Brighter than the sun, p.9
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       Brighter Than the Sun, p.9

         Part #11 of KGI series by Maya Banks
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  constant shadow in his mind and why it would worry him that she’d closed off that intimate pathway at the moment she’d felt Zoe’s emotions. He only hoped he hadn’t given Shea the wrong idea with his gentle pointing out of her communicating down his mental pathway and not just Nathan’s. In truth he’d wanted her to pull away before she saw and felt the force of his own thoughts.

  “I never meant to hurt you,” Shea said softly as she turned to Nathan, her arms wrapping around his neck.

  Nathan crushed her to him, burying his face in her hair. “I know, baby. It just makes me crazy to think of you hurting or suffering and me not knowing or sharing that with you.”

  “I didn’t want to make a scene,” she said, her voice still hushed. “And most of all I didn’t want Zoe to know or for anyone to have to explain it to her. I still don’t want her to know. She’s so frightened, Joe, and if she knows that I now have a pathway into her mind, it might frighten her even more and I think she’d run.”

  “Did you pick up on anything other than her fear?” Joe asked carefully.

  She withdrew from Nathan and shook her head as she turned her attention back to Joe. “I haven’t felt that kind of fear since what happened when I was taken from . . . here,” she said, her voice knotting as she invoked the memory of her abduction. “And when I was hooked to those horrible electrodes and unable to talk to Nathan or you. I have no idea what she’s so terrified of, but she was paralyzed with it. She was broadcasting so powerfully that I was helpless to do anything until I finally managed enough strength to break away from her. It was . . . crippling.”

  Nathan swore and Joe added his own silent barrage of curses. Both that his sister-in-law had suffered for something she didn’t ask for and couldn’t control and also that his assessment of Zoe had been spot-on. She was fucking terrified. So scared that her fear had been the only thing Shea had picked up on when she’d been assaulted by the force of Zoe’s mental overload.

  Joe’s cell rang, and he reached to silence it but saw it was Donovan calling. “Give me just a second, Shea. Try to relax for me. We’ll figure this out, honey. I don’t want you to worry. It’s Van on the phone.”

  He stood and purposely put several feet of distance between himself and Nathan and Shea so as to give them privacy. Nathan would be shaken by what Shea had related and he’d need a few minutes to collect himself.

  “Hey, Van,” he greeted as he answered the call.

  “I did as you asked and did some digging on Zoe’s background,” Van said, his voice betraying nothing, which should have comforted him, but in light of what he’d known already and Shea had just confirmed, he was anything but at ease.

  “And?”

  “Not a damn thing out of the ordinary, though it would help to know what I’m supposed to be looking for other than her being screwed over by some jerk ex-boyfriend.”

  “Tell me what you did find,” Joe said impatiently.

  “Nothing. She’s the poster child for a quiet, not very colorful life. She’s twenty-six years old, no family, lives alone, graduated from DePaul University a year ago with a master’s degree in business management. She paid for school like a lot of students who have no family support or scholarships do. With student loans, which she’ll start repaying in a couple months’ time. She held a wide range of part-time and weekend jobs throughout school. Enough to pay her rent and get by but not much else. Not very active on social media. From what little I’ve managed to pull up, she doesn’t seem very active in much.”

  Joe frowned. “I guess that answers the question of why we’d never seen or met her before. We assumed when Rusty said she was a friend she met while at university, that Zoe had gone to UT also. But if she went to school in Chicago, then apparently they had a long-distance friendship.”

  “It would also explain why Rusty would have invited her home with her to stay an indefinite time. I don’t imagine they’ve seen a lot of each other, and if Zoe just got out of a bad relationship, it stands to reason she would need a friend like Rusty.”

  Joe nodded, distracted as he glanced back at Shea. Making an instant decision, he closed his mouth. He’d been about to tell Van about Shea, but he didn’t want to worry the rest of the family unnecessarily. Not until he knew for certain they had something to worry about. It was enough that he had Nathan at his back.

  “Okay, thanks, Van,” he murmured.

  “You find anything out today?” Van asked.

  Joe grimaced. He’d hoped to get out of the topic of his date with Zoe. As if that would happen. He’d been worried about all the wives being up his ass—and Zoe’s—along with his mother, but it was his brothers who would probably prove to be the annoying gnats.

  “Just that she has zero self-confidence, doesn’t think much of herself as a woman and is scared.”

  “Don’t know what to tell you, man,” Donovan said. “Until she confides in you there isn’t a lot you can do to reassure her. Take it from someone who knows, it’s better to forget all that PC bullshit about time and space and respecting boundaries. The first thing you have to do is make sure she can trust you, and that isn’t going to happen the very first time you tell her that. But if you combine that with also trying to get her to confide in you about what she’s afraid of, then hopefully you’ll wear her down. Push but don’t be an asshole. And in the meantime, shower her with as much personal attention as possible. She’ll figure out you aren’t going to hurt her.”

