” she chirped with far too much cheerfulness.

  She was sharp as a tack, extremely intelligent, but she was also a sarcastic, mischievous shit stirrer who delighted in tormenting her many overprotective brothers. The only two people who escaped her brand of “charm” and sharp wit were their parents. For Rusty, the sun rose and set with those two people. She adored them when she had little reason to love or even like most people. She was protective and loyal to her bones and would take apart anyone who ever hurt or disrespected her adopted parents in any way.

  “We are not finished,” Sean bit out as he stared Rusty down, never once flinching from the scathing look she threw in his direction. A look that would wither a lesser man and have him clutching his nuts in an automatic measure of protection.

  “Yes, Sean, we are.”

  “The hell we are,” he barked. “You can’t hide from me forever. I’ll find you, Rusty, and we will finish this conversation once and for all. I’m a patient man but you would try the patience of a saint. Trust me, when you least expect it, I’m going to be there, and this time there will be no one to rescue you, no running and no hiding from the truth. You can take that to the bank.”

  Joe’s eyes widened. One thing was certain: Shit never got boring around here. Thank God for that. His brothers, the other members of KGI, hell, even the wives wouldn’t know what to do with themselves if shit didn’t hit the fan on a regular basis.

  Without giving her the opportunity to get in the last dig, Sean turned and stalked away, Rusty glaring holes through his back the entire time. Joe almost chuckled and would have had it not likely resulted in him having his balls rearranged—he liked them just fine the way they were.

  After Sean disappeared from sight, she turned to Joe, her head cocked to the side as her gaze probed him inquisitively.

  “What’s up, Joe? Everything okay?”

  And then she went pale and looked at her watch. “Shit! Shit, shit, shit! Fuck but that man makes me crazy. I can’t believe I left Zoe to fend for herself this long. I had no idea I’d been over here with the caveman for half an hour. God, she has to think I’m the worst friend in the world when I swore to her I wouldn’t leave her side the entire time.”

  He put his hand on her arm before she took off running back to where everyone was milling around on the deck, eating, talking, reminiscing about old times and cracking jokes.

  “Zoe’s fine, honey. I promise. I kept her company until Ma showed up to take over. No one is upset with you, and that includes Zoe.”

  She fidgeted uneasily. “Still, she’s my responsibility and I should probably get back to her.”

  Since all the Kelly brothers were blunt and Rusty had been around them long enough to adopt the same characteristics, he saw no reason to pussyfoot around the subject of Zoe forever when he wanted information and he wanted it now.

  “What’s her damage?” he said, crossing his arms over his chest so Rusty would know just how serious he was and that he wasn’t in the mood for her to dodge his questions or pretend to misunderstand.

  To her credit, she did none of those things. Her expression became troubled and she let out a long sigh, her eyes filling with sorrow. And anger.

  “Look, Joe, I don’t know everything. I don’t even know a whole lot yet. I’m hoping that by bringing her here and making her feel comfortable and at home that she’ll eventually confide everything in me. What I do know is that she got burned. Bad. I’m not talking about a boyfriend breaking up with her and her needing time to lick her wounds and feel sorry for herself until anger kicks in and then she wants
his balls served up on a platter.”

  He had to force his jaw to relax because it was clenched so tightly that he worried he might break his teeth.

  “What are you talking about then?” he asked in a dangerously soft voice.

  She huffed out a breath. “Look, as I already said, I don’t have all the details. If I did I would have already gone after the son of a bitch myself. But he did a real number on her. He fucked her over, pretended to have feelings he didn’t so he could get close to her. It was almost as if he had access to her childhood and knew exactly what to do and say and how to act and how to give her the things she never had but always desperately wanted. He played her, and she fell for it because she had no basis for comparison. Not enough experience to be able to see through his act or the strange way he was with her or the fact that he was shrouded in secrecy. He had an excuse for everything, and he was convincing. And the only reason she discovered what a complete bastard he is was pure luck. Being in the right place at the right time and overhearing him on the phone talking about what an easy mark she was and how stupid, gullible and naïve she was.”

  Rusty broke off, tears shimmering in her eyes. Joe palmed her shoulders and gave her a comforting squeeze, waiting for her to look up at him again. He sensed that he hadn’t even heard the worst of it yet and he was already ready to hunt the motherfucker down and beat the ever-loving shit out of the shithead.

