Brighter than the sun, p.8
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       Brighter Than the Sun, p.8

         Part #11 of KGI series by Maya Banks
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  She gripped the smooth, flat stone in her hand, rubbing it with her thumb as she prayed not to make a huge fool of herself.

  “Yep,” she said, with more confidence than she felt.

  But then who cared if she sucked at it? She sucked at everything else, and at least this time she’d have fun. She could barely contain her excitement as she considered the best technique. She cocked her head, studying which angle would give her a better chance at success, flexing her wrist as she prepared to make her first attempt.

  As if he could read her mind, Joe spoke up. “It’s all in the wrist. You want to turn your hand sideways and launch, not throw, the stone at an angle where it strikes the surface on the flat side.”

  He moved around behind her, sliding his hand down her arm to grip her hand, turning it and then flexing her wrist in a forward motion.

  “Like that,” he said. “Not too softly, but not too hard either.”

  She shivered, sudden awareness of his touch catching her off guard yet not alarming her. With him, she felt . . . safe. Which only proved what a naïve idiot she was since she’d thought the same thing about Sebastian.

  She slammed the door on old memories before they took over and ruined what had been a spectacularly awesome day. Joe wasn’t Sebastian, and this wasn’t her being a clueless moron. Sebastian would never risk his life for a complete stranger. He wouldn’t make it his life’s work to help others in need. He was an egotistical, self-absorbed dickhead, and she had only herself to blame for not recognizing that a hell of a lot sooner. Certainly before she’d given him her virginity.

  Wincing, she once again shut down her train of thought and instead focused on the here and now. She wasn’t that person anymore. Stella Huntington no longer existed. Maybe she never did. She’d been molded to someone else’s expectations since birth, never allowed to be who she wanted to be. Zoe Kildare was whoever Zoe wanted her to be, and right now, more than anything, she wanted to be the kind of woman who lived the kind of life she’d experienced today.

  Realizing Joe was waiting on her to give it a try, she took careful aim, positioned her wrist just so and let it fly. She held her breath when it hit the surface, and then to her surprise, it didn’t sink or make a huge splash. It skipped! And kept on skipping!

  Once, twice, three times. Oh my God! Four, five, six, seven!

  She threw her hands over her mouth and then jumped up and down like an excited two-year-old.

  “I did it! I did it!”

  Then she launched herself into his arms, nearly taking them both down in a heap on the dock. He steadied them, and she squeezed him as hard as she could.

  “Thank you,” she whispered. “This has been the best day ever.”

  When she pulled back, the corners of his eyes crinkled and warmth entered his gaze that she could swear she felt all the way to her toes. He had such beautiful brown eyes. Eyes that could be dark and brooding but also tender and funny. On the surface he seemed such an uncomplicated man, as if what you saw was what you got, but he was anything but.

  “Now it’s your turn,” she said breathlessly, handing him one of the choicest stones from her stash.

  “I dunno. You were pretty impressive. I don’t want to embarrass myself,” he teased.

  She rolled her eyes. “Oh please. You’ll probably skip it all the way across the darn lake.”

  He made a show of getting prepared and assuming the same stance he’d instructed her to take. Her breath caught in her throat and she softly counted under her breath as his rock followed a similar path to hers.

  Then she plunged both fists in the air and twirled like an idiot. “Take that Mr. I’ve-been-skipping-stones-all-my-life. I beat you by one!”

  She had no idea which was warmer on her skin, the sun or his gaze. Then he smiled broadly, teeth flashing, and it was no longer a question of what warmed her. Who needed the sun when all this man had to do was look and smile?

  He held up his hand to high-five her then held up his other fist to bump knuckles with her. Pleasure suffused her face, soaking into her very bloodstream. For one precious, stolen afternoon she’d been allowed to retreat from the reality of her circumstances, and for once she’d experienced the joy of being a part of something bigger than anything she’d ever imagined.

