Brighter than the sun, p.6
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       Brighter Than the Sun, p.6
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         Part #11 of KGI series by Maya Banks

  “So why did you agree then?” Rusty asked with genuine curiosity.

  “I was flustered. I didn’t know what to say, think or do. If I said no, would that make it more suspicious? Especially since he was being nice and just offering to show me around the area. I mean, it’s not like it was a date date, you know? He was just being friendly. I didn’t know what else to say. If I said no, it would make me look like a bitch, but by saying yes, I’m scared to death I’m sending him the wrong signal.”

  Rusty’s lips pressed tightly together to suppress the grin. Nice, my ass. Joe was the most commitment-phobe member of the Kelly clan, and while he would put his life on the line to protect an innocent person, he sure as hell wouldn’t ask a woman out, even under the guise of being welcoming, if he weren’t interested.

  But then there was the fact that he obviously had his suspicions, as evidenced by his interrogation of Rusty. Only he hadn’t questioned Zoe’s character. He’d been far more interested in who’d hurt her. Her lips twitched with the urge to smile. Maybe Joe was a little more interested in Zoe than he’d led Rusty to believe. Or maybe he was in denial himself. Having him hover over Zoe was definitely not a bad thing because there was no way in hell he’d allow anyone to get to her.

  “You said yourself he was being nice,” Rusty said calmly. “Maybe he just wants to make you feel welcome and put you more at ease. Our family can be overwhelming, and face it, sister. You looked like you were in front of a firing squad for most of the day. Can’t say I blame you. But I think you’re reading more into this than you need to. There’s no crime in having a life, Zoe. Friends. People who care about you. I get that you’re freaking out because you’ve never had that before, but you do now.”

  Zoe flopped back against the pillows and let out a long breath. “You’re right. I’m overreacting. Besides, why would someone as hot as him even look twice at someone like me?”

  “Now you’re just pissing me off,” Rusty growled. “You’re gorgeous and you need to stop letting the dickheads who shaped you control the way you view yourself. Have you even looked at yourself in the mirror, Zoe? Really looked?”

  Zoe flushed and glanced away. It broke Rusty’s heart that so much damage had been done to her friend’s self-esteem. Hell, not damage, because she’d never had any in the first place. She’d never been shown what a beautiful person she was, inside and out.

  To temper the rage that was boiling in her veins, she took the opportunity to tease Zoe. She sent her friend a sly look, nudging her arm with her elbow.

  “So you think he’s hot, huh.”

  Zoe looked mortified, her face turning completely pink. “Yes. No. Well, duh! I mean, have you looked at your brothers, Rusty? All of them? They have to be the most genetically blessed men alive because they’re all mouthwateringly gorgeous.”

  Rusty shuddered and then covered her ears. “Stop. Just stop. Ugh. I’ll never be able to sleep tonight thanks to you.”

  Zoe sent her a withering glance. “You can’t tell me you didn’t think they were hot when they weren’t considered your brothers.”

  “What I thought was that they hated me and they scared the piss out of me,” Rusty said honestly. “Nathan was the only one who was nice to me at first. Everyone else wanted me out of the picture.”

  Zoe grimaced. “That must have been hard.”

  She shrugged. “I got it. I mean, I couldn’t blame them. I wasn’t exactly the poster child for a nice young teenager since the first time I met Marlene and Frank came courtesy of me breaking into their house. Besides, that was years ago, and I’ve long since been indoctrinated into the clan.”

  “You keep saying that,” Zoe said with a shudder. “Like you’re all some religious cult that does crazy shit. Should I be worried that I’ll never be seen or heard from again?”

  Rusty laughed. “Would that be a bad thing?”

  “Touché. Now, uh, can we get to more important matters before we go to sleep?”

  “Such as?” Rusty inquired.

  “Like what do I wear tomorrow so I don’t look like a slob but I don’t look like I think it’s a date either.”

  “It’s simple,” Rusty said gently. “You just be yourself, Zoe.”

  • • •

  “I need you to do me a favor,” Joe said quietly into the phone.

  Donovan’s voice had an edge of concern when he replied.

  “Name it.”

  “Can you do some discreet checking up on Zoe? Just see if anything sticks out, doesn’t match up or seem right?”

  He could almost hear Donovan’s frown through the phone.

  “Any particular reason why?”

  “Yeah. About a thousand shadows and secrets in her eyes and the fact that someone did a real number on her. She’s been hurt. Badly.”

  Predictably, Donovan pounced on that. “What kind of hurt are we talking about here, Joe?”

  “Rusty said her ex crushed her and I’d like to know more than the little she could tell me. Zoe hasn’t said much according to Rusty, but she wasn’t hurt in a way that makes a woman mad as hell and plotting to cut a man’s balls off. She’s scared to death, and that makes me uneasy. Especially when she’s staying with Ma and Dad for the next while. I’d just like to know her history, or whatever you can dig up on her.”

