Brighter Than the Sun Page 45

Her eyes were glazed with shock as she stared back helplessly at him. “You can’t make promises like that to me, to anyone,” she denied. “You aren’t responsible for making anyone else’s dreams come true. Only your own. Only I can make my dreams come true, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned about myself in that area it’s that I’m a huge, fat failure.”

Joe let out a growl of impatience and anger, though it wasn’t directed at her. She jumped and then looked at him with wounded eyes, even as she tried to shrink away from him. He cursed violently under his breath. He was coming on with the finesse of a freight train and he knew damn well she had to be handled with the utmost care, as if she were the most precious of things.

“You forget something about me, baby. I’m in the business of doing two things. Making some people’s dreams come true. And making other people’s nightmares come to life. So don’t tell me what I can or can’t do or what I can or can’t take on. Because I promise you that if you let me in, if you give me the chance, I’ll do my damnedest to make every single one of your dreams come true.”

She swallowed hard and her lips parted in shock, and it took everything he had inside him not to haul her across the last remaining inches of distance between them and kiss her until neither could draw a breath without breathing the other’s air. That was his dream right now, fuck it all. All the others could wait their damn turns.

“You don’t even know me,” she whispered. “Why would you even say something like that to me?”

“You’re right. I don’t know all of you. Yet. But I want to. I will. And when I do, then I plan to keep every last one of my promises. Now, before I finish freaking you out so badly that you jump in the lake and swim your way back to the compound, we need to get going or Ma’s going to have my ass in a sling. I need you to put your life vest on and find somewhere to get comfortable for the ride back in. Okay?”

She looked dazed, and he couldn’t very well blame her. He’d rolled over her like a bulldozer and then backed off so quickly he was lucky she hadn’t fallen into the lake, much less jumped. But he had to get a grip and keep himself in check before he went way too far way too damned fast and ended up letting her slip right through his fingers.

Jesus, but the mere thought of reaching out only to find her gone nearly paralyzed him with fear. He was a fucking mess and if he didn’t get his shit together quick, he was going to fuck everything up before he even had a chance to prove she was safe with him. That he’d never hurt her. That he’d take apart anyone who ever fucking tried to hurt her again.

And right now, maybe the best course of action was to simply keep her off balance. If she was a little unsteady and trying to figure him out, then she couldn’t run at the same time. Her running was the possibility that terrified the fucking hell out of him, when not much had ever had the power to scare him in his life. Losing his brother, losing Shea, losing his parents. Those were the only things close to the terror he felt when he thought of losing Zoe.

As soon as he navigated out of the cove where he’d anchored the boat so he and Zoe could swim and sunbathe, he opened the throttle and planed out as they roared over the smooth-as-glass water of Kentucky Lake. The sun was a giant fiery ball of orange in the west inching its way farther down the horizon, and up ahead, the twinkling lights of the marina were starting to flash on.

Zoe sat huddled on the side bench just two feet from where he stood to navigate the boat, her gaze focused sightlessly on some distant object, the strands of hair that had escaped the bun atop her head streaming behind her like splashes of moonlight.

She had a towel wrapped around her slight figure and wore her safety jacket underneath. He should have allowed her to change back into her clothing before they headed back in, but it would have been dark by the time they set back for the marina. He could give her privacy where the truck was parked and stand on the other side of his open door with his back to her, standing guard to watch for anyone else in seeing distance.

At least now he understood the mischievous twinkle in Rusty’s eyes and her innocent grin when she’d given him a bathing suit for Zoe as he’d requested. Rusty was taller and not as rounded in the places Zoe was, and as a result, Rusty’s bikini, which covered her modestly enough, was too small for Zoe in places that had given him a permanent erection for the entire afternoon.

Rusty had known exactly what she was doing and precisely how the bikini would fit—or rather not fit—Zoe, and if the devious little heifer didn’t think he’d get her back, she was deluded.

Once parked in his slip at the marina, he helped Zoe from the boat and then wrapped his arm around her waist, pulling her into the warmth of his body as they walked to his truck. The early summer mornings and nights still had a hint of a chill to them as spring reluctantly gave way to the hotter days of summer that lay ahead.

These were the best times of the year. Days filled with many a happy memory. Countless trips just like today. Fishing, swimming, horsing around with family, cookouts, campfires, a cooler full of beer, talking about old times and of the days ahead.

Joe had never really been able to participate in the talks of what was yet to come as his brothers looked at their wives and children with love in their eyes and spoke of raising their kids where they’d been raised. He could recount plenty of “good ole days” stories and all of the hell-raising that had been involved, but he’d always gone silent when the conversation turned to the future. Over time, as all of his brothers had finally been accounted for, he had felt an awkwardness he’d never before experienced. Like an outsider looking in at something so beautiful that it hurt his eyes to look at it. He realized now that what he’d felt was loneliness. And envy for what his brothers had that he didn’t.

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