  Yes, Rusty had cajoled her with stories of her and her brothers and their lives in this small Tennessee town on the shores of Kentucky Lake, but in all honesty, Zoe had just never gotten it. Who really lived those kinds of lives? It had been so foreign to her that she’d assumed Rusty embellished those tales. After all, she was a good storyteller. In Zoe she found a captive audience because while the two women shared similar childhoods, devoid of any overabundance of love or caring, unlike Rusty, she had continued that existence into her adult life, never knowing that something so rare even existed.

  A part of her had wanted Rusty to have been exaggerating the bond the Kelly family had because it brought home all too well the sterile, austere environment she’d been subjected to, thanks to a mother who’d simply walked away without ever looking back and a father who was more interested in a robot he could program than raising a child.

  She sighed, turning once more to face the lake, forcing her hungry gaze away from Joe and everything she saw in his eyes that she lacked. She let out a wistful sigh and hugged herself, simply absorbing the splendor of early summer in Tennessee on the lake.

  She went very still when a strong hand wrapped gently around her nape, offering it a gentle squeeze.

  “Was it fun kicking my ass?” Joe asked lightly.

  She was too afraid to look back at him, knowing how raw she must appear in this moment. The corners of her mouth tipped upward in a ghost of a smile as she attempted to lift the veil of melancholy that had slowly draped itself over her like an incoming fog. He would ask questions. Questions that required answers she herself didn’t even know or want to know.

  Then she turned her sad smile on him, the words pouring out of her chest despite her not wanting to speak.

  “Does it make me pathetic that one of the highlights of my life has now been skipping a perfectly smooth stone that I found while wading in an ankle-deep stream with my jeans rolled up from a dock overlooking one of the most gorgeous views I’ve ever seen in my life? All after having the most wonderful entire day I’ve ever had?”

  His hand stilled and then his thumb feathered over the sensitive skin behind her ear. She closed her eyes when he leaned into her side and pressed his lips to her temple.

  “Does it make me any more pathetic that one of the highlights of my life was teaching a gorgeous woman in bare feet with rolled-up jeans how to skip that stone seven times across the lake all while enjoying one of the most beautiful views I’ve ever seen?”

  Her eyes widened and she swiveled, staring up at him in shock. He was suddenly so serious when all day he’d been so lighthearted and teasing. Sincerity radiated from his expression and his eyes never once wavered from her profile, giving a clear indication of just what view he was referencing.

  The warm imprint of his fingers on her neck remained long after he pulled away.

  “I should get you back home,” he said in a low voice as the sun dipped lower on the horizon. “Ma will have dinner ready soon and she won’t be happy if I don’t get you back in time.”

  He reached for her hand, much as he’d done at the beginning of the day, and they returned to his truck in silence. His easy charm and ready laughter, so prevalent all afternoon, were now replaced by a silent, almost brooding mood, though he made an obvious attempt to smile each time she glanced his way.

  When they pulled up to his mother’s house a few minutes later, a permanent ache seemed instilled in her chest. So lucky. These people were so lucky to have the lives they had. To have so many people who loved and cared about them. That the simple things evidently weren’t taken for granted.

  Life just seemed to move at a slower pace here, and that statement placed against Rusty’s—and now Joe’s
explanation of what he and his brothers did seemed laughable. No doubt they’d argue that dodging bullets and bombs, protecting people in danger and bringing justice to the people who would corrupt the very way of life the Kellys held in such esteem could hardly be considered a slower pace, but this place, these people, seemed to defy it, to send a message to the outside world.

  And above all, they answered their calling without allowing the ever-increasing fast-paced corruption of the outside world and humankind’s resignation and acceptance over the near extinction of core beliefs once valued by so many others in the world to infringe on the way of life they held so sacred.

  People like the Kellys simply didn’t exist outside of movies and popular fiction. People and places like the ones Zoe had come to experience in her short time here with Rusty were thought behind the times, not current or relevant. She herself would have likely laughed in disbelief over a description of what she was now witnessing firsthand, dismissing it as simple nostalgia for something created by people who’d lived decades ago before the explosion of modern technology.

