Brighter Than the Sun Page 3

Zoe took a deep breath. “So when do we leave then?”

CHAPTER 2

“WE’RE almost there,” Rusty said cheerfully as they crossed the bridge over Kentucky Lake.

“It’s beautiful here,” Zoe breathed. “It seems so quiet and peaceful. No hustle and bustle of a big city. Are the people here nice?”

Rusty wrinkled her nose. “For the most part. I mean, like any small town we have our share of nosy busybodies whose sole ambition in life is to make others miserable, but the Kellys are very respected in this area. Frank owns a hardware store in Dover, and as I told you, all six of his and Marlene’s sons served in various branches of the military. I was on the other side of the fence growing up. White trash. Troublemaker. Loser. Pick your poison. My life changed when I broke into Frank and Marlene’s house because I was starving and my asshole stepfather didn’t give a shit about anything except where to score his next hit. He wasn’t choosy. Alcohol, drugs, whatever would get him hammered the fastest. Taking care of a stepdaughter dumped on him by his slut of a wife wasn’t exactly a priority. I wouldn’t have ever stayed the first night with him, but I had nowhere else to go and I was too young at the time to pull off acting older than I was, so I would have just gotten hauled into the foster care system. At least my stepfather was the devil I knew and I learned to get around him.” She grimaced. “Most of the time.”

“God, Rusty. My life wasn’t exactly wonderful, but I was never abused and I never went without. My father saw to it that I had the best of everything. Most likely so I wouldn’t be more of an embarrassment to him than I already was. I mean, it was obvious that my own mother had no use for me. She left and couldn’t be bothered to take her daughter with her.”

Rusty scowled. “I don’t see much of a difference in our situations. We were both unwanted, and that does a number on a child, as we can both attest to.”

“That’s true,” Zoe admitted.

“I was so lucky,” Rusty said, her features going soft, her eyes lighting with love and pride. “Marlene and Frank are the very best kind of people. Marlene took me in without question, even confronting my asshole stepfather and then permanently removing me from his custody. They even adopted me after I turned eighteen because they wanted me to know they truly did consider me a part of the family. Their daughter.”

“They sound wonderful,” Zoe said wistfully.

“Wait until you meet them,” Rusty said, smiling. “I give it a day before Marlene claims you as family. My brothers give her shit about her propensity for collecting ‘strays.’ Strays being all the people she’s adopted into the family over the years. It’s impossible not to love her and Frank.”

“They sound too good to be true,” Zoe admitted.

“They’re the real deal. You’ll see soon enough.”

Zoe twirled the ends of her long hair nervously through her fingers and glanced at her reflection in the side-view mirror.

“I don’t know about this whole disguise, Rusty. It just doesn’t feel like . . . me.”

Rusty laughed. “That’s the point.” Then as if sensing Zoe’s very real discomfort, she reached over and put her hand over her friend’s and squeezed reassuringly. “You look stunning as a blonde. Going from red to black was too risky. The roots would be more prominent, though you’re going to have to keep a close watch and touch up your color on a regular basis. You weren’t a carrottop by any means, so even if your roots start to show it will be a lot more subtle.”

“And the extensions?” Zoe asked doubtfully.

“Think about it. You had shoulder-length hair. What do most people do when they want to change their appearance? They cut it because they can’t exactly grow their hair fast enough to complete a believable disguise. By making your hair a good eight inches longer it gives more credibility to your disguise, and no one can tell you have extensions in. It looks absolutely natural. That’s why it took so long to do. I had to make it absolutely seamless, and again, this is something we have to stay on top of at all times. No slipups.”

Zoe’s lips curled into a glimmer of a smile. “You say ‘we’ as if you’ll have my back the entire time.”

Rusty’s expression turned fierce. “If I’m able, that’s exactly what I’m going to do until we figure out a way to get you out of this mess and get rid of that asshole trying to kill you.”

“Still, I’m not sure I can pull off this sweet, all-natural, girl-next-door image you’re trying to make me into,” Zoe said.

Rusty’s sigh was audible as she cast a sideways glance at her that was a mixture of rage and sorrow.

“Don’t take this the wrong way, Zoe. This is not in any way a criticism of you,” she said fiercely. “I’m well aware of the exacting standards your father forced on you and subsequently enforced your entire life. You were high-class, high-fashion twenty-four-seven. You were the epitome of wealth and posh. Hell, you never even set foot out of your apartment without makeup to conceal your freckles, because your father viewed them as an imperfection. Over time he made you feel the same way about them, about every single thing; he labeled you until you believed yourself that you weren’t just fine the way you were. You said yourself the asshole you were dating had no clue you had freckles. You’ve never been allowed to just be you, and Zoe, listen carefully to what I’m saying. You, the real you? There is nothing wrong with her. You’re beautiful, and you don’t need clothes, makeup or jewelry to make you that way. But now your obsession with concealing what you were convinced was a flaw works in our favor because you’re sporting a fresh face, makeup free, and you only have a dusting of freckles across your nose. They look freaking adorable. You look nothing like the high-class fashionista you’ve been your entire life. With the casual faded jeans, cute tops, and loafers and flip-flops, no one would ever look at you and see the person you were. You’ve simply allowed yourself to be who you were all along. Real and not some costume you were forced to wear for most of your life. Trust me, this look, the person you represent now, is a foolproof disguise because it isn’t a deception in the least. It’s one hundred percent honest and representative of the person you’ve always been.”

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