Brighter Than the Sun Page 20

But the part about this asshole complaining about Zoe’s frigid cunt, how clumsy and inept she was . . . That didn’t add up, and there were a hell of a lot of missing puzzle pieces to this story. If he was so dissatisfied with Zoe as a woman, further proving what a fucking idiot this pussy ass was, then why even bother? Why feel obligated to endure clumsy and inept sex with her? And the line about being lucky if his dick didn’t freeze off before it was over with? What the fuck was that supposed to mean? It made no goddamn sense whatsoever.

But when he posed those same questions to Rusty, she shrugged and sent him a helpless look.

“Zoe is an extremely private person,” she said in a low voice. “I’m surprised I got as much as I did out of her.”

Then her entire demeanor changed and her expression became fierce and she closed the short distance between them and gripped his hand, holding tightly as she stared at him, eyes glittering with purpose and intensity.

“She’s not someone to play around with, Joe. She’s been hurt badly, and it’s going to take her a long time to recover from this. She has to be handled with care, so don’t make her fall for you. She’s not the typical girl you date and then move on. Those girls know the score before you ever go out the first time with them. You have a good time. She has a good time. Then you move on because you’ve made it clear you have no desire to settle down anytime soon. Stay away from her, Joe. Don’t send her mixed signals. She’s too vulnerable right now and I’m not sure how much she can take before she completely falls apart.”

It took every bit of his self-restraint not to lash out at her, to tell her he’d never hurt Zoe. But he could also understand where she was coming from. Hell, a day ago, he would have wholeheartedly agreed with everything she said, and if he’d heard Zoe’s story then, he wouldn’t have been able to get away fast enough. He didn’t do commitment. Not yet. Not for a long time. He had plenty of time to consider settling down with the right woman and giving in to the domesticity that had plagued every single one of his brothers.

But he didn’t want to walk away from Zoe and forget she existed. He didn’t want to hurt her, didn’t want to be the cause of yet more pain in her young life. He hated how vulnerable and scared and unsure she looked when she wasn’t aware she was being observed. And protective instincts unlike any he’d ever experienced had come roaring to the surface. He was extremely protective of his sisters-in-law. The wives of the other KGI operatives. He’d give his life for any one of them without hesitation. But never had he felt such a personal vested interest in the protection of a woman he didn’t even know and had no connection to whatsoever.

What the hell was he supposed to do with that? Even if he wanted to act on this insane attraction or curiosity or need to keep this vulnerable woman safe, it was obvious that she would run hard and fast in the opposite direction if he so much as tipped his hand.

What a fucking time to decide he might actually be interested in exploring an actual . . . relationship? Was that what he was thinking? Or was it simply the warrior in him, sworn to protect the innocent and the victimized, that had spurred his sudden interest in what had caused this fragile woman so much pain?

No, he knew that for the lame excuse it was the moment that thought entered his mind. KGI came across brutalized, helpless victims in eight out of ten missions, and while it enraged him that women would be treated so callously and used as pawns, things, possessions of men who thought themselves above the law, he’d never taken a personal stake in it. He went in, just as all his teammates did, and exacted justice for those victims and made damn sure they got a fresh start, a new lease on life, where they’d never have to worry about the predators they’d once been tormented by.

But he didn’t want Zoe to be a KGI mission. He didn’t want his team to close ranks and ensure she never looked at every single person with fear and apprehension in her eyes. He wanted to do that for her. No one else. And he felt fucking helpless as to how to accomplish that when it was clear she trusted no one, especially a strange man she’d been introduced to once.

Determination seized him. She had accepted a date of sorts with him, though he hadn’t called it such. Even if it was damn well just that. Whatever she wanted to call it, if it made her feel safe and secure, he was fine with it, especially if it bought him time alone with her to carefully peel back the layers she’d wrapped herself in. One layer at a time. It would require more patience than he ever thought he’d possessed. He wasn’t known for tact or patience. He was the hotheaded twin. The one who saw in black-and-white and didn’t have much tolerance for excuses.

Much to his shame, those characteristics had nearly lost him the person he was closest to in the world. The other half of himself. His twin, Nathan. He hadn’t understood the sheer hell his brother had endured. Maybe down deep he hadn’t wanted to know or understand because then he would have had to face just how close he’d come to losing him. He’d wanted his brother back the minute he was rescued after months of horrific torture and inhuman living conditions.

He’d been an overbearing asshole who’d been angry that his best friend had been taken from him and had returned a very different man. Joe had just wanted to move on like nothing had ever happened. Nathan was home, alive, back with his family. He never considered the private hell Nathan endured every single day even after being set free. The demons he’d dealt with every waking hour and, worse, in his fractured sleep where nightmares plagued him.

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