Brighter Than the Sun Page 11

Zoe sighed. “I know you’re right. It’s just that I’m not sure I can pull this off without having a complete meltdown or looking so scared that everyone will immediately be suspicious of this ‘friend’ you brought home with you.”

Rusty laughed. “Everyone is well acquainted with my . . . well, let’s just say I had a rebellious streak a mile wide in the early years, and I’ve always gone my own way. The difference is I always had a safety net to fall back on. And that’s what I want you to have,” she added in a more serious tone. “There isn’t a person down there who wouldn’t protect you with their life.”

Zoe gave her a skeptical look. “I’m a stranger, Rusty. Not family, though you keep insisting otherwise. Why on earth would they risk anything for someone they don’t even know?”

Rusty’s somber expression disappeared as laughter escaped, her eyes twinkling in merriment. “Girlfriend, that’s what they do. They risk their lives for people they’ve never even met before. I went over this with you already. The organization they formed is all about rescuing and protecting, exacting vengeance. They’re the real deal, honey. But you won’t know that unless you come out of hiding and join the festivities. And, well, I hate to pull out the big guns, but if you don’t come down with me, then Marlene is just going to come up and drag you out, and trust me, no one tells Marlene no. She won’t be mean—God, that woman is a saint—but suddenly you’ll find yourself doing exactly what it is she wants and afterward you’ll be puzzled because you won’t even remember how she accomplished it, but you’ll find yourself falling into line, just as the rest of the family does, and doing exactly as she determines.”

Zoe’s eyes closed a brief moment and then she squared her shoulders. “You’re right. I’m being stupid, scared and unreasonable. I’m tired of being a timid little mouse. God, I hate the person I’ve become.”

“It’s never too late to change, honey,” Rusty said, her expression softening with love and understanding. “I know that better than anyone. You can become whoever you want. You just have to take that first step in taking your life back. Make yourself into whoever you want to be. It’s never too late to achieve your dreams and to live the life you’ve always wanted. You just have to let go of the past and stop letting it control the present. And your future. You’re smart, funny and beautiful. You’re compassionate, kind and selfless. You can’t tell me that your father or that asshole who fucked you over are responsible for those traits. You made that choice, despite being shown no other way. You’re your own person and nothing they’ve done will ever change that. Unless you let them.”

“I think you can mark ‘intelligent’ off your list of my virtues,” Zoe said with a grimace. “I’m an idiot. A complete idiot. And you’re right. I just wish I had you as a friend growing up. Or maybe not, since that would have meant you were exposed to the life I had. But I’m glad we’re friends now. I don’t know why you haven’t washed your hands of my whiny ass and walked away. You’ve taken so many risks to help me and I’m acting like an ungrateful child.”

Rusty’s eyes narrowed and Zoe could feel her about to launch into a stern lecture about being so hard on herself. So she just held up her hand to stop the inevitable tirade and then raised the other in surrender.

“I’m coming, I’m coming. Give me a minute to at least make myself presentable?”

Rusty eyed her doubtfully. “Okay, but you get five minutes. If you aren’t down by that time, then I’m sending Marlene up after you, and God help you then. She won’t care if you’re in your underwear. She’ll drag you down the stairs kicking and screaming and then proudly introduce you to every single member of her extended family and decree that you’re family now.”

Zoe’s face must have reflected her horror because Rusty laughed. “I’m only slightly exaggerating,” Rusty said between giggles. “She would at least give you time to get dressed. Everything else? Not so much, and she would drag you down in the sweetest way possible, but you would be incapable of resisting, so I suggest you get to it. Besides, with the new you, all you have to do is pull on a pair of jeans, a cute top and brush your hair. See how much easier I’ve made your life? No more hourlong makeup marathons, perfectly arranged hair and looking like a Wall Street broker’s wife. You should be done in three minutes, tops!”

“Get out of here before I strangle you,” Zoe muttered. “I said I’ll be down.” Then anxiety tightened her chest and she bit into her bottom lip. “You’ll wait for me, right? There’s no way I want to just walk into that crowd on my own acting as if I belong. I’d have a heart attack.”

Rusty’s eyes shone with understanding and compassion. “I’ll wait for you at the bottom of the stairs, but if one of us doesn’t present ourselves stat, Marlene is going to come up here to see why the heck we’re up here when everyone else is down there.”

“Okay, get down there, pacify her. I swear I’ll be down in the three minutes you say it will take me to make myself presentable. I refuse, however, to look in a mirror, because if that happens, I’ll go into meltdown mode when I don’t recognize the person staring back at me.”

“The person staring back at you is beautiful, Zoe,” Rusty said softly. “You have a natural beauty that just shines and stands out in a crowded room. The person you were before was fake. A role you were playing, never allowing the real you to be seen. I’ve seen that person and she’s gorgeous. Besides, no one here has ever seen you in full-on designer- chic mode. Trust me. I wouldn’t let you make a fool of yourself in front of my family. I wouldn’t let you appear in a way that embarrassed you or made you feel ashamed. Will you please just trust me on this? You’re not the emotionless, perfectly made-up doll your father insisted you be molded into.”

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