Brighter than the sun, p.7
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       Brighter Than the Sun, p.7

         Part #11 of KGI series by Maya Banks
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  She sighed and then shrugged her shoulders, bracing herself for him to laugh at her. “I always thought living in the country would be fun. Maybe even a farm. And fishing! Do you know I’ve never fished in my life? And it looks so fun.”

  “No!” he said in mock horror.

  His eyes twinkled with merriment and she relaxed.

  “This kind of place is exactly where I always thought it would be wonderful to live. Where people are friendly. It’s quiet. People help one another. Life moves at a slower pace. It’s so . . . peaceful.”

  “Something tells me you haven’t had a lot of peace in your life,” he said in a quiet, serious tone.

  God, she had to shut up. What was it about him that made her just blabber on when she knew she had to be careful of every word that came out of her mouth? Rusty had reminded her about a hundred times that she had to be on guard every single waking moment, and yet she couldn’t make it two days without messing up.

  Hoping he’d buy her act, she nonchalantly lifted one shoulder. “Oh, you know how it is in a big city. Chicago is just so crazy. It’s like watching a film in fast-forward. Everyone scurrying around, always on the move, never taking the time to just stop and . . . forgive the cliché . . . smell the roses.”

  “So move,” he said as if it were the simplest solution in the world. “You graduated college and have a degree. You can move anywhere you want. Why stay somewhere you’re unhappy?”

  Why indeed.

  “I don’t plan to,” she said with absolute honesty. “I just haven’t figured out where I want to move to yet. I have an MBA, and, well, there isn’t as big a demand for MBAs in rural areas as there is in more populated towns and cities.”

  “Start your own business. Pop did that when he got out of the service. Dover isn’t exactly a metropolis but he started a hardware store and he’s managed to not only stay in business for over thirty years but turn it into a thriving enterprise.”

  “That’s what you and your brothers did too, right?” she asked, curious for more information on KGI. “Rusty told me you all served in various branches of the military but formed KGI when you got out.”

  Joe’s brow furrowed as he slowed to a stop, but he didn’t immediately speak. Instead he pointed. “Look. There’s a bison and her calf.”

  Zoe whirled in her seat and made a sound of excitement as she saw the giant beast standing about a hundred yards away, her calf next to her, rooting to nurse.

  “Oh my gosh! That’s amazing!”

  She pressed her hands against the glass as if somehow that would get her closer and stared in fascination as the mama bison moved away from her calf, leading it toward the cover of the trees. Her lips turned downward and a sound of dismay sounded when both ambled off and disappeared from view.

  “Don’t worry,” he reassured. “It’s actually rare to see so few at a time. They tend to move in herds, and LBL’s is pretty large. We’ll likely run into it before we get finished.”

  She perked up as she turned back to him. That is until he didn’t resume driving and instead regarded her seriously, his eyes flat and his expression much less warm than it had been.

  “Just what all has Rusty told you about KGI?”

  Zoe’s mouth fell open. Crap. She’d probably just gotten Rusty into trouble. She knew Rusty wasn’t supposed to talk about what her brothers did, but then she hadn’t said that much! All the same, he didn’t look very happy to know his sister had been discussing him and his brothers with her.

  “She didn’t tell me a lot,” Zoe said defensively. “Don’t be angry with her. She told me she couldn’t talk about it much, that none of you did. All she said was that all her brothers had served in the military and that Sam, Garrett and Donovan formed KGI when they got out of the service, and that you, Nathan and Ethan joined later. She said that you protect people and go after bad people. That was it.”

  Joe quickly reached for her hand, giving it a reassuring squeeze. “Honey, it’s okay. I’m not mad at Rusty. I was more worried about what she didn’t tell you than what she did tell you.”

  She looked at him in confusion. “I don’t understand.”

  He sighed. “To an outsider, the things we do . . . well, let’s just say you might not think very highly of me if you knew some of the things we’ve—that I’ve—done.”

  Her forehead wrinkled. She didn’t understand what he was trying to say. “But Rusty said you help people.”

  “We do. That’s our top priority. There’s a lot of bad shit in the world, as I’m sure you know. But we take measures that most would deem extreme. I’ve killed people, Zoe. But I’ve also helped people. We protect the innocent and take out the evil. We take out criminal empires. Eliminate terrorists. Drug dealers. Arms dealers. Kidnappers. Mobsters. Human and child traffickers. Pretty much everything vile and evil. I have so much blood on my hands—me and all of my brothers and KGI members have so much blood on our hands that we very much exist in gray areas. And it’s not always by the books or the . . . law. We will eliminate any source of evil possible. We all have stains on our souls, consciences to deal with, but we live with it and accept it, because at the end of the day, it’s the only way we can live with ourselves. If we ever started turning our backs on the many victims we encounter, it would all be over for us.”