  “Ever think about just asking her?” Donovan said dryly.

  “If she’s not talking to Rusty then she sure as hell isn’t going to talk to me. Hell, I was lucky to get more than two words out of her today. She had a deer-in-headlights look when I approached her and spoke to her.”

  There was a long silence. “What exactly is your interest here, Joe?”

  “The safety of my family,” he snapped. “Which is exactly what your interest should be as well, or need I remind you that you have a wife and kids who depend on you to make damn sure nothing ever hurts them.”

  It was a low blow and he knew it. Even before Donovan could respond, he quickly apologized.

  “That was way out of line. I’m sorry, man. Look. Something just seems off. My gut’s nagging me and I’d feel a lot better if we knew exactly who and what Zoe is. It never hurts to be too careful.”

  “I can agree with that,” Donovan conceded. “I’ll see what I can do. I’ll holler when I have any info.”

  “Thanks,” Joe said quietly before disconnecting the call.

  CHAPTER 8

  THE next morning Joe pulled up to his parents’ house and hesitated before getting out of his truck. Jesus, was he nervous? Shaking his head, he threw open the door and strode to the front door only to have it open before he reached the handle. His mother stood in the doorway, a smile on her face.

  He groaned inwardly then he took a step back. “A word, Ma?”

  She frowned and then did as he requested and stepped out, closing the door behind her.

  “Look, this isn’t what you think so don’t call the entire family and tell them I’ve met my doom. Zoe’s been hurt. Badly from what Rusty says, and she’s scared to death. The last thing she needs is for the entire family to descend and start pressuring her. I’m taking her out today to show her around, hopefully make her feel more at home and at ease with us. Nothing more.”

  Marlene narrowed her eyes at him. “Anyone with two eyes can see that child has had a lot of hurt in her life, and I can’t believe you’d stand on my front porch and imply that I would add to it in any way.”

  He immediately felt contrite and his shoulders slumped. “Look, Ma. I wasn’t trying to imply you would ever hurt anyone. You’re incapable of it. I just didn’t want you or anyone else to get the wrong idea and, as a result, make Zoe feel pressured or embarrassed. She obviously needs friends, support, and I’m offering her both.”

  Marlene smiled then, her features softening. She cupped his cheek and then leaned up to kiss the other. “I never doubted for a minute that you would turn a blind eye to anyone in need. Now, Zoe is ready and I have a picnic basket packed for you both. Go and have some fun. Make th
at girl smile, and for God’s sake get her to relax so she doesn’t think we’re all overbearing ogres.”

  Joe caught her in a hug, squeezing her against him. “Love you, Ma.”

  “Love you too, baby. Now come on in so you and Zoe can hit the road.”

  He followed her into the kitchen where Zoe and Rusty were sitting on bar stools, finishing up glasses of juice. Rusty broke into a big grin when he made his appearance. Zoe, however, froze, panic and fright firing in her eyes. She was wearing a simple T-shirt and a pair of low-slung jeans with strategically placed cutouts and holes that Rusty insisted were the style, though it bewildered him that people would pay so much money for a pair of torn-up jeans. Hell, he could do the same with a pair of jeans from Walmart and a pocketknife. But he’d learned from observing his sisters-in-law that women’s fashion trends were not only mysterious but apparently held sacred, with no two women’s preferences being the same. He didn’t even want to see what his brothers’ credit card bills looked like each month.

  Her hair was pulled up into one of those messy buns Rusty was rarely seen without, and he had to admit, on Zoe it looked damn cute. A few tendrils escaped here and there, giving it that mussed, just-out-of-bed look. He nearly groaned and yanked his focus back to the matter at hand. Taking Zoe out for the day. Oh, and saying hello and complimenting her would be a good start, though he purposely kept his distance, not wanting to spook her even more than she appeared to be.

  “Ladies,” he said, dipping his head in acknowledgment. “You both look beautiful today.”

  Zoe’s face flushed, her cheeks going a delicate, feminine pink that seemed to make her features shine all the more, while Rusty snorted and rolled her eyes, glancing down at her sweats and T-shirt.

  “What?” he asked innocently. “Is it a crime for a brother to tell his sister she looks beautiful?”

  Rusty’s eyes softened and she looked meaningfully at him, mouthing thank you from an angle Zoe wouldn’t see. He knew she meant his careful handling of Zoe and not his compliment, but it only spurred his determination to get to the heart of what had hurt Zoe so badly. A woman as beautiful as she was should never be made to doubt her self-worth. No woman should, because at the end of the day, no amount of superficial beauty could make up for lack of a beautiful soul. And beneath Zoe’s soulful eyes was a woman, though cloaked in sadness and fear, who was absolutely beautiful.