  In other words, places—people—like this were just myths.

  Only now that Zoe had experienced it, had felt it, tasted it, seized upon it, she desperately didn’t want to let go. When the real world intruded—and damn it, that time would come—she knew that if she survived that inevitable collision, nothing would ever be the same for her again. Nothing in her life up to now had ever been real.

  She nearly laughed aloud as Joe halted them at the top of the front porch steps. Here she was offering somewhat sagely that people like the Kellys didn’t exist outside fiction when her entire life had been nothing but a staged, made-up alternate reality, and as a result, she still didn’t have the first clue as to who she was or what her purpose was.

  “Thank you for today,” she said politely as he turned to face her.

  She held herself aloof, knowing she’d never experience another day like this one, and for that reason, she locked it away, determined to protect and cherish it. In the meantime, she wasn’t about to broadcast the fact that she wanted to crawl under the covers and, after pulling them over her head, cry for what her life never was and could never be.

  CHAPTER 11

  JOE had only been home a few minutes when he heard a knock on his door. He let out a groan and dragged a hand through his hair. He was sorely tempted to pretend he was in the shower or indisposed or that he’d gone to bed and hadn’t heard the summons. But if it was one of his nosy brothers they wouldn’t give up. He might as well put the hammer down now before things got out of hand.

  He strode to the door, wishing he’d at least had time to shower. He looked ridiculous with his pants still rolled up and his boots shoved on sans socks. The ends of his jeans were still damp from his wading around picking out skipping stones with Zoe, and he knew whoever was on the other side of the door wouldn’t miss a single detail of his appearance.

  He opened the door and was surprised when he saw Shea standing there, his twin, Nathan, pressed in close behind her.

  Shea smiled up at him and he couldn’t help but smile back. He adored his sister-in-law.

  “Hi, Joe. I hope you don’t mind that we popped over.”

  Joe pulled her into a hug and then picked her up and swung her around to the inside, depositing her in the entryway. He dropped a kiss on her cheek and then ruffled her hair as he drew away.

  “Of course not, sweetheart. I’m always glad to see my favorite sister-in-law and her pain-in-the-ass husband.”

  Nathan snorted, and as soon as Joe turned to greet his twin, Nathan slugged him in the shoulder with his fist.

  “Knock off the flirting. Or find someone else’s woman to flirt with. She’s taken.”

  Joe rolled his eyes. “As if everyone in the world doesn’t know that. In case it’s escaped your notice, the poor misguided woman only has eyes for you, though it makes me question her judgment in men. Clearly I would have been the better choice.”

  Shea laughed and slipped one slender arm around Joe’s waist, squeezing him affectionately. Nathan scowled and gently pried his wife’s arm free of Joe and then proceeded to wrap both arms around her, holding her so she couldn’t escape.

  “Y’all come on in,” Joe said as he ambled toward the living room. “Can I get y’all anything?”

  “Shea wanted to come visit,” Nathan said.

  Over Shea’s head, his gaze connected with Joe’s, sending a silent signal to have a care. Joe rolled his eyes again. As if he wouldn’t handle Shea with the greatest of care. He would always share a special bond with his twin’s wife, and he was grateful for it, as inexplicable as it was.

  Shea was gifted with extraordinary talents. Abilities that had made it possible for her to connect telepathically with Nathan when he was imprisoned in the Afghani mountains undergoing horrific torture. Not only had she kept him sane, refusing to let him give up hope, but she’d also taken his pain and torture as her own. She had siphoned it from him and, as a result, had suffered it for him, a fact that still caused Nathan to nearly lose his mind when he thought back on it.

  She was one of the strongest women Joe had ever met in his life, and that was saying a lot given the strength of all his brothers’ wives. And his teammates’ wives. The men of KGI had been blessed beyond measure to find women every bit as fierce as themselves, all possessing wills of steel and a fierce refusal to ever stay down or quit. He had no doubt that these women had saved his brothers and teammates every bit as much as they asserted that their husbands had saved them.