  He sucked in a deep breath and averted his gaze from her.

  “It’s a huge responsibility and presumption on our part to play judge and juror and take justice into our own hands. Not many would condone our actions or our mission. Hell, we don’t always agree with what we know has to be done.”

  She could feel the blood drain from her face and she pressed her hands against the seat so as not to betray the trembling. Bile rose in her throat. Oh God. What would he do—think—if he knew who and what she was? What she came from? What her father was and that he—and she—was the very thing he fought so valiantly to rid the world of?

  He would despise her. He would look on her with disgust. She wanted to cry because she was damned from birth with no way to change who she was—what she was. Her father’s blood ran through her veins. Evil. Corrupt. Sins of the father for which she had no chance of ever finding absolution.

  “I knew you would feel this way,” Joe said grimly, his hands curled so tightly around the steering wheel that his knuckles were stark white. “I disgust you, what I do disgusts you. My family disgusts you. I don’t blame you—”

  “No!” she burst out, cutting him off midsentence. “You’re wrong! I admire what you do, who you are. I was just . . . shocked. How can anyone be so selfless? To make your life’s work risking yourself for complete strangers? For victims and people who don’t have anyone else to stand for them. How can you all do it? You have families. Children. God, it must be terrifying for your loved ones every time you go on a mission, not knowing if one or all of you won’t come back. And that if you don’t, it’s because you were protecting someone you don’t even know.”

  He gave her a peculiar look, warmth entering his gaze. Never had she felt more wretched about her deception than now. She was the epitome of what he risked his life to combat. Her kind. Her way of life.

  Former way of life.

  She gave herself a stern reminder that she wasn’t what her father was. She wouldn’t make the same choices. And no longer would she live under his thumb, obeying his rules. But she still couldn’t hold back the fact that she felt dirty. Unclean. Not good enough for this warrior who stood for all that was good.

  Then she almost laughed hysterically. Way to get ahead of yourself, Zoe. This man couldn’t be less interested in you. He’s being nice. It doesn’t matter if you’re good enough or not. He’s off-limits. He doesn’t want you, and even if he did, he wouldn’t if he knew the truth.

  To cover the lull and to escape the warmth that emanated from his face, wrapping her in its comforting embrace, she struggled to change the subject.

  “So what do you do when you aren’t saving the world?” she asked brightly.
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  He chuckled, but the warmth didn’t leave his gaze. Far from it. It seemed to burn over her bare skin, and his smile . . . He had the most bone-melting smile. He was looking at her oddly and she didn’t at all know what to make of it.

  He started forward again, following the paved road through the park, but he kept his gaze on her from his periphery.

  “I guess you can say that when I’m not out saving the world, I’m showing a pretty lady around my home turf.”

  Pleasure suffused her veins even as she argued that they were treading on forbidden territory.

  “I’m sure that’s a full-time job,” she said dryly. “I can’t imagine you ever lack for female company.”

  God, was she actually feeling him out? Asking him how many women he saw on a regular basis? Was the sudden burn in her chest jealousy? She needed to tape her mouth shut so she’d stop blurting out embarrassing things, and she definitely had to get a rein on her emotions or hormones or whatever the heck was making her think and act like a jealous lover.

  His eyes gleamed now and a hint of laughter sparked as the corners of his mouth inched upward even farther.

  “Only one,” he said vaguely. Then he winked at her before turning his attention back to the road.

  What the heck was she supposed to make of that? Rusty had made it clear that Joe was a very happy bachelor and had no plans to change his relationship status from single to not single anytime soon—if ever. It was a running joke in the family, and Rusty had told her that Marlene and the other wives had tried—unsuccessfully—for years to get him to settle down, get married and have a family.

  No way she believed he was a tease or that he was leading her on or that he wanted a fling before walking away. Okay, so maybe she was being incredibly naïve. Her taste in men was horrible, but she just couldn’t see Joe Kelly being anything like Sebastian.

  And maybe that was what scared her the most. Because she had zero experience with good guys, and Joe appeared to be the ultimate good guy. Exactly the kind of guy she wanted and exactly the kind of man she could never have.

  CHAPTER 10

  “THIS is fun!” Zoe exclaimed as she waded barefoot into the shallow brook that cut across land that used to be owned by the same paper company KGI had bought the land for the compound from.

  Though it was privately owned now, Joe knew the owner and he had access anytime he wanted, as it was one of his favorite places to go when he just needed peace and quiet.

