Brighter Than the Sun Page 48

He sat there for a long moment before he realized Rusty had come outside and was now standing at his window waiting for him to acknowledge her.

He quickly rolled it down, and she gave him a look filled with sympathy and answering pain.

“Mom has her,” she said quietly before he could demand the answer.

He pounded his fist on the steering wheel and swore viciously. Then he let his hand fall and gave his sister a remorseful look.

“Don’t you dare apologize for something I’ve done myself more than once since I saw Zoe again.” Rusty glowered at him.

“What the fuck did he do, Rusty? And don’t give me that bullshit answer you gave me before. I’m losing her just after I gained so much ground with her today. I kissed her, and she freaked out. Started apologizing and saying I deserved so much better. What the fuck kind of bullshit is that?”

Rusty’s lips trembled and sorrow filled her eyes. “It isn’t my story to tell, Joe. Even if I had the whole story. You can’t ask me to betray Zoe when everyone else in her life has. I can’t do that to her. It would destroy her.”

He sighed. “No, of course you can’t, honey. I’m sorry. I’m just so frustrated. I can’t lose her. I won’t lose her,” he said more emphatically.

She smiled. “If you sat back and did nothing, then what kind of sorry-ass Kelly would you be?”

“Damn straight,” he growled. “Look. She needs you right now. Be a good friend to her, Rusty. I won’t ask you to betray that. But damn it, I don’t care what you have to say to her or tell her, you make sure she doesn’t start hiding from me. We have a date tomorrow night. I’m cooking for her at my place and I expect you to have her ready to go by the time I get here. Can I trust you with her?”

She reached up and covered his arm with her hand. He then took her hand and squeezed affectionately.

“I’ll have her ready to go. You just be here when you said you would and leave the rest to me. Okay?”

“I’m trusting you with my future, Rusty,” he said quietly. “She’s everything to me. You understand that?”

Her smile was oddly sad. “I understand all too well what happens when a Kelly man decides a woman is his. It’s too bad the rest of the male population can’t take their cues from you. Don’t worry, Joe. I’ll call you if anything comes up. In the meantime, leave us girls to have our girl time. I’ll have her talked around by tomorrow, and then it’s up to you.”

Then her expression grew serious and she looked him directly in the eyes. “It’s not going to be easy, Joe. I hope you know that, and I hope you’re prepared for it. You don’t live your life under a pile of shit and then have someone dig you out and convince you all in a day that you smell like a rose garden. You’re going to have to have patience with her and handle her very carefully.”

“You do have a way with words, little sister,” he said, shaking his head. Then he snorted. “A rose garden. I’ve got to remember that one.”

She laughed, but the sadness in her eyes still bothered him because he had a feeling what he saw had nothing to do with Zoe and everything to do with something that was making his baby sister look defeated. Because defeat was not ever a word used in context with Rusty Kelly.

Until now.

CHAPTER 16

ZOE sat huddled against the headboard of Rusty’s bed, knees drawn up to her chest, her arms wrapped tightly around her legs as she rested her chin atop them. She was so embarrassed, and she had only herself to blame after making such a spectacle when Joe had kissed her.

Okay, so it wasn’t just because he kissed her. It was the way he kissed her. It was the promise of love and forever in his kiss that had sliced her open and prompted her meltdown. Here was a guy putting it all on the table, not holding anything back. Everything she’d ever dreamed of in a man, only now she’d found it too damn late to make any difference. There’d been nothing but honesty and sincerity in his kiss, his words and even his actions. No deception or lies. No, that was all her doing. Those things were coming from her and it broke her heart.

Joe was one of the good guys. A rare breed she wasn’t even sure existed anymore outside of fairy tales and urban legends. He was too much of a good guy. Too good for the likes of her and her ilk. Too good to be tainted by her legacy of crime, murder and corruption. Although taking her father’s empire down might look good on KGI’s résumé.

The hysterical thought rose and died just as quickly as it welled. Tears burned her eyelids and she closed her eyes, refusing to cry any more for all she’d never had and never would. It was fine before when she didn’t know what she was missing. Didn’t know that what she fantasized about wasn’t a mere fantasy but an actual flesh and blood man. A man who seemed interested in her. In Zoe Kildare. And that was the problem. As much as Zoe liked to declare that Stella Huntington was a woman who no longer existed, had never existed, Zoe Kildare was the fictional character. Not Stella. Zoe had no birth certificate. No past beyond what Rusty had fabricated, no matter how expertly it had been done. Zoe was just Stella’s imaginary friend, a result of her pathetic, lonely childhood and her refusal to accept reality. Maybe if she’d gotten a good grip on what was real a hell of a lot earlier in life, she wouldn’t be such a naïve, clueless twit as an adult. Gullible. That about covered all the bases in a single word. She had to be the most gullible woman on earth.

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