  “You sound so sure about that,” Joe said dryly. “I don’t know that I ought to constantly be in her space. That could be sending her all the wrong signals, and I don’t want that to happen.”

  “Don’t have your head stuck so far up your ass that you don’t recognize the one when she’s right under your nose,” Donovan chided. “If you insist on living in denial and end up hurting her because you were just being a stubborn horse’s ass, you’ll never forgive yourself for rejecting her. Not to mention, if you make it clear after trying so hard to get her to trust you that you have no interest in her, then she’s going to leave and you’ll never get her back.”

  A knot formed in Joe’s stomach and he found his fingers clenching into tight fists at the very thought of Zoe leaving and him never seeing her again.

  “I’ll bear that in mind,” he said before ending the call.

  He walked back over to where Nathan and Shea were sitting. He slid onto the couch on Shea’s other side and rubbed his hand over the top of his head.

  “I had Van do some checking up on Zoe, and he didn’t turn up anything.”

  Shea stirred, her eyes swimming with seriousness as she stared up at him. “I wasn’t wrong, Joe. She’s terrified of someone or something.”

  “I know, honey,” he said, squeezing her knee.

  “I don’t want to intrude,” she continued. “I’d rather just stay away from her unless I have advance warning so I know to steel myself better. I wouldn’t feel right divulging something if she hasn’t trusted one of us enough to tell us.”

  “I agree,” Joe said. “She’ll tell me when she’s ready.”

  “You sound certain of that,” Nathan said, one eyebrow arching in question.

  Joe shrugged. “I’m not going to give her much choice.”

  “I didn’t think you were ready for something like this,” Shea murmured.

  “She’s the one not ready,” Joe countered, realizing in that instant that it was true. “I was ready the minute I laid eyes on her.”

  This was also true. He just hadn’t wanted it to be. Then. Now? He couldn’t remember a single argument that had rolled off his tongue in the past as to why he should remain single. The only problem was, this wasn’t a slam dunk. Far from it. Zoe wasn’t going to fall right into his arms, and neither was she going to accept that a man she’d only met twice wanted forever.

  Hell, he was having enough problems accepting it for both of them. No, the problem wasn’t him accepting—he accepted it just fine. The problem was in believing that it had come t
his easy when for so long he’d fought the very idea. As much as he hated to admit it, his brothers had all been right.

  He would know when the one entered his life. Well, now he knew, and what scared the shit out of him was that knowing was one thing. Making it happen was an altogether different fight. One he had no intention of losing.

  CHAPTER 12

  THE next morning, Joe awoke with a single purpose. He hadn’t slept much. Anticipation and nervousness had crowded his mind and vied for equal attention until the two swam together and blurred. He formed and reformed his plan of attack a dozen times, but each time, it came down to a single objective. Spend another day with Zoe no matter how he had to make it happen.

  Knowing what time his mother always prepared breakfast, Joe got up after dozing for a couple of hours, showered and dressed, a sense of urgency beating down on him. As he walked into the cool morning air, he felt invigorated. His skin prickled and his blood surged hotter than ever before. Anticipation of seeing her again, of unveiling more of the mystery that was Zoe Kildare, nagged incessantly at him until it became all consuming. An obsession.

  The few minutes it took to drive into the compound and park outside his mom’s door gave him no time to formulate his thoughts any better than the entire night had. He didn’t even know what he was going to say yet.

  He let himself in the front door and sniffed appreciatively at the air. Pancakes and bacon unless his nostrils told him wrong, and they were rarely ever wrong when it came to pinpointing what his mother was cooking. Lord knows he’d had years to perfect his guesses using only his nose and his growling stomach as his guide.

  “Joe!” his mom exclaimed when he entered the kitchen.

  “Got enough for one more?” he asked hopefully.

  She rolled her eyes. “Don’t I always? I never know who will pop in for breakfast so I always make plenty. Your father keeps grousing that I waste too much food, but he never complains when it means he gets seconds. Of course I only serve him half of what he’s allowed so he thinks he’s getting away with something when I agree to give him seconds.”

  He laughed and hugged his mom. Ever since his dad’s heart attack several years earlier, his mom had taken the reins of his diet and his physical activity, forcing him to work fewer hours at the hardware store, which inevitably meant hiring part-time help or relying on a family member to pick up the slack.

  “So what’s on your agenda today?” Marlene asked as Joe sat down at the bar. “I didn’t think I’d see you again for at least a week.”

  Heat rose up his neck and he avoided her steady gaze. “I stopped by to see what the girls had planned for the day. I thought I might take Zoe out again. We didn’t get to do everything I had planned yesterday.”

