Brighter Than the Sun Page 29

“Fair?” he sputtered. “You’re staying with her and get her cooking every day. Me? I only get her cooking when I come over or beg her to take pity on her wifeless son who can’t cook to save his life.”

Zoe rolled her eyes, but he secretly delighted in the fact that she’d relaxed and lost her earlier reserve and unease.

“What’s that?” she asked when he pulled out a large insulated drink container.

“Ah, this? Only the nectar of the Gods and the official beverage of the south. Sweet iced tea.”

Her lips puckered and he purposely looked aghast at her. “Don’t tell me you’ve never had sweet tea. My heart can only take so many shocks in one day.”

She burst into laughter and he stared shamelessly at the sparkle in her eyes and the enticing shape of her mouth as it broadened into a huge smile.

“Does instant tea count?”

He arched an eyebrow. “Instant?”

She laughed and held up one hand. “Don’t tell me. I already know the answer to this one. Instant tea is a sin. Am I right?”

“Got it in one,” he quipped.

“Apparently I have a lot to learn about life in the south,” she said in amusement.

He adopted a mournful look. “We’ll make a southern girl out of you yet, Zoe Kildare. Before you know it, you’ll be hunting and fishing and we’ll have you out of those jeans and into cutoffs and flip-flops as standard wardrobe procedure.”

He wondered if she knew how wistful she looked in that moment when he’d merely been teasing her. But hell, she’d already expressed a desire to fish. Maybe . . .

He shut his thought process down immediately. No, he damn well wasn’t going to take her fishing. This was a one-time deal. He was being friendly. Showing her all men weren’t assholes out to take advantage of women or out for a piece of ass.

But . . . they could be friends, right? No law against that. And Zoe definitely needed friends, as Rusty appeared to be her only friend and ally. Yep. He could definitely offer her friendship. His pulse sped up over the idea and he found himself smiling. It was the perfect solution.

“What are you smiling so big for?” she asked inquisitively.

Busted. He scrambled for a response and then decided what the hell. The truth was always the best idea.

“What don’t I have to smile about?” he asked, sending her an even warmer smile. “I’m spending the day with a fun-loving, beautiful woman who has a great sense of humor and likes the same things I do. What’s not to love about that?”

She looked rattled by his reply but he pretended not to notice. Instead he changed the subject. But not before he witnessed that despite her initial befuddlement, she looked . . . pleased with his reply.

“You full yet? We still have rocks to skip, and then I have to get you back home before Ma sends someone looking for us. She’s very protective of those she takes under her wing, and there’s the fact that missing dinner is a cardinal sin punishable by death in her eyes.”

He didn’t miss her flush of pleasure at the idea of having people who cared about her, and it pissed him off. Had she never had anyone who gave a shit about her? It was obvious she hadn’t because she soaked in every bit of attention she received, savoring it like it was the most cherished gift she’d ever gotten. Hell, it likely was. Did she have no fucking clue just how precious she was?

She emitted a groan. “I’m way past stuffed. I may not be able to skip rocks. I’m not sure I can even walk at this point.”

Warmth spread through his veins once more. Damn but he liked being in her company. “Lucky for you that you don’t have to worry about that. I’ll carry you anywhere you need to go.”

Her face flushed a delightful pink and she ducked her head shyly in an endearing way. How the fuck was he going to keep this a platonic friends-only relationship? But then he didn’t have a choice. Neither of them wanted—or were ready—for a romantic relationship.

He stood to his feet and groaned. “I take that back. I may need you to carry me.”

She giggled, her eyes sparkling like a pair of gemstones. “Maybe we should just try to hold each other up on the way back to the truck. You’d flatten me if I tried to carry you.”

“Good call,” he said, grinning back.

He held out his arm, and after a moment’s hesitation she came to him, fitting perfectly beneath his shoulder. He staggered in an exaggerated manner as they stumbled back toward the truck, laughing like two lunatics. It struck him as he opened the passenger door for her and lifted her into the seat that he was actually having fun just . . . being. Relaxing and forgetting about the rest of the world and the assholes who inhabited it.

He shook his head ruefully as he headed around to the driver’s side. It was a good thing he’d set ground rules and established that he and Zoe would be friends only. Otherwise he would be fucked.

“Ready to go try your hand at skipping rocks?” he asked as he cranked the ignition.

She nodded eagerly.

He couldn’t help himself. He had to touch her. He reached over and tousled her hair affectionately. Much like he would a sister or one of his sisters-in-law.

“Try not to kick my ass too badly. You might damage my manly ego too much if you make me look like an amateur.”

She rolled her eyes. “As if. Are you forgetting I’m a complete newbie at this?”

“You know what they say about beginner’s luck,” he countered.

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