Brighter Than the Sun Page 16

Maybe he should make it a point to hang around more often. Hell, maybe even ask her out. A date hardly constituted a freaking marriage proposal, and well, in the meantime he could get Van to do a little digging on Zoe Kildare. Just in case any red flags popped up. After all, his first duty was to his family and their protection.

He glanced back in Zoe’s direction to see that she was now standing alone, and though it wasn’t glaringly obvious, she was agitated, panic flaring in her eyes as she turned her head in all directions as if searching for Rusty. Come to think of it, Rusty hadn’t left her side for the entirety of the barbecue. So where the hell was Rusty now, and why had she abandoned her friend, who clearly wasn’t at ease with standing alone among strangers?

For that matter, why did he even care? As soon as the thought occurred he was besieged by guilt. If it was one of his sisters-in-law or one of the team members’ wives, he wouldn’t have thought twice about walking over to ensure she wasn’t standing alone. He’d ask her if she was okay or if she needed anything and then he would have busted ass to get her whatever she wanted.

But those women were taken. Off-limits. And he felt genuine love and affection for each and every one of them. Just as their husbands would, Joe would do anything in the world for any one of the women KGI claimed as their own. Was he such an asshole that he could only bring himself to care about a select group of women and treat all other women with such indifference and disdain?

Before thinking better of it, Joe surged forward, grabbing a cup of lemonade as an excuse to approach her since she was no longer holding a drink in her hand. She didn’t even notice his approach because she was so engrossed in studying her surroundings. Study was hardly an appropriate descriptor since studying implied interest or at least the desire to learn more about the goings-on around her. Zoe was constantly flitting her gaze over the crowd, moving quickly between groups, only to return seconds later, almost as if she feared missing something important.

He wondered if others could see the fear that seemed permanently etched in her brow and reflected in her eyes as easily as he could, or if he was the only one who’d bothered to look beyond the transparent mask she’d donned. Her entire body was a study in unease, and she was tense. Her fingers were curled into tight balls, pressed against her denim-clad thighs, and she appeared as though she were battling her fight-or-flight instinct. His money was on flight. She appeared far too fragile to fight anyone, and judging by the dismay in her eyes when she’d been introduced to all the hulking Kelly brothers, she realized that flight was her only viable means of escape.

Oh yeah. Joe was going to have a serious come-to-Jesus meeting with Rusty, but first he was going to do everything he could to assure Zoe that they—he—wasn’t some monster lying in wait to blindside her.

His steps were slow and measured as he drew closer, and yet she still didn’t register his presence. He frowned, because for a woman as terrified as she appeared, she was frighteningly unaware of the potential threat to her. She was too worried about the ones far enough away that she could possibly escape and was paying no attention to the fact that Joe now stood a mere foot away from her.

He cleared his throat, not wanting to startle her too badly. He instantly regretted not being more obvious in his approach. For not calling out to her when he was several feet away. Color leeched from her cheeks, leaving her deathly pale, and she flinched, stepping back so quickly that she nearly stepped right off the deck and into nothing but air.

Joe let out a string of curses even as he lunged to grab her arm before she plummeted to the ground below. It wasn’t a huge drop, but she was so damn tiny and fragile-looking. Such a fall could easily result in a broken bone or bones. His relief was palpable when his fingers managed to curl around her wrist and he squeezed, hating her soft cry of pain, knowing he was the cause, but no way in hell was he letting go.

He hauled her back to safety, refusing to let go until both her feet were planted on the deck once more and he had positioned himself behind her, a barrier to any chance of her taking a fall again.

She looked at him in bewilderment even as she cupped the wrist he’d manacled and rubbed as if trying to alleviate the discomfort. He frowned, hating the thought that he’d been too rough, but damn it, she could have been hurt far worse if he hadn’t caught her.

Slowly, so as not to alarm her, he reached for her wrist, and at first she resisted, her eyes going wide, but he persisted, gently tugging it free. He turned it over to see his fingerprints red against her pale skin. Already a shadow of a bruise appeared and he cursed violently under his breath.

“I’m sorry I hurt you,” he said in a low voice even as he rubbed his thumb soothingly over the marks. “I wouldn’t hurt you for the world, Zoe, but I couldn’t let you fall.”

She blinked in surprise and then slowly relaxed, her shoulders sagging slightly, and the tension left the wrist he held so carefully.

“It’s nothing,” she said huskily. “Just caught me off guard. I didn’t even realize what I’d done. Thank you for not letting me fall.”

Joe smiled. Really smiled. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d actually smiled the way he did when looking at her. Her eyes widened a fraction as she studied his reaction and a light shiver stole over her body, chill bumps erupting beneath his fingers that still stroked her soft skin.

“You’re more than welcome. You’re safe here, Zoe. No one, especially me, will let you fall. I hope you believe that. If not, then I guess I’ll have to prove it to you.”

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