Brighter Than the Sun

Page 12

Zoe gave Rusty one last hug, holding on to her tightly, tears burning the edges of her eyelids. “You’re the best friend I’ve ever had,” she whispered.

“Same goes,” Rusty said, pulling back, her eyes suspiciously bright, though she quickly averted her gaze as if embarrassed for Zoe to see her emotion.

But then Zoe knew enough of Rusty’s own past to know that Rusty had endured a much harsher life growing up, and it made Zoe ashamed that she was putting up such a fuss and acting as if she’d been sorely abused. It was rare that Rusty’s true emotions were ever evident in her eyes or expression, but Zoe knew just how deeply her friend felt, how big her heart was and how loving and compassionate she was.

“Shoo,” Zoe scolded, suddenly reversing roles and ushering Rusty out so she could finish dressing. “We don’t want Marlene dragging us both down the stairs by our ears.”

Rusty laughed but she didn’t dispute that Marlene would do just that.

“I’ll be waiting downstairs and I won’t leave your side when we go face the firing squad, er, I mean family,” Rusty hastily amended with a grin on her face.

Seconds later, Zoe was alone and she picked frantically through the clothes Rusty had bought for her. Then she thought back to what Rusty herself was wearing. They were roughly the same age, Zoe being two years older but close enough that she would be expected to wear what every young twentysomething would wear. Or at least she hoped.

It was sad that she had no real idea what to wear when so much of her wardrobe and appearance had been dictated for so long. She finally settled on a pair of jeans decorated with embellishments and embroidered designs and a modest top that was a step above grunge wear, as Zoe called it, meaning a T-shirt worn around the house when one wasn’t expecting company. Then she slid her feet into a sparkly pair of flip-flops that she had to admit she liked.

Her toes were freshly painted, thanks to a late-night girl talk and nail-painting session between her and Rusty, and they gleamed a hot pink color that made her feel a little . . . daring.

She brushed out her much longer hair now, opting to leave it flowing down her back since she didn’t have time to do one of those cute messy buns Rusty had taught her to fashion, and she chose a simple pair of cheap hoop earrings, laughing silently at the thought of the outrageously expensive jewelry collection she’d pawned to pad her stash of money, since leaving a paper trail, in Rusty’s words, was just stupid.

When Zoe would have simply taken the items to a local pawn shop, Rusty had given a long-suffering sigh and then explained to her how easily her location could be found out and how identifiable the jewelry was since it had all been given to her by her father. Instead they’d made the long drive to Atlanta where they’d pawned the jewelry, and in an effort to further confuse anyone tracking Zoe, they’d bought her a bus ticket to New York, the opposite side of the country from the destination where they’d purchased the plane ticket in her name to. Rusty had explained that it would be a piece of cake to determine that Zoe had never been on that flight but it would delay her pursuers a little. However, her presence on a bus, especially given the fact Rusty had made her present her ticket and board the bus, only to slip off before it departed, would be a lot harder to determine, hopefully leading anyone looking for her to New York.

Zoe had to admit, Rusty had her shit together. She’d long thought the other woman to be a freaking genius, but this cemented it. Rusty wasn’t just street-smart or even academically smart, both of which she’d certainly proven to be. The woman had a computerlike brain, calculating every possibility and preparing for as many as possible.

Zoe considered herself an intelligent woman, even if current evidence proved that she was the dumbest woman to ever live, but she couldn’t hold a candle to Rusty’s sharp mind and impressive tech skills. Maybe she could learn by osmosis, absorbing as much of Rusty’s knowledge as possible before it was time to move on.

The thought filled her with instant sadness. She hadn’t even met Rusty’s massive family, but already the thought of leaving her best friend and Marlene and Frank, who’d been so very kind and generous to her, made her feel alone and afraid.

Knowing that if she didn’t get her ass down the stairs right now Rusty and Marlene would likely burst into her room to drag her down, she hurriedly gave herself one last glance in the mirror, despite her vow not to, and was stunned by the result. No, she didn’t look like herself—her old self. She looked almost . . . pretty.

Wiping the shocked look of realization off her face and then planting a serene smile that gave nothing of her inner turmoil away, she hurried down the stairs, where she found Rusty impatiently tapping her foot.

“Thank God,” Rusty muttered. “I’m only able to put Marlene off for so long, you know. Thankfully, another of her grandchildren just arrived, so that gave us a few moments’ reprieve before she rounded up the last of the holdouts.”

Rusty gave her an assessing look. “You ready?”

Zoe took a deep breath, positive that someone could see her heart beating rapidly against her chest, and nodded.

Rusty took her hand and squeezed. “You look gorgeous, Zoe. You look like . . . you.”

“Well thank goodness,” Zoe teased. “I’d hate to look like anyone else.”

Rusty grinned and then tucked her arm underneath Zoe’s and steered her toward the French doors leading onto the back deck.

“Remember everything we rehearsed. Keep it simple and light. Don’t deviate from the script,” Rusty murmured. “While you have nothing to fear from anyone here, they will pick up on any discrepancies in your story. That’s what they’re trained to do. They have an eye for detail and nothing gets by them.”

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