  “What else?” he asked quietly. “What else did he do to her, Rusty?”

  “He humiliated her,” she said painfully. “Not that he hadn’t already done enough, but he devastated her. He destroyed her and stripped her of her self-confidence, her sense of worth. He made her feel expendable. Like she was dirt. Worthless. Unlovable. Not worthy of being loved. I’ve been her, Joe. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. You can’t imagine how defeated and hopeless it makes you feel. And that no one will ever see inside you—her—and the beautiful, selfless, generous and loving woman she is. She didn’t deserve that. She of all people didn’t deserve what happened to her. He made her question everything about herself. He made her doubt herself as a beautiful, desirable woman. And I hate him for that, Joe. I hate him. I wish I could kill him myself. God help me, if I came face-to-face with him tomorrow, I’d kill him in cold blood and never regret it or feel remorse.”

  “What. Did. He. Do?” Joe growled. “Physically, Rusty. Did he put his hands on her? Did he hurt her? Did the son of a bitch rape her?”

  She emitted a weary sigh. “He raped her emotionally. He pretended to be in love with her. Treated her like a queen. But then she overheard him talking to someone on the phone, and he was laughing at how pathetic she was in bed. How she was inept and clumsy and that sticking his . . .” She broke off, color rising in her cheeks. Then, defiantly, she continued as if pissed that she’d allowed herself to be embarrassed. “He said having to stick his dick in her frigid cunt was like fucking an iceberg and he’d be lucky if it didn’t freeze off before it was over with.”

  Joe’s brow furrowed. Part of the story he could absolutely see, having met more than his share of assholes who treated women like second-rate citizens. Hell, some of them didn’t even afford women that much of an “honor.” They were chattel, possessions, slaves whose only purpose was to please the man in any manner he deemed necessary.

  But the part about this asshole complaining about Zoe’s frigid cunt, how clumsy and inept she was . . . That didn’t add up, and there were a hell of a lot of missing puzzle pieces to this story. If he was so dissatisfied with Zoe as a woman, further proving what a fucking idiot this pussy ass was, then why even bother? Why feel obligated to endure clumsy and inept sex with her? And the line about being lucky if his dick didn’t freeze off before it was over with? What the fuck was that supposed to mean? It made no goddamn sense whatsoever.

  But when he posed those same questions to Rusty, she shrugged and sent him a helpless look.

  “Zoe is an extremely private person,” she said in a low voice. “I’m surprised I got as much as I did out of her.”

  Then her entire demeanor changed and her expression became fierce and she closed the short distance between them and gripped his hand, holding tightly as she stared at him, eyes glittering with purpose and intensity.

  “She’s not someone to play around with, Joe. She’s been hurt badly, and it’s going to take her a long time to recover from this. She has to be handled with care, so don’t make her fall for you. She’s not the typical girl you date and then move on. Those girls know the score before you ever go out the first time with them. You have a good time. She has a good time. Then you move on because you’ve made it clear you have no desire to settle down anytime soon. Stay away from her, Joe. Don’t send her mixed signals. She’s too vulnerable right now and I’m not sure how much she can take before she completely falls apart.”

  It took every bit of his self-restraint not to lash out at her, to tell her he’d never hurt Zoe. But he could also understand where she was coming from. Hell, a day ago, he would have wholeheartedly agreed with everything she said, and if he’d heard Zoe’s story then, he wouldn’t have been able to get away fast enough. He didn’t do commitment. Not yet. Not for a long time. He had plenty of time to consider settling down with the right woman and giving in to the domesticity that had plagued every single one of his brothers.

  But he didn’t want to walk away from Zoe and forget she existed. He didn’t want to hurt her, didn’t want to be the cause of yet more pain in her young life. He hated how vulnerable and scared and unsure she looked when she wasn’t aware she was being observed. And protective instincts unlike any he’d ever experienced had come roaring to the surface. He was extremely protective of his sisters-in-law. The wives of the other KGI operatives. He’d give his life for any one of them without hesitation. But never had he felt such a personal vested interest in the protection of a woman he didn’t even know and had no connection to whatsoever.

  What the hell was he supposed to do with that? Even if he wanted to act on this insane attraction or curiosity or need to keep this vulnerable woman safe, it was obvious that she would run hard and fast in the opposite direction if he so much as tipped his hand.

