Brighter Than the Sun

Page 21

He couldn’t adopt that same attitude with Zoe or he would lose her and he’d never get her back. And as he knew next to nothing about her, if she disappeared tomorrow, he’d never know how or where to even begin looking for her.

For the first time in his life, he was going to have to go against his every instinct and force himself to be patient, understanding and willing to give Zoe all the time in the world. If that kept her here and not running to God knows where, then it would be well worth reevaluating every single thing that had made him the man he was.

“Rusty, I get where you’re coming from. I know I’m seen as the last man standing and determined to remain that way. The ultimate commitment phobe. I have no plans to hurt Zoe. But I looked at her and saw someone who is scared, wary and has a hell of a lot of fear in her eyes. And I don’t like that look in any woman. I’m not that much of a bastard.”

When Rusty attempted to deny that she’d implied any such thing, he held up his hand to silence her.

“I’m not accusing you of anything, honey. What I’m telling you is that I only wanted to do something to make her feel more at ease, and she was standing there alone, looking scared to death and like someone was going to jump out of nowhere and attack her.”

Again he had to halt Rusty when guilt crowded her eyes and she lowered her gaze.

“I’m not blaming you, Rusty. Just let me say my piece, okay? I brought her a drink and she had no idea I was even approaching her because she was too busy looking everywhere else. When she realized I was there, she damn near fell off the deck. And that pissed me off. That’s why I came to you to see what you knew. I did my best to assure her that she was safe here and that no one would hurt her and that she was welcome here and would be considered family. Then I invited her to spend the day with me tomorrow so I could show her around the area. Check out LBL and some of my other favorite spots.”

Rusty’s eyes widened in surprise.

“It wasn’t a marriage proposal,” he said dryly.

“It may as well have been one,” she muttered.

He rolled his eyes. “Look. I have no intention of playing her or having a fling and moving on. I wasn’t planning on it before I talked to you but if I was, I sure as hell wouldn’t now that I’ve talked to you. My stance on settling down with a nice girl, getting married and providing Ma with more grandbabies hasn’t changed. But nothing says I can’t be a friend to her. From what she implied and what you confirmed, you’re her only real friend. No one can have too many friends. That’s what I’m offering Zoe. Friendship. And maybe she’ll see that not all men are selfish dickheads like her asshole ex. So I’d appreciate it if me taking her around for the day tomorrow doesn’t become a big fucking deal, and I especially don’t want Ma and the wives to start plotting to get me and Zoe together. And not just because it’s what I don’t want. If I had to guess, Zoe would run like hell if the entire family started matchmaking. So call off Ma. Tell her whatever, and make damn sure the wives don’t make more of this than it is. Can you do that for me, please? If you won’t do it for me, then do it for Zoe.”

Her expression softened. “You’re a great guy, Joe, and while I know how adamant you are about not settling down anytime soon, when that time comes, whoever the woman is will be a very lucky lady.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” he growled. “Can we stop right there?”

She laughed, her eyes glinting mischievously. “I won’t lie, brother dearest. I can’t wait for the day a woman knocks you on your ass and you become as pathetic as all our other brothers.”

“That is not going to happen,” he said, sending her a murderous glare.

“You know what they say,” she said merrily. “Never say never. That’s like throwing fate a direct, in-your-face challenge, and only a fool would ever do that.”


RUSTY finished towel-drying her hair and slipped into her faded pajamas, pausing before going back into the bedroom where Zoe was already in bed. Guilt flooded her and she closed her eyes. She’d made peace—mostly—with betraying Zoe’s confidence, because, well, she hadn’t told Joe much at all in the scheme of things. And it would have seemed suspicious if she’d told him nothing or claimed ignorance of at least part of Zoe’s history, but she hated lying to her family. It was something she’d sworn never to do.

And it wasn’t only Joe she was lying to. She was lying to Frank and Marlene and everyone. By omission. She sighed. Torn between loyalty to her adopted family and Zoe wasn’t a pleasant place to be. But she also knew if Zoe even thought she couldn’t trust her, she would be gone. Into the wind, and she’d likely end up dead. She would end up dead, and that’s what bolstered Rusty’s flagging determination to continue the facade.

Her family would understand. They’d understand better than anyone, but somehow that didn’t give Rusty much consolation. With another heavy sigh, she squared her shoulders and opened the bathroom door to head to bed.

Zoe was nestled in a mound of pillows on her side of the bed, but she was very much awake. And pensive. She was so lost in her thoughts that she didn’t register Rusty’s appearance until she plopped onto the bed next to her. Zoe cast a startled glance in her direction.

“Those must have been some pretty deep thoughts for you not to have even known I was out of the bathroom,” Rusty teased.

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