  He felt a smile crawl over his face as he watched her roll her jeans up a little higher so they wouldn’t get wet and splash playfully, kicking water up so it skittered over the surface. Then she bent over and thrust her hand downward, retrieving one of the smooth stones from the creek bed.

  “This is perfect for skipping,” she announced, her face flush with excitement. “I bet it could skip forever across the lake.”

  “Well, why don’t we find out in a little while?”

  She cocked her head in question.

  “How about we skip the Old Homestead and instead, I’ll take you to my house. It’s right on the lake and you can skip your rock from my dock. The water’s calm today. Not a breath of wind and the surface looks like glass. Perfect skipping conditions.”

  She nibbled her bottom lip in sudden concentration as she studied the gurgling water.

  “I’d better find more, in that case. What if I mess up the first time? I need more than one rock so I can practice if I screw it up.”

  “Haven’t you ever skipped rocks before?” he asked with an indulgent smile.

  He was sorry he asked when her smile faded and sadness entered her beautiful eyes.

  “No, but I always thought it looked so fun,” she murmured.

  “Well, then, we need to stock up.”

  She looked at him in surprise when he removed his shoes and rolled the bottoms of his jeans up to midcalf and waded into the water with her.

  “You going to make me do all the work?” he teased. “We’ll need to hurry so we get back to the lake before it gets too dark to see your prowess at skipping stones.”

  She flashed a smile again, and his stomach did that lurch it seemed to do every time her face lit up.

  For the next half hour, they carefully selected several dozen perfectly smooth stones, with Joe ferrying them back to the truck. After his last trip, he grabbed the picnic basket his mom had packed and carried it to the bank of the stream.

  “You ready to eat?” he called out to her.

  She turned from where she’d waded farther down the brook, eagerness flashing on her face. “I’m starved! I got so caught up in the day’s activities that I forgot all about food.”

  He clutched his chest and staggered back in mock horror. “That’s a crime in these parts. Particularly when my mother has provided the food. You’ll discover that food is akin to religion in our family.”

  She laughed and he absorbed the carefree sound.

  “I’m already beginning to see that. At first I thought your mom had made way too much food for the get-together yesterday, but that was before I saw how much everyone ate.”

  “One thing no one does is turn down Ma’s cooking. I’m pretty sure it’s one of the ten commandments.”

  She laughed again and it made him want to continue to do and say things to make her laugh. Not only did she sound beautiful, but every time she did, her face lit up and her eyes shone. She glowed, and it was an enchanting sight to behold.

  He quickly unfolded the blanket and spread it over the softest spot of ground and then motioned for her to come sit while he unpacked the basket.

  “Hope you like chicken salad sandwiches,” he said as he unwrapped them. “Ma’s chicken salad is legendary and second only to her fried chicken, which Donovan asks for pretty much anytime she’s cooking.”

  “I’ve never had one,” she admitted.

  He feigned horror once more and clutched at his heart. “You’re in for a real treat then. But Ma being Ma, she packed options as well, because God forbid anyone ever goes hungry on her watch. We also have roast beef sandwiches, beef she slow roasted overnight with gravy on the side for dipping, served on homemade hoagie rolls. My advice is go for half of each because you haven’t lived until you’ve tried them both. But save room for dessert, because she also packed pecan pie, triple fudge brownies and homemade peanut butter cookies. Hell, why am I even bothering to qualify the peanut butter cookies as homemade? Everything is homemade. Ma thinks anything store bought, ready to eat, is the gravest of sins.”

  “Oh my God,” Zoe said, her eyes huge in her face. “I’ll never eat all of that, Joe! And I don’t want to offend her.” Though she looked at the offering spread out like she wanted very much to try to eat as much of it as possible.

  He laughed, reaching for her hand because he just couldn’t help himself. If he held it a bit too long before retreating, well, he wasn’t complaining. His thumb drew lazy patterns over her knuckles and it struck him that he hadn’t been this content to take a day off and go where the road took him in longer than he could remember.

  “The key is to sample everything. Then I take all the leftovers home with me. She’ll never know we didn’t devour it all, and then I eat like a king tomorrow as well.”

  “Oh, I see now,” she said with mock sternness. “You get to hoard the leftovers. How is that fair?”

  “Fair?” he sputtered. “You’re staying with her and get her cooking every day. Me? I only get her cooking when I come over or beg her to take pity on her wifeless son who can’t cook to save his life.”

  Zoe rolled her eyes, but he secretly delighted in the fact that she’d relaxed and lost her earlier reserve and unease.

  “What’s that?” she asked when he pulled out a large insulated drink container.

  “Ah, this? Only the nectar of the Gods and the official beverage of the south. Sweet iced tea.”