  What a fucking time to decide he might actually be interested in exploring an actual . . . relationship? Was that what he was thinking? Or was it simply the warrior in him, sworn to protect the innocent and the victimized, that had spurred his sudden interest in what had caused this fragile woman so much pain?

  No, he knew that for the lame excuse it was the moment that thought entered his mind. KGI came across brutalized, helpless victims in eight out of ten missions, and while it enraged him that women would be treated so callously and used as pawns, things, possessions of men who thought themselves above the law, he’d never taken a personal stake in it. He went in, just as all his teammates did, and exacted justice for those victims and made damn sure they got a fresh start, a new lease on life, where they’d never have to worry about the predators they’d once been tormented by.

  But he didn’t want Zoe to be a KGI mission. He didn’t want his team to close ranks and ensure she never looked at every single person with fear and apprehension in her eyes. He wanted to do that for her. No one else. And he felt fucking helpless as to how to accomplish that when it was clear she trusted no one, especially a strange man she’d been introduced to once.

  Determination seized him. She had accepted a date of sorts with him, though he hadn’t called it such. Even if it was damn well just that. Whatever she wanted to call it, if it made her feel safe and secure, he was fine with it, especially if it bought him time alone with her to carefully peel back the layers she’d wrapped herself in. One layer at a time. It would require more patience than he ever thought he’d possessed. He wasn’t known for tact or patience. He was the hotheaded twin. The one who saw in black-and-white and didn’t have much tolerance for excuses.

  Much to his shame, those characteristics had nearly lost him the person he was closest to in
the world. The other half of himself. His twin, Nathan. He hadn’t understood the sheer hell his brother had endured. Maybe down deep he hadn’t wanted to know or understand because then he would have had to face just how close he’d come to losing him. He’d wanted his brother back the minute he was rescued after months of horrific torture and inhuman living conditions.

  He’d been an overbearing asshole who’d been angry that his best friend had been taken from him and had returned a very different man. Joe had just wanted to move on like nothing had ever happened. Nathan was home, alive, back with his family. He never considered the private hell Nathan endured every single day even after being set free. The demons he’d dealt with every waking hour and, worse, in his fractured sleep where nightmares plagued him.

  He couldn’t adopt that same attitude with Zoe or he would lose her and he’d never get her back. And as he knew next to nothing about her, if she disappeared tomorrow, he’d never know how or where to even begin looking for her.

  For the first time in his life, he was going to have to go against his every instinct and force himself to be patient, understanding and willing to give Zoe all the time in the world. If that kept her here and not running to God knows where, then it would be well worth reevaluating every single thing that had made him the man he was.

  “Rusty, I get where you’re coming from. I know I’m seen as the last man standing and determined to remain that way. The ultimate commitment phobe. I have no plans to hurt Zoe. But I looked at her and saw someone who is scared, wary and has a hell of a lot of fear in her eyes. And I don’t like that look in any woman. I’m not that much of a bastard.”

  When Rusty attempted to deny that she’d implied any such thing, he held up his hand to silence her.

  “I’m not accusing you of anything, honey. What I’m telling you is that I only wanted to do something to make her feel more at ease, and she was standing there alone, looking scared to death and like someone was going to jump out of nowhere and attack her.”

  Again he had to halt Rusty when guilt crowded her eyes and she lowered her gaze.

  “I’m not blaming you, Rusty. Just let me say my piece, okay? I brought her a drink and she had no idea I was even approaching her because she was too busy looking everywhere else. When she realized I was there, she damn near fell off the deck. And that pissed me off. That’s why I came to you to see what you knew. I did my best to assure her that she was safe here and that no one would hurt her and that she was welcome here and would be considered family. Then I invited her to spend the day with me tomorrow so I could show her around the area. Check out LBL and some of my other favorite spots.”

  Rusty’s eyes widened in surprise.

  “It wasn’t a marriage proposal,” he said dryly.

  “It may as well have been one,” she muttered.