  It should concern him that he was spending so much time reflecting on a woman who was a complete stranger. It was uncharacteristic of him. But he felt a pull he couldn’t explain and that quite frankly terrified him. At the same time, it just felt . . . right. Was this what it had been like for his brothers? He almost shook his head. He needed to stop before he got in way over his head and remember the objective here. And it wasn’t to find his soul mate and fold like every one of his brothers.

  “Zoe?” he asked softly. “You ready to go?”

  She sent a nervous look in Rusty’s direction but then seemed to pull herself together and smiled at Joe. “I’m ready.”

  All the breath left his lungs in one forceful exhale. God almighty. If she was beautiful before, she was breathtaking when she smiled. Truly smiled. And it was the first time she seemed to lose the reserve she wore like a second skin. It felt like a punch in the stomach and for a moment he stood there like an idiot gawking at her, wishing for her smile to never end.

  His mom handed him a large picnic basket, shaking him from his trance. Then he extended his free hand to Zoe, hoping she didn’t reject his overture.

  She hesitated a brief moment and then slid her palm over his and he laced their fingers together, pulling her closer into his body.

  “I’ll have her back for dinner, Ma, so don’t worry. Just going to play it by ear today and let Zoe call the shots.”

  Marlene smiled, her eyes shining in approval. “You two have fun. And that goes especially for you, young lady,” she directed at Zoe. “Relax and enjoy yourself.”

  He led Zoe out to his truck and opened the passenger-side door for her before putting the picnic basket in the extra cab. When he walked around and settled into the driver’s seat, he glanced over at her and his heart softened at how nervous and ill at ease she was.

  “Zoe.”

  He waited for her to peek up at him from beneath her lashes before he said more.

  “I’m not going to bite you. Promise. I very much want to be your friend, and you can never have too many friends, right?”

  If he thought the smile she’d bestowed on him in the kitchen had knocked the breath out of him, this one was a punch to his gut that nearly left him unable to breathe at all. Her entire face lit up and she looked shyly back at him, her cheeks a soft pink that just begged to be touched and caressed. God, she was beautiful. He couldn’t recall ever meeting a more beautiful woman, and his sisters-in-law were all gorgeous women. But he’d never looked at them the way he was currently looking at Zoe.

  He mentally kicked himself for even going there after he’d already lectured himself, convinced himself and tried to convince his mother that this was nothing more than a friendly gesture. The only problem was he wasn’t so convinced, and it was huge.

  “Thought we’d hit LBL first and then after that go where the wind blows us,” he said, smiling back at her.

  “That sounds so nice,” she said wistfully. “I can’t say I’ve ever just gone where the wind took me. It sounds poetic.”

  As if realizing she was divulging information she’d rather not, she clamped her lips shut and averted her gaze as they drove out of the compound.

  Anger simmered in his veins because he sensed there was more going on than just a bad relationship. What had her life been like before she’d hooked up with that dickhead? Rusty had given him nothing on her past. Nothing but a relationship from hell. Where was her family and why weren’t they surrounding her and smothering her with love and support like his family was?

  It was on the tips of his lips to ask—he was dying to know all about her—but he knew she’d likely shut down and he’d lose the relaxed, sweet and shy Zoe who had greeted him this morning. And if it was as he suspected—bad—then he hardly wanted to bring back painful memories and ruin their day before it even began.

  So instead he acted as though he hadn’t noticed and gave her a warm, slow smile. “Well then, darlin’, I’d say it’s about time you did.”

  He did a mental fist pump when she relaxed and once more turned her baby blue eyes his way and smiled with more enthusiasm.

  “Sounds like fun.” Then she paused a moment and her cheeks again went that delectable shade of pink that damn near did him in. “Thank you, Joe.”

  Startled, he glanced fully at her, taking his eyes from the road for a brief second. “What on earth are you thanking me for?”

  “For being my wind today,” she said softly.

  It was a damn good thing they were driving down the highway. It was a damn good thing he’d given himself the mother of all lectures regarding Zoe’s status with him. Otherwise he’d spend the next hour kissing her. What man could resist a woman looking at him with so much vulnerability but at the same time like he was the hero of her universe?

  I’m so fucked.

  Fucked.

  Fucked.

  Fucked!

  When he slowed to take the turn onto the main highway, he took out his cell and hastily texted Sam.

  Unavailable today.

  Then he did the unthinkable and shut his phone off, tossing it into the console. Never before had he taken himself out of commission with KGI. He had nothing to tie him down. No commitment to anything or anyone other than himself—and his family, of course. But if KGI got called out today, they’d have to work without him. Sam would have all sorts of questions. Questions Joe had no intention of answering. He was due a day to be off call seeing as how he’d never done so before, and that should be sufficient enough explanation to any of his nosy, prying, interfering brothers.

