Brighter Than the Sun Page 30

Even as he said it, he made a vow that no matter how badly she did, he was going to ensure he did worse. There was no way he’d take this moment from her. And if he was honest, he wanted very badly to see her excitement when she did kick his ass at rock skipping. Something that none of his brothers had ever been able to best him at.

• • •

“YOU ready?” Joe asked Zoe as they stood on the dock overlooking Kentucky Lake.

She gripped the smooth, flat stone in her hand, rubbing it with her thumb as she prayed not to make a huge fool of herself.

“Yep,” she said, with more confidence than she felt.

But then who cared if she sucked at it? She sucked at everything else, and at least this time she’d have fun. She could barely contain her excitement as she considered the best technique. She cocked her head, studying which angle would give her a better chance at success, flexing her wrist as she prepared to make her first attempt.

As if he could read her mind, Joe spoke up. “It’s all in the wrist. You want to turn your hand sideways and launch, not throw, the stone at an angle where it strikes the surface on the flat side.”

He moved around behind her, sliding his hand down her arm to grip her hand, turning it and then flexing her wrist in a forward motion.

“Like that,” he said. “Not too softly, but not too hard either.”

She shivered, sudden awareness of his touch catching her off guard yet not alarming her. With him, she felt . . . safe. Which only proved what a naïve idiot she was since she’d thought the same thing about Sebastian.

She slammed the door on old memories before they took over and ruined what had been a spectacularly awesome day. Joe wasn’t Sebastian, and this wasn’t her being a clueless moron. Sebastian would never risk his life for a complete stranger. He wouldn’t make it his life’s work to help others in need. He was an egotistical, self-absorbed dickhead, and she had only herself to blame for not recognizing that a hell of a lot sooner. Certainly before she’d given him her virginity.

Wincing, she once again shut down her train of thought and instead focused on the here and now. She wasn’t that person anymore. Stella Huntington no longer existed. Maybe she never did. She’d been molded to someone else’s expectations since birth, never allowed to be who she wanted to be. Zoe Kildare was whoever Zoe wanted her to be, and right now, more than anything, she wanted to be the kind of woman who lived the kind of life she’d experienced today.

Realizing Joe was waiting on her to give it a try, she took careful aim, positioned her wrist just so and let it fly. She held her breath when it hit the surface, and then to her surprise, it didn’t sink or make a huge splash. It skipped! And kept on skipping!

Once, twice, three times. Oh my God! Four, five, six, seven!

She threw her hands over her mouth and then jumped up and down like an excited two-year-old.

“I did it! I did it!”

Then she launched herself into his arms, nearly taking them both down in a heap on the dock. He steadied them, and she squeezed him as hard as she could.

“Thank you,” she whispered. “This has been the best day ever.”

When she pulled back, the corners of his eyes crinkled and warmth entered his gaze that she could swear she felt all the way to her toes. He had such beautiful brown eyes. Eyes that could be dark and brooding but also tender and funny. On the surface he seemed such an uncomplicated man, as if what you saw was what you got, but he was anything but.

“Now it’s your turn,” she said breathlessly, handing him one of the choicest stones from her stash.

“I dunno. You were pretty impressive. I don’t want to embarrass myself,” he teased.

She rolled her eyes. “Oh please. You’ll probably skip it all the way across the darn lake.”

He made a show of getting prepared and assuming the same stance he’d instructed her to take. Her breath caught in her throat and she softly counted under her breath as his rock followed a similar path to hers.

Then she plunged both fists in the air and twirled like an idiot. “Take that Mr. I’ve-been-skipping-stones-all-my-life. I beat you by one!”

She had no idea which was warmer on her skin, the sun or his gaze. Then he smiled broadly, teeth flashing, and it was no longer a question of what warmed her. Who needed the sun when all this man had to do was look and smile?

He held up his hand to high-five her then held up his other fist to bump knuckles with her. Pleasure suffused her face, soaking into her very bloodstream. For one precious, stolen afternoon she’d been allowed to retreat from the reality of her circumstances, and for once she’d experienced the joy of being a part of something bigger than anything she’d ever imagined.

Yes, Rusty had cajoled her with stories of her and her brothers and their lives in this small Tennessee town on the shores of Kentucky Lake, but in all honesty, Zoe had just never gotten it. Who really lived those kinds of lives? It had been so foreign to her that she’d assumed Rusty embellished those tales. After all, she was a good storyteller. In Zoe she found a captive audience because while the two women shared similar childhoods, devoid of any overabundance of love or caring, unlike Rusty, she had continued that existence into her adult life, never knowing that something so rare even existed.

A part of her had wanted Rusty to have been exaggerating the bond the Kelly family had because it brought home all too well the sterile, austere environment she’d been subjected to, thanks to a mother who’d simply walked away without ever looking back and a father who was more interested in a robot he could program than raising a child.

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