  Marlene studied him for a moment, and evidently approving, she smiled and returned to mixing the pancake batter. For a moment the only sound in the kitchen was the sizzle of bacon and the whop whop of her beating the mix with a wooden spoon.

  “She’s not going to come easily,” his mom said in a quiet voice. “She’s one to be handled with care.”

  “I know,” he said just as softly. He didn’t bother denying the subtle question in her voice. He was through denying his attraction to Zoe and what she was to him.

  “I have every faith that you’ll get her to come around,” Marlene said with a soft smile that warmed her eyes and entire face. “I like her, Joe. She’s perfect for you.”

  “You’ll get no arguments from me,” he returned. “But you and I aren’t the ones who need convincing. It’s going to take a lot more to get her to open up to me and trust me with her heart.”

  She shook her head, her eyes suddenly awash with unshed tears. “You have no idea how long I’ve prayed for the day when my last son was spoken for. It’s all a mother can ask for. For her children to love as she and her husband have loved for over forty years and to be blessed with families of their own.”

  “I guess now you’ll have to set your sights on Rusty,” he said lightly, to shake her from her sudden nostalgia.

  She snorted. “That child is going to prove more stubborn than all you boys put together.”

  “Which child are you referring to?” Rusty piped up as she entered the kitchen.

  “Morning, baby,” Marlene said, beaming at her youngest chick. “Have a seat. Is Zoe coming down for breakfast?”

  Rusty plopped onto one of the stools next to Joe and elbowed him in the ribs as she levered herself down.

  “She’ll be down in five. I got up and showered before she did, but I told her you were cooking pancakes and how awesome they were, and I think her mouth was watering already.”

  Joe reached over and hooked his arm around Rusty’s neck, pulling her down so he could rub his knuckles over the top of her head.

  “Better watch it, squirt. I’m bigger than you. Remember that when you’re trying to abuse me. I’ll eat your share of the bacon if you don’t shape up and show proper respect.”

  She snorted. “Mess with my bacon and die, old man. I suppose I should be nicer to you. Ma always did preach about respecting my elders.”

  “You little heifer. I’ll get you for the age remark,” he said in a voice that promised retribution.

  “So what brings you over so early this morning?” Rusty asked, as if just realizing his out-of-the-blue presence.

  He shifted uncomfortably, watching her carefully for her reaction. “I was going to ask Zoe if she wanted to have part two of our outing. We didn’t get to everything on the list.”

  Rusty’s eyes widened as she stared wordlessly up at him.

  “I won’t hurt her, Rusty,” he said quietly. “She’ll always be safe with me.”

  “Wow. I mean, holy heck. When did this happen?” she asked incredulously.

  He shrugged. “I can’t tell you when or even how. I just know what is.”

  “Holy crap,” she breathed. “She’s never going to believe I didn’t set her up for this.”

  “Would it be so bad?” he asked, still watching his younger sister carefully. “I would never hurt her. I’d never let anyone hurt her again.”

  To his surprise, her eyes filled with tears. She turned her head and wiped quickly with the back of her hand.

  “Hey,” he said softly. “What’s that for?”

  She turned back to him and smiled. “I’m just happy for you. For her. Even if she has no clue yet. In other circumstances it would be a hell of a lot of fun to watch when she figures out resistance is futile.”

  His eyes narrowed as he stared into Rusty’s. “What other circumstances are we talking about here?”

  “She’s my friend, not just some woman who caught your eye. My loyalties are divided. So I can’t, in good conscience, be completely on your side on this one. Besides, she’s going to need an ally. In this family it will be a foregone conclusion that she’s done for. I can’t let her think she has no one at her back.”

  Rusty’s tone was teasing, but there was something in her eyes that worried him. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it. Maybe he was trying to see more than there was. At any rate, he’d already decided that Zoe would be the one to tell him her secrets. Not anyone else. He wouldn’t have Donovan checking up on her further, and now that Shea was prepared, she’d be better fortified when she came into contact with Zoe again.

  “Good morning,” Marlene sang out, shooting a quick warning glance at Rusty and Joe. “Did you sleep well, dear?”

  Joe turned to see Zoe standing in the doorway to the kitchen, her gaze shy and hesitant.

  “I did. Thank you, Mrs. Kelly.”

  “Come on in and take a seat. The first batch of pancakes will be served up in less than a minute. And how many times do I have to tell you to call me Marlene or Ma? Anything you’d like except Mrs. Kelly. You’re family, and we can’t have you being so formal. I feel like an old woman when someone calls me Mrs. Kelly!”

  Zoe started to hedge around Joe to take the stool on the other side of Rusty, but he caught her
hand, rubbing his thumb over the jumping pulse at her wrist. He gently pulled her down to sit at his side so that he was positioned between her and Rusty.

  She blushed to the roots of her hair and she looked so damn adorable that it was all he could do not to kiss her right then and there. Casting him furtive glances from the side, she eased onto the stool, her hand still captured by his. He pulled it over to rest on top of his thigh and continued to rub his thumb in gentle circles on her baby-soft skin.