  He just hoped to hel
l they didn’t tell their wives or they’d descend much as they had with Eve, all wanting a closer examination than they’d gotten at the family barbecue to make sure she was good enough for him. He nearly snorted. They needed to be worried about him being good enough for her. He wasn’t exactly known for his wit, charm or subtlety when it came to women, but he was going to need everything he could muster to crack this particular nut.

  Oh God. He was losing his fucking mind. He hadn’t even been out on an actual date with this woman yet and he was already making excuses to his family and plotting a game plan. It was time to slow the hell down before he got in way over his head. He should have never offered to show Zoe around. Should have kept his distance and let it be. But he hadn’t, and now he was going to have to deal with the consequences.

  CHAPTER 9

  GRADUALLY Zoe relaxed under Joe’s calm and easygoing manner. And to think she was worried that he’d been hitting on her when he was treating her in much the same manner as he did Rusty, who was his adopted sister. She forced herself not to feel humiliation that she’d panicked and misread the situation. Thank God, she hadn’t made obvious what she’d assumed. Well, other than her blurting out the question of whether he was asking her out yesterday. Hopefully, he’d forgotten all about that, or just put it down to a simple misunderstanding. She’d taken all the embarrassment over rejection she could handle in this lifetime.

  Still, a small voice in the back of her mind demanded to know what was so wrong with her that no one wanted her. Cared about her. Her father. Sebastian. Her mother even. No one wanted her. Stella Huntington. How could her mother have left her and never looked back? To a man who had no obvious love or interest in his daughter. Was it because he’d wanted a son?

  Knowing now what she hadn’t known then, that was likely the case. A daughter could hardly take over Garth Huntington’s criminal empire. Had her mother always known? Was that why she’d left? But if that was the case, why hadn’t she taken Stella with her? Wouldn’t a mother want to protect her only child from such a dangerous environment?

  Hot tears stung her eyelids and she inhaled sharply, blinking rapidly so as not to betray the sudden surge of emotion. Damn it. Now was not the time to be feeling sorry for herself and reflecting on the past. It was just that—the past. And there was nothing she could do to change any of it. If she had any desire to live, to be free of the life she’d unwittingly led, she had to move forward and reinvent herself. She was Zoe Kildare now, and Stella Huntington was dead. Just like Sebastian and likely her father had wanted. But why hadn’t Sebastian just done the deed from the start? Why go through the farce of making her fall in love with him? Did he get off on humiliating her? Had he planned to taunt her with just how stupid and naïve she was before he killed her? For that matter, had her father hired him to get rid of her?

  All the questions made her head ache vilely and she wanted nothing more than to crawl into her bed—Rusty’s bed—and cry for a year.

  “Hey, you okay?” Joe asked gently.

  Mortification burned through her mind. She schooled her features and then turned, flashing her most convincing smile in his direction.

  “I’m fine. Just excited to see the bison and elk. Do you think they’ll be out?”

  Joe studied her a moment, his slight frown telling her he didn’t buy her explanation a bit, but thankfully he didn’t press her on the issue.

  “Bison, almost a guarantee. The elk are a little scarcer. The best time to see them is in the evening, right before sunset and at dusk. If we don’t have an elk sighting today, then I’ll bring you back one evening and I’ll see what I can do about rustling one up for you.”

  He grinned as he said the last and she couldn’t help but grin back, the earlier heartache lifting beneath his friendliness.

  “I thought we’d hit the Old Homestead while we’re out this way too. It’s a representation of the area in the 1800s with cabins and structures that existed in that time period. They have homestead days there and have people dress in period clothing. Folksingers perform, and they have refreshments, including watermelons chilled in the stream that runs right through the settlement.”

  “It sounds amazing,” she said excitedly. “Too bad it isn’t going on now. That would be fun to see.”

  She couldn’t keep the wistful note from her voice and promptly shut up before she descended back into the dark sadness that had plagued her moments earlier.

  “Maybe you can. You’re family now,” he said in a teasing manner. “You could come stay with Rusty the next time they have an event and I’ll take you.”

  She flushed but wisely kept her mouth shut before she accepted an invitation she knew she’d be unable to take.

  “It’s beautiful here,” she said as they drove into LBL. “The whole area is beautiful, I mean. You all live right on the lake, and I’ve never seen so many trees in my life.”

  “City girl, huh,” he teased.

  She flushed again.

  “Hey, it wasn’t an insult,” he said softly.

  “I never wanted to be a city girl,” she said in truth.

  He cocked his head, glancing at her as they slowly traveled the road farther into the preserve. “What did you want to be, then?”

  She grimaced. “It sounds stupid.”

  “Try me.”

 
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