Brighter Than the Sun Page 77

“Rusty, no,” Zoe choked out. “Don’t go. Please don’t go. I’ll go with you. I can’t stay here any more than you can. We can go together.”

Rusty’s smile was genuine this time. “If you think Joe’s just going to sit back and let you walk away, then, sister, you don’t know the man very well. He’s about to lose his mind because he hasn’t been able to see you. To see for himself that you’re okay. He went through hell and he blames himself for leaving you unprotected.”

Another tear slid down Zoe’s cheek. “I’ll never fit in here,” she said sadly. “It was foolish of me to dream. I’ve lived in my own head, creating my own fantasy my entire life, refusing to face reality. I can’t continue doing that.”

“I need to ask you for a favor,” Rusty said, ignoring her statement.

“Anything. We’re sisters, and time and distance will never change that.”

Rusty’s lips trembled and she briefly looked away. Then she turned back to Zoe and grasped both hands in hers. “Don’t tell anyone that I’m going. I’m not just going to disappear. I’d never worry Marlene and Frank like that. I’m going to leave a letter for Marlene explaining everything—well, not everything. But it’s time to start living my life and stop wishing for the impossible. I need time to sort myself out and figure out what I want.”

“Promise me you’ll stay in touch,” Zoe said, gripping Rusty’s hands tightly as tears rolled down both their cheeks. “No matter what. I’ll never betray your confidence, but please stay in communication.”

Rusty nodded, shaking too badly to respond verbally.

“And I have a favor to ask in return,” Zoe said, grief consuming her.

“Anything,” Rusty said, echoing her vow.

“Can you ask Marlene to come get me? I don’t want to see Joe—or anyone. I just need time. I guess, like you, I need some time to figure my life out. I just hope she’s not so upset with me that she won’t want me in her home.”

Rusty hugged her again. “Consider it done. Marlene doesn’t have a judgmental bone in her body. And if I tell her you need her, then she’ll be here, and trust me, no one crosses her. Especially her sons. Joe may not like it, but he respects her word as law.”

“Make me one more promise,” Zoe said, gripping Rusty’s hand once more. “Don’t leave without saying good-bye and without giving me a way to contact you.”

Rusty smiled. “I won’t. Love you, sister.”

“Love you too,” Zoe whispered.

“I’ll go get Marlene for you now.”

The fact that Rusty hadn’t once referred to Marlene as Mom or Ma wasn’t lost on Zoe. It broke her heart that she had brought so much pain to this family. Irreparable damage. She couldn’t change what was, but she could at least make sure of what was to be.

“On your way out, could you ask Shea if she would talk to me?” Zoe asked hesitantly.

Rusty squeezed her hand then hugged her in farewell. “Will do. Then promise me that as soon as you get to Marlene’s you’ll get some rest.”

Zoe’s smile was faint. “That’s one promise I won’t have any trouble keeping.”

CHAPTER 26

RUSTY walked out of the exam room and felt every eye on her. She refused to meet anyone’s gaze, seeking out Shea only. She walked to the other woman and stiffly said in a low voice, “Zoe would like to see you.”

Shea’s eyes were full of compassion and sympathy, so much so that it made Rusty squirm in discomfort. By now, the entire family would have heard of her betrayal. Nathan’s anger hurt the worst, though, because of all the brothers, he’d been the most accepting of her from the start. He’d been kind when she’d been an abrasive, defensive fifteen-year-old, afraid that Rachel’s “return from the dead” would displace her in Marlene’s affection. As a result, she’d always had a closer bond with him than with any of the other Kelly brothers.

“How is she doing?” Shea whispered.

Rusty grimaced. “Not good, but then what else could be expected? She’s been shit on at every stage of her life.”

She very nearly winced because it sounded as though she were speaking of herself and not of Zoe, and Shea picked up on it.

“It will all be okay, Rusty,” she offered.

Rusty tried to smile but failed miserably. “It will never be okay again, Shea. But thank you.”

She turned to walk out, ignoring Joe’s call to her. She quickened her step and, once outside, she all but ran to her vehicle and hurriedly got in, keying the ignition and reversing as Joe frantically waved at her to stop.

Joe dragged a hand through his hair and closed his eyes in despair. The entire goddamn world had turned upside down. And he was helpless to do a fucking thing about it. He walked back into the infirmary determined to check on Zoe. He hadn’t been able to get close enough to even get a good look at her much less touch her, hold her, comfort her and tell her how much he loved her and that his heart was breaking for her.

Enough was enough. This time he wasn’t taking no for an answer.

When he returned, he noticed Shea was no longer beside Nathan, and he immediately sent his twin a questioning look.

“Zoe asked to see her,” Nathan said quietly. “I’m sure she’s confused and has a lot of questions.”

“I’m going in there,” Joe said, turning toward the exam room only to find Steele standing in front of him, barring his way.

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