  “I came over to invite you out with me again today. There’s still a lot I didn’t get to show you yesterday. And if I’m a good boy, I hoped you’d give me a rematch in skipping stones since you kicked my ass yesterday.”

  Her eyes widened and her mouth fell open in obvious surprise. “Why would you want to spend the day with me again?” she asked in astonishment. Then she lowered her gaze as more color rose into her cheeks. “You don’t have to put your day on hold to be nice to me.”

  He had to suck in several steadying breaths as rage filtered through his system. The idea that she somehow didn’t think she was good enough for him to want to take out, that she was some sort of pity case, infuriated him. He wanted to track down the son of a bitch who’d made her doubt her self-worth and take off his balls.

  “Actually, I was hoping you’d be nice to me,” he said as lightly as he could given how pissed off he was.

  He wasn’t the only one who’d caught the way she’d phrased her statement or her embarrassment. Both Rusty and his mom were visibly upset, though they quickly schooled their features. His mom went back to beating the batter for the next batch of pancakes but her jaw was tight and she put a little more strength in her movements.

  “I want to spend the day with you, Zoe,” he said in a low tone so it wouldn’t carry to the others. “I know I don’t have to do anything, but it would make me very happy if you’d agree to spend the day with me.”

  She finally lifted her gaze to meet his and what he saw damn near broke his heart. Her eyes were hopeful and yet sad at the same time. Almost as if she’d resigned herself to being insignificant and unworthy of his or any man’s notice.

  He lifted her hand to his mouth and pressed his lips against each of her fingertips. Her eyes immediately widened and a shiver erupted over her body. Thank God she felt the same chemistry he did. He wasn’t flying solo, nor was his attraction a one-sided thing.

  “Say you’ll put me out of my misery and agree to spend the day with me,” he coaxed.

  Her lips parted and he nearly groaned at the unconscious invitation. If only they were alone. Then he’d take advantage of her silky-looking lips and devote the better part of an hour to exploring the fullness and softness of her mouth.

  Her smile was adorably shy, but it slowly spread warmth to her eyes until her entire face was alight with pleasure and excitement. He felt savage satisfaction that she was starting to get it.

  “I’d like that,” she whispered. “But—”

  He pressed a finger to her lips, the same lips he was dying to taste. “Shhh. No buts. You and me, and today is ours. What do you say we make the best of it?”

  Finally, she nodded, and he realized he’d been holding his breath when his chest started to burn. He slowly let the trapped air out of his lungs, feeling as weak and unsteady as a newborn colt as relief hit him right where he lived.

  One hurdle overcome. Only a dozen more to go before he knew each and every dragon his lady needed slaying.

  CHAPTER 13

  “YOU have to help me,” Zoe squeaked as she all but dragged Rusty into the bedroom they shared.

  “Calm down, sister,” Rusty said. “You know I’ll do anything I can. What do you need help with?”

  “Everything? What do I wear? And by that I mean something that doesn’t scream desperate or that I’m trying too hard. Casual. I mean we went wading and skipped stones on the lake yesterday so I have to be prepared for anything, but not too casual. I don’t want to look horrible or anything.”

  Rusty laughed. “Leave it to me. Simple, casual and not desperate. I think I can handle that.” She went to her closet and a few seconds later stuck her head back out. “Are the legs and pits shaved?”

  “What?” Zoe gasped.

  “Shaved,” she explained patiently. “I have a pair of shorts that would look awesome on you and a tank top that would be perfect, but I wouldn’t want to show those legs if they’re hairy, you know.”

  Zoe closed her eyes in mortification. “Yes, I’ve shaved. But are you sure? Shorts?”

  Rusty sent her a patient look filled with love. “Zoe, you have killer legs and a to-die-for ass. You’ll fill out my shorts like I’ve never been able to. I had hoped my scrawny teenage years were just that, teenage years that I’d grow out of. Unfortunately, my body didn’t get that memo, and as a result I have no hips, no ass and no boobs. I’ve seen sticks with a better shape than me.”

  “That’s so not true!” Zoe protested. “You’re gorgeous, Rusty. I wish I was as tall as you are. You’re the one with killer legs, and your breasts and hips, not to mention your behind, are in perfect proportion.”

  Rusty rolled her eyes. “Not that I don’t appreciate the observations, but it’s you we need to focus on. Now, are you going to trust me?”

  Zoe sighed. “You know I do. I just wish I weren’t so nervous. It’s not like he has any interest in me as a woman.”

  “Lord save me from oblivious women,” Rusty said with an exaggerated sigh. “Now come on. We don’t want to keep him waiting.”

  Ten minutes later, Zoe was dressed, her hair up in a messy bun and makeup
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