  He rolled his eyes. “Look. I have no intention of playing her or having a fling and moving on. I wasn’t planning on it before I talked to you but if I was, I sure as hell wouldn’t now that I’ve talked to you. My stance on settling down with a nice girl, getting married and providing Ma with more grandbabies hasn’t changed. But nothing says I can’t be a friend to her. From what she implied and what you confirmed, you’re her only real friend. No one can have too many friends. That’s what I’m offering Zoe. Friendship. And maybe she’ll see that not all men are selfish dickheads like her asshole ex. So I’d appreciate it if me taking her around for the day tomorrow doesn’t become a big fucking deal, and I especially don’t want Ma and the wives to start plotting to get me and Zoe together. And not just because it’s what I don’t want. If I had to guess, Zoe would run like hell if the entire family started matchmaking. So call off Ma. Tell her whatever, and make damn sure the wives don’t make more of this than it is. Can you do that for me, please? If you won’t do it for me, then do it for Zoe.”

  Her expression softened. “You’re a great guy, Joe, and while I know how adamant you are about not settling down anytime soon, when that time comes, whoever the woman is will be a very lucky lady.”

  “Oh, for fuck’s sake,” he growled. “Can we stop right there?”

  She laughed, her eyes glinting mischievously. “I won’t lie, brother dearest. I can’t wait for the day a woman knocks you on your ass and you become as pathetic as all our other brothers.”

  “That is not going to happen,” he said, sending her a murderous glare.

  “You know what they say,” she said merrily. “Never say never. That’s like throwing fate a direct, in-your-face challenge, and only a fool would ever do that.”

  CHAPTER 7

  RUSTY finished towel-drying her hair and slipped into her faded pajamas, pausing before going back into the bedroom where Zoe was already in bed. Guilt flooded her and she closed her eyes. She’d made peace—mostly—with betraying Zoe’s confidence, because, well, she hadn’t told Joe much at all in the scheme of things. And it would have seemed suspicious if she’d told him nothing or claimed ignorance of at least part of Zoe’s history, but she hated lying to her family. It was something she’d sworn never to do.

  And it wasn’t only Joe she was lying to. She was lying to Frank and Marlene and everyone. By omission. She sighed. Torn between loyalty to her adopted family and Zoe wasn’t a pleasant place to be. But she also knew if Zoe even thought she couldn’t trust her, she would be gone. Into the wind, and she’d likely end up dead. She would end up dead, and that’s what bolstered Rusty’s flagging determination to continue the facade.

  Her family would understand. They’d understand better than anyone, but somehow that didn’t give Rusty much consolation. With another heavy sigh, she squared her shoulders and opened the bathroom door to head to bed.

  Zoe was nestled in a mound of pillows on her side of the bed, but she was very much awake. And pensive. She was so lost in her thoughts that she didn’t register Rusty’s appearance until she plopped onto the bed next to her. Zoe cast a startled glance in her direction.

  “Those must have been some pretty deep thoughts for you not to have even known I was out of the bathroom,” Rusty teased.

  She purposely injected lightness into her tone in an effort to ease the obvious tension surrounding Zoe, because she knew all too well the kind of shit Zoe was thinking about. But when Zoe opened her mouth and blurted out her response, she said the very last thing Rusty would have imagined.

  “I’m so stupid.” She had a panicked look in her eyes. “God, Rusty. I’m such an idiot! Your brother asked me out and I said . . . I said yes! What the hell was I thinking?”

  Rusty smiled and slid underneath the covers, reclining against the pillows as she lay next to her.

  “It’s not a crime to be a woman, you know. We all have those pesky little things called hormones.”

  “This isn’t a joke, Rusty! He scared me shitless. He kept . . . looking at me.”

  Rusty arched an eyebrow. “I’d be more concerned if he hadn’t, or at least I’d be questioning his sexual orientation. You’re hot, sister. What unattached man wouldn’t look at you?”

  “You don’t understand,” she said in agitation. “He wasn’t looking at me like that. He kept staring at me, and he wasn’t looking at me like he was attracted to me. He looked . . . suspicious. Like he knew every single thing inside my head. I don’t think he’s buying our story, and he didn’t seem thrilled over my presence at a family gathering.”

  Rusty stifled her grimace, because Zoe was partially right. Joe wasn’t exactly buying their story, but not in the way Zoe was assuming. It only twisted the knife in her heart a little more over deceiving her family. She reminded herself that any one of them would do the same. Her brothers, the members of KGI, even Frank and Marlene, were born protectors. But even that knowledge didn’t diminish the guilt that weighed so heavily on her.

 
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