  Without Shea, Nathan would be lost to them. As would Swanny, who had been imprisoned with him and who had suffered every bit as much as he had. Joe would never be able to repay her for the gift of his brother. Back home where he belonged. He thanked God every day for her and he prayed that the woman he one day settled down with and married would possess even a fraction of her spirit, fierceness and generosity.

  “I knew you couldn’t stay away,” Joe teased. “Has my brother been an overbearing grump ass lately? Want me to rough him up for you?”

  Shea rolled her eyes and laughed. Then she dropped her gaze and twisted her hands nervously in front of her. He immediately picked up on her unease and he lifted his gaze in quick concern to Nathan, asking without words what the fuck was going on.

  Nathan’s lips compressed into a grim line and he shook his head, nodding toward Shea, and then he simply shrugged, telling him that whatever it was that was bothering his wife, she hadn’t told Nathan yet. The fact that she’d asked to come here, to talk to Joe, worried the fuck out of him because Nathan and Shea were tight. Two halves of a whole. True soul mates, and Joe had never believed in that concept before her, even having already witnessed Ethan, Sam and Garrett fall hard for their wives.

  Joe went to Shea, taking her hand and uncurling her fingers before wrapping his hand around them. He guided her toward the couch and sat her down beside him. Nathan settled on the other side of her, his hand going immediately to her shoulder.

  “What’s wrong, sweetheart?”

  “I know you took Zoe around today,” she said hesitantly.

  Joe’s brow furrowed and he once again looked at his brother in question. Why on earth would his taking Zoe anywhere cause Shea so much distress?

  “It’s none of my business what’s between the two of you,” she rushed to say before Joe could interject his questions. “That’s not why I’m here and I don’t want you to think I’m butting in or being nosy. I wouldn’t do that to you. I may tease you about your eventual downfall but I know how much you value your privacy and how much it bothers you when everyone starts harping on you about finding the one, and that’s why that’s all I’ll ever do is just tease you in passing.”

  He was growing more confused by the minute, and Nathan didn’t look any more enlightened than he did.

  “Honey, I know you wouldn’t pry and I know you’re just teasing me when you nag me about finding a wife and settling down,” Joe said i
n his most gentle tone. “Besides, of anyone, you know I feel closest to you and Nathan. How could I not? And for that reason, I would never mind you or Nathan butting in, nor would I mind you knowing about any relationship I may one day be in. Now what’s going on here, sweetheart? You’re worrying me, and if you keep on this way, Nathan is going to come unglued over there. As it is, he looks like he’s about to rearrange my living room because he’s worried to death about what’s bothering you right now. And so am I,” he added softly.

  “Have you told her anything about me?” she blurted out. “About my abilities?”

  “Of course not. You know I’d never expose you or Grace to an outsider. No one in the family would. I hope you’re not worried about that.”

  She shook her head. “You don’t understand. I needed to know if she already knew because if she didn’t, I don’t want you to say anything to her because . . .”

  She broke off and looked down, an unhappy frown marring her delicate features.

  “Because why, baby?” Nathan asked, sitting forward so he could look back at her. He was about to fidget right off the couch, and Joe knew that his twin’s patience was waning. When it came to anything that upset Shea, Nathan would tear down the damn house to get answers so he could fix the problem.

  She sighed, her expression dimming, her eyes looking more and more unhappy. “I connected to her at the cookout,” she whispered. “Or at least I think it was her. It had to be, right? I mean, I’ve never been able to connect to anyone else in the family except the two of you, and she was the only one there I hadn’t been around before.”

  Joe and Nathan exchanged sharp glances and Joe sucked in his breath.

  “What did you see, honey?” Joe asked, trying to keep the sudden surge of anxiety from his voice.

  His pulse had immediately quickened and sweat formed on his brow. He realized he was . . . scared. Scared of what Shea might tell him but at the same time, if she had seen into Zoe’s thoughts, then she’d be able to tell him what he wanted to know. Most importantly, she’d be able to tell him what the hell Zoe was so scared of.