  Her lips puckered and he purposely looked aghast at her. “Don’t tell me you’ve never had sweet tea. My heart c
an only take so many shocks in one day.”

  She burst into laughter and he stared shamelessly at the sparkle in her eyes and the enticing shape of her mouth as it broadened into a huge smile.

  “Does instant tea count?”

  He arched an eyebrow. “Instant?”

  She laughed and held up one hand. “Don’t tell me. I already know the answer to this one. Instant tea is a sin. Am I right?”

  “Got it in one,” he quipped.

  “Apparently I have a lot to learn about life in the south,” she said in amusement.

  He adopted a mournful look. “We’ll make a southern girl out of you yet, Zoe Kildare. Before you know it, you’ll be hunting and fishing and we’ll have you out of those jeans and into cutoffs and flip-flops as standard wardrobe procedure.”

  He wondered if she knew how wistful she looked in that moment when he’d merely been teasing her. But hell, she’d already expressed a desire to fish. Maybe . . .

  He shut his thought process down immediately. No, he damn well wasn’t going to take her fishing. This was a one-time deal. He was being friendly. Showing her all men weren’t assholes out to take advantage of women or out for a piece of ass.

  But . . . they could be friends, right? No law against that. And Zoe definitely needed friends, as Rusty appeared to be her only friend and ally. Yep. He could definitely offer her friendship. His pulse sped up over the idea and he found himself smiling. It was the perfect solution.

  “What are you smiling so big for?” she asked inquisitively.

  Busted. He scrambled for a response and then decided what the hell. The truth was always the best idea.

  “What don’t I have to smile about?” he asked, sending her an even warmer smile. “I’m spending the day with a fun-loving, beautiful woman who has a great sense of humor and likes the same things I do. What’s not to love about that?”

  She looked rattled by his reply but he pretended not to notice. Instead he changed the subject. But not before he witnessed that despite her initial befuddlement, she looked . . . pleased with his reply.

  “You full yet? We still have rocks to skip, and then I have to get you back home before Ma sends someone looking for us. She’s very protective of those she takes under her wing, and there’s the fact that missing dinner is a cardinal sin punishable by death in her eyes.”

  He didn’t miss her flush of pleasure at the idea of having people who cared about her, and it pissed him off. Had she never had anyone who gave a shit about her? It was obvious she hadn’t because she soaked in every bit of attention she received, savoring it like it was the most cherished gift she’d ever gotten. Hell, it likely was. Did she have no fucking clue just how precious she was?

  She emitted a groan. “I’m way past stuffed. I may not be able to skip rocks. I’m not sure I can even walk at this point.”

  Warmth spread through his veins once more. Damn but he liked being in her company. “Lucky for you that you don’t have to worry about that. I’ll carry you anywhere you need to go.”

  Her face flushed a delightful pink and she ducked her head shyly in an endearing way. How the fuck was he going to keep this a platonic friends-only relationship? But then he didn’t have a choice. Neither of them wanted—or were ready—for a romantic relationship.

  He stood to his feet and groaned. “I take that back. I may need you to carry me.”

  She giggled, her eyes sparkling like a pair of gemstones. “Maybe we should just try to hold each other up on the way back to the truck. You’d flatten me if I tried to carry you.”

  “Good call,” he said, grinning back.

  He held out his arm, and after a moment’s hesitation she came to him, fitting perfectly beneath his shoulder. He staggered in an exaggerated manner as they stumbled back toward the truck, laughing like two lunatics. It struck him as he opened the passenger door for her and lifted her into the seat that he was actually having fun just . . . being. Relaxing and forgetting about the rest of the world and the assholes who inhabited it.

  He shook his head ruefully as he headed around to the driver’s side. It was a good thing he’d set ground rules and established that he and Zoe would be friends only. Otherwise he would be fucked.

  “Ready to go try your hand at skipping rocks?” he asked as he cranked the ignition.

  She nodded eagerly.

  He couldn’t help himself. He had to touch her. He reached over and tousled her hair affectionately. Much like he would a sister or one of his sisters-in-law.

  “Try not to kick my ass too badly. You might damage my manly ego too much if you make me look like an amateur.”

  She rolled her eyes. “As if. Are you forgetting I’m a complete newbie at this?”

  “You know what they say about beginner’s luck,” he countered.

  Even as he said it, he made a vow that no matter how badly she did, he was going to ensure he did worse. There was no way he’d take this moment from her. And if he was honest, he wanted very badly to see her excitement when she did kick his ass at rock skipping. Something that none of his brothers had ever been able to best him at.

  • • •

  “YOU ready?” Joe asked Zoe as they stood on the dock overlooking Kentucky Lake.

 
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