Brighter Than the Sun

Page 22

She purposely injected lightness into her tone in an effort to ease the obvious tension surrounding Zoe, because she knew all too well the kind of shit Zoe was thinking about. But when Zoe opened her mouth and blurted out her response, she said the very last thing Rusty would have imagined.

“I’m so stupid.” She had a panicked look in her eyes. “God, Rusty. I’m such an idiot! Your brother asked me out and I said . . . I said yes! What the hell was I thinking?”

Rusty smiled and slid underneath the covers, reclining against the pillows as she lay next to her.

“It’s not a crime to be a woman, you know. We all have those pesky little things called hormones.”

“This isn’t a joke, Rusty! He scared me shitless. He kept . . . looking at me.”

Rusty arched an eyebrow. “I’d be more concerned if he hadn’t, or at least I’d be questioning his sexual orientation. You’re hot, sister. What unattached man wouldn’t look at you?”

“You don’t understand,” she said in agitation. “He wasn’t looking at me like that. He kept staring at me, and he wasn’t looking at me like he was attracted to me. He looked . . . suspicious. Like he knew every single thing inside my head. I don’t think he’s buying our story, and he didn’t seem thrilled over my presence at a family gathering.”

Rusty stifled her grimace, because Zoe was partially right. Joe wasn’t exactly buying their story, but not in the way Zoe was assuming. It only twisted the knife in her heart a little more over deceiving her family. She reminded herself that any one of them would do the same. Her brothers, the members of KGI, even Frank and Marlene, were born protectors. But even that knowledge didn’t diminish the guilt that weighed so heavily on her.

“So why did you agree then?” Rusty asked with genuine curiosity.

“I was flustered. I didn’t know what to say, think or do. If I said no, would that make it more suspicious? Especially since he was being nice and just offering to show me around the area. I mean, it’s not like it was a date date, you know? He was just being friendly. I didn’t know what else to say. If I said no, it would make me look like a bitch, but by saying yes, I’m scared to death I’m sending him the wrong signal.”

Rusty’s lips pressed tightly together to suppress the grin. Nice, my ass. Joe was the most commitment-phobe member of the Kelly clan, and while he would put his life on the line to protect an innocent person, he sure as hell wouldn’t ask a woman out, even under the guise of being welcoming, if he weren’t interested.

But then there was the fact that he obviously had his suspicions, as evidenced by his interrogation of Rusty. Only he hadn’t questioned Zoe’s character. He’d been far more interested in who’d hurt her. Her lips twitched with the urge to smile. Maybe Joe was a little more interested in Zoe than he’d led Rusty to believe. Or maybe he was in denial himself. Having him hover over Zoe was definitely not a bad thing because there was no way in hell he’d allow anyone to get to her.

“You said yourself he was being nice,” Rusty said calmly. “Maybe he just wants to make you feel welcome and put you more at ease. Our family can be overwhelming, and face it, sister. You looked like you were in front of a firing squad for most of the day. Can’t say I blame you. But I think you’re reading more into this than you need to. There’s no crime in having a life, Zoe. Friends. People who care about you. I get that you’re freaking out because you’ve never had that before, but you do now.”

Zoe flopped back against the pillows and let out a long breath. “You’re right. I’m overreacting. Besides, why would someone as hot as him even look twice at someone like me?”

“Now you’re just pissing me off,” Rusty growled. “You’re gorgeous and you need to stop letting the dickheads who shaped you control the way you view yourself. Have you even looked at yourself in the mirror, Zoe? Really looked?”

Zoe flushed and glanced away. It broke Rusty’s heart that so much damage had been done to her friend’s self-esteem. Hell, not damage, because she’d never had any in the first place. She’d never been shown what a beautiful person she was, inside and out.

To temper the rage that was boiling in her veins, she took the opportunity to tease Zoe. She sent her friend a sly look, nudging her arm with her elbow.

“So you think he’s hot, huh.”

Zoe looked mortified, her face turning completely pink. “Yes. No. Well, duh! I mean, have you looked at your brothers, Rusty? All of them? They have to be the most genetically blessed men alive because they’re all mouthwateringly gorgeous.”

Rusty shuddered and then covered her ears. “Stop. Just stop. Ugh. I’ll never be able to sleep tonight thanks to you.”

Zoe sent her a withering glance. “You can’t tell me you didn’t think they were hot when they weren’t considered your brothers.”

“What I thought was that they hated me and they scared the piss out of me,” Rusty said honestly. “Nathan was the only one who was nice to me at first. Everyone else wanted me out of the picture.”

Zoe grimaced. “That must have been hard.”

She shrugged. “I got it. I mean, I couldn’t blame them. I wasn’t exactly the poster child for a nice young teenager since the first time I met Marlene and Frank came courtesy of me breaking into their house. Besides, that was years ago, and I’ve long since been indoctrinated into the clan.”

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