  “I didn’t see anything,” she said, her shoulders sagging.

  Nathan pulled her into his arms, his gaze full of worry and concern for his wife. “How bad was it? And why didn’t you tell me when it happened? Damn it, Shea. You should have told me the minute it happened so I could get you the hell out of there.”

  He could understand Nathan’s point. It was never easy for Shea to connect to another person. It was an enormously draining experience, one that sapped her strength and left her extremely vulnerable. Not to mention the pain it caused her if she attempted to help the other person in any way.

  “But I felt . . .” She broke off, and her eyes were troubled as she looked up at Joe. “I felt her fear, Joe. It was overwhelming and so suffocating I thought I was going to pass out.”

  Nathan’s grip tightened around his wife and his expression was a mixture of fear, anger and worry.

  “I didn’t want to intrude or invade her privacy,” she said quickly. “I hope you know that, Joe. I would never do that to family or someone who was a guest of the family.”

  Joe reached out to touch her cheek. “Shhh, honey. I know that. We all know that. You’ve said it yourself. You can’t help who you connect to. It’s random and beyond your control. But why were you so worried that I had said something to Zoe about your abilities if you didn’t see into her mind?”

  Shea reached for Joe’s hand, holding it so tightly that her small nails dug painfully into his skin. He doubted she even realized the urgency that was radiating from her. He and Nathan could both feel her agitation. It was the first time in a long while the mental pathway between him and Shea had been open. He doubted she was cognizant of that either, and it bothered him that her experience with Zoe had messed with her so badly that she didn’t even realize she was broadcasting loud and clear to both the brothers. Nathan was understandable. The pathway was always open between the two of them, and as a result, Nathan always knew if Shea was in any sort of pain or distress, if she was afraid or in trouble. But that was not the case with Joe.

  Except . . .

  “Wait a second,” Joe said, glancing quickly at his brother to see if he’d already picked up on what he had. Judging by the tightness of his expression, he had. Or he was getting there at least.

  Shea glanced up at Joe in question.

  “Why didn’t Nathan know when this was happening?” he asked.

  “That’s a damn good question,” Nathan growled.

  Color rose in Shea’s cheeks and she dropped her eyes so she wasn’t looking at either brother.

  “Shea?” Nathan prompted. “Baby, why would you hide that from me? I don’t like the idea of you experiencing something like that, when that was the last place you expected something like that to come at you, and especially when you just said you felt like you were suffocating and were worried about passing out. Why would you close yourself off to me like that?”

  An edge of hurt tinged his brother’s voice and Joe’s chest tightened in response. No one but Joe and Shea knew the battle that Nathan still fought with his demons. That there were still nights he didn’t sleep and nights when he did that were haunted by nightmares. One of the biggest nightmares being that of losing Shea. It was why he needed her near at all times, even when they were physically separated. The telepathic connection they shared meant she was in his head at all times just as he was in hers. It kept Nathan grounded and secure, as he needed to know at all times that the woman he loved more than life was safe, especially when he was on a mission and was away from her for an indefinite period of time.

  The fact that she had closed herself off from him would feel like a rejection to Nathan, and Joe worried what that would do to the battle that still raged within him. And what it would do to his brother and sister-in-law’s relationship. God help them all if Nathan ever lost Shea. He wouldn’t survive it. What a bunch of fucking terrorist bastards hadn’t managed to do to his brother, break him, prevent him from coming home, end his life . . . would be accomplished if he had to ever live without Shea.

  Joe found his grip tightening around Shea’s hand, whereas until then she’d been the one with the death grip. When she winced, he promptly let go, cursing under his breath.

  “Sorry, Shea. I didn’t mean to hurt you. You’re broadcasting, sweetheart, and it’s pretty intense.”

  She frowned and then suddenly he no longer felt her. It was always abrupt and not a pleasant sensation when she suddenly ended the communication, even if it hadn’t been conscious. Joe could well understand Nathan’s dependence on Shea as a
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