Brighter Than the Sun Page 38

Zoe sighed. “You know I do. I just wish I weren’t so nervous. It’s not like he has any interest in me as a woman.”

“Lord save me from oblivious women,” Rusty said with an exaggerated sigh. “Now come on. We don’t want to keep him waiting.”

Ten minutes later, Zoe was dressed, her hair up in a messy bun and makeup lightly applied in a natural look that highlighted her features in a way that even she had to admit made her feel . . . pretty.

“Come on, I’ll walk you down,” Rusty said with a smile.

Zoe shoved her feet into a pair of sparkly flip-flops, checking the fresh coat of toenail polish she and Rusty had applied just the previous night while Rusty had gotten the lowdown on her first date with Joe. Hot pink wasn’t a shade she would have usually gone for, but it made her feel a little daring and ultrafeminine.

“You look gorgeous,” Rusty assured her.

“I must be out of my mind,” Zoe murmured as she allowed Rusty to herd her down the stairs.

“Honey, you know this. God knows I’ve said it enough times. But you can’t let that asshole control the rest of your life, and you damn sure can’t give him the power over your self-confidence. Can you imagine if it was me thinking and saying the things you are? You’d be all over me like a bad rash. Now stop overthinking everything and go have fun. It’s not a crime, you know.”

Zoe’s head came up and with it a surge of realization. “You’re right. I’ve been letting him control me for too long. Enough is enough.”

“Thata girl,” Rusty said approvingly. “Now have fun and we’ll dish about it later.”

“Yeah, well, don’t forget that we’re going to dish about Sean too,” Zoe said in a warning tone.

Rusty’s expression immediately soured. “Nothing to dish about except an obnoxiously arrogant male with his head stuck up his ass.”

Zoe laughed. “Girl, you just described half of the male population.”

“Only half?” Rusty asked innocently.

Another peal of laughter rolled off Zoe’s lips just as they rounded the corner into the living room, and Joe immediately looked up. His eyes warmed with approval as his gaze raked up and down her. Her skin prickled and goose bumps rose and raced down her bare arms all the way to her fingertips.

Heavens but the man was sex on a stick. Heat swamped her cheeks as mortification struck her. She was disgustingly transparent for the most part and she just prayed he missed that particular thought that had surely been reflected in her eyes.

Judging by the way his expression hardened and his gaze smoldered and grew darker, she didn’t think he’d missed anything. Nor did it appear he had any objection to that train of thought either.

Get it together, Zoe. Nothing can happen. Nothing will happen.

She was reading far too much into what Rusty deemed southern hospitality. She’d been told over and over how warm and welcoming Rusty’s family was, and all she was seeing was evidence of that fact.

“You ready?” Joe asked, his voice husky and gruff. “Ma packed us lunch again.”

“Is it bad that as stuffed as I am from her pancakes, my stomach just growled in anticipation?”

He chuckled. “You aren’t human if Ma’s cooking doesn’t have that effect on you.”

He leaned over and kissed Rusty’s cheek and then pulled her into a quick hug. “I’ll have my cell if you or Ma needs anything. Have a good day, sweetheart.”

“You take good care of her,” Rusty warned.

Joe tangled his fingers with Zoe’s and pulled her to his side so that she settled beneath his shoulder. “Only the best,” he said sincerely.

A soft smile curved Rusty’s mouth, and for a moment, Zoe thought she saw raw emotion reflected in the deep green of her eyes. Puzzled by the brief interaction, she glanced up at Joe only to see deep seriousness reflected in his gaze.

He lifted the picnic basket with his free hand and then guided her to the door and then out to the waiting truck. Once he had her in the passenger seat, he walked around and stuck the picnic basket in back before sliding in behind the wheel.

“I thought I might take you out in the boat and do a little fishing while it’s still cool out,” he said as they backed out of the driveway.

“Really?” Zoe asked, excitement threading through her veins.

He smiled at her, his eyes glowing with the warmth she’d grown accustomed to when he looked at her. “Yeah. Really. I have a smaller boat at my house but I also keep a larger platform boat docked at the marina. We use it when there’s a group of us and we go out swimming or to have a day in the sun. We can fish, swim or both. We don’t even have to leave the lake until this afternoon if that’s what you’d like. We can fish while it’s cool, take a break for lunch and then swim to cool off.”

Her face fell. “I didn’t bring anything to swim in, though.”

He flashed a triumphant grin. “I may have told Rusty to pack one of her bathing suits for you, and I wore my swim trunks under my jeans. Always pays to be prepared.”

“I can’t change on a boat in the middle of the lake!”

“There’s a changing curtain that boxes you in on all four sides,” he said, not losing his smile. “I’d never put you in a situation you weren’t comfortable with.”

“Oh, okay then.”

She was momentarily lost for words.

“Well?” he prompted. “What’ll it be? Fishing then swimming, or you just want to fish and head back in?”

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