Brighter Than the Sun

Page 86

“Rusty’s gone,” she said, a sob escaping. “I love her and miss her so much. It’s my fault. It is!” she insisted when he issued a soft growl. “I got her into this mess and as a result it damaged her relationship with her family, and I hate that. She’s the best friend I’ll ever have and I’m the reason she couldn’t stay.”

Joe sighed and brushed his fingers over her cheek. “No, honey. You didn’t fail her. We did. Her family. That’s on us. We completely crossed the line when every single one of us would have done the same damn thing.”

She scowled. “Sean’s the main reason she left.”

Joe looked at her in confusion. “Sean? What the hell does he have to do with anything?”

Zoe rolled her eyes. “I swear, men are so thick. You’re incredibly dense, all of you.”

“You lost me, baby.”

“Never mind,” she said in exasperation. “She’ll be okay. She’s strong and she’s a fighter.”

“Yes, she is, but so are you,” he said, kissing her. Then he ensured she was looking directly at him as he became serious. “Zoe, you are not to blame or responsible for Rusty leaving, and she’d be the first to tell you so. I spoke to her the day before she left.”

He couldn’t control the spasm of pain that rippled over his face and he had to stop talking momentarily because of the knot in his throat.

“You did?” Zoe asked. “You knew? I don’t understand.”

He shook his head, awed by his sister’s selflessness. “I didn’t know what she was doing. I called her because I was desperate and I was lost without you. I had to know how you were doing. Anything, any information, whatever crumbs she could give me. She had me completely fooled. Joked and teased then suggested I break and enter through your bedroom window and that she would make sure she wasn’t around tonight.”

He glanced down briefly, the ache in his voice more pronounced. “She wanted you—and me—to be happy when she was desperately unhappy herself and knew she’d be going away.”

“She’s pretty special,” Zoe said.

He nodded but didn’t say anything as quiet descended around them. Zoe wrapped her arms around him and rested her cheek against his chest.

“I love you,” she said, a soft ache to her voice when she finally broke the silence. “You were what I was searching for all along but never figured it out until I thought I’d lost it all.”

As she had just done to him, he wrapped his arms tightly around her, anchoring her firmly to his body, and rained kisses down on her hair. “Hush, baby. You’ll never lose me. You couldn’t if you tried. I’m afraid I’m resigned to tagging along behind you for the rest of my life and soaking up every crumb of love and attention you feed me.”

She smiled against his chest and squeezed him despite the fact he was being so mindful of not holding her too tightly after the injuries and bruises she’d incurred.

“I hope you’re hungry then,” she said, tilting her head up to grin broadly at him. “Because I’ve got a lot of crumbs for you.”

“Say it again,” he whispered.

She smiled, not misunderstanding his request at all. And it was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen in his life. Followed by the most beautiful words in existence.

“I love you,” she said.


WITH construction to complete on their house, plus three pregnant members of the bridal party, Joe and Zoe made the decision to wait until the house was finished and furnished and Maren, Grace and Shea had all delivered their babies to get married.

Of course Zoe had to have a little fun torturing Joe when Rachel announced she was pregnant two months before the wedding day by pouting in an exaggerated fashion and saying that now they had to put off the wedding until Rachel had her baby.

Joe failed to see the humor in the situation, citing that if they had to wait for every pregnant Kelly woman to deliver their babies they’d never get married, because in a family this large, someone was always pregnant.

And when Sarah glowingly announced that she was pregnant with her second child just a week before the wedding, Zoe had laughed and conceded the point to Joe.

When the day finally arrived, Zoe was beside herself with joy and excitement. The entire contingent of Kelly wives had accompanied Zoe to Nashville to pick out her wedding dress, and that shopping trip had turned into an entire weekend marathon as they looked for the one.

As Zoe carefully stepped into the cloud of satin and pulled the dress up so one of the other women could begin fastening the tiny pearl buttons in the back, she stared in awe at her reflection in the mirror, unable to believe the woman who looked like a princess was actually her.

“Don’t you dare cry,” Shea warned. “Your makeup took an hour to do, and plus, if you start crying then I’ll start crying and then everyone will start crying, which means seven more hours of reapplication.”

Laughter went up and Zoe smiled, her lips spreading so wide that she thought she might burst from happiness. Her entire face glowed and the light shimmer from the sparkly eye shadow added to the shine in her gaze. She felt like a fairy princess. Like royalty. Her hair, which was now extension free but nearly the length it was when the extensions were in, was coiled loosely atop her head with curled tendrils floating down her neck.

The tiara the other women had insisted she wear sparkled atop her head, but what she loved the most, aside from the ginormous engagement ring Joe had given her, were the diamond chandelier earrings he had gifted her with the night before, after the rehearsal.

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