Brighter Than the Sun Page 82

Zoe bit into her lip as Rusty pulled away and then rose from the chair. The two women stared at each other for a long moment before Rusty finally smiled.

“I’ll call you soon. Promise.”

Zoe pulled the quilt tighter around her, needing to clutch something so she didn’t hang on to Rusty as she tried to leave. Rusty was the first friend she had ever had, the first person she’d trusted and who had trusted her, and in no way would she betray her now if leaving was what she felt she had to do.

As soon as Rusty closed the door softly behind her, Zoe buried her face in the quilt so her sobs wouldn’t be heard.

• • •

RUSTY snuck out the back door and down the winding, shaded path to the rocky edge of the bluff overlooking the lake. It was her favorite spot to come when she wanted to be alone, because no one had ever discovered it but her. A grove of trees offered a barrier between the large, smooth boulders that jutted outward and the back of Frank and Marlene’s house, so she didn’t have to worry about being detected. She eased down into the hollowed-out crevice formed by two huge stones that anchored the cliff’s edge, an awesome place to sit, relax and watch the sun go down and reflect.

She let out a sigh. All her reflection had been done and her decisions made. So why did it hurt so damn much, and why did it feel like she was bleeding to death on the inside? Tears obscured her vision and she wiped defiantly at her cheeks with the back of one hand.

Her cell phone rang, and she glanced down, prepared to ignore the call, but she hesitated when she saw Joe’s name appear. Sucking in a steadying breath, she picked up the phone and hit the accept button.

“How’re you doing?” she asked quietly with no preamble, taking charge of the conversation before he could start asking questions about her or how she was doing.

“Fucking miserable. I’m about to lose my goddamn mind. You have to help me, Rusty. What the hell can I do? How can I talk to her when she doesn’t leave her room, much less the house?”

Grief was thick in his voice and Rusty’s own voice matched the ache in his. “I can do you one better,” she said, after a brief battle to force herself to sound normal. “If she won’t leave her room, then I suggest you do a little B and E and meet her on her own turf.”

There was a long pause. There was a hitch in his voice and she couldn’t tell if it was the sound of excitement, disbelief, fear or doubt.

“You’re giving her up to me?” he asked doubtfully.

“You make her sound like a chew toy,” Rusty said dryly. “And I’m not betraying her by wanting her to have some fucking happiness for once. I want her to be happy more than anything in the world,” she added in a sad whisper.

“Hey, are you okay?” he asked sharply. “Where are you anyway? I just talked to Ma, and she said she wasn’t sure where you were, but you haven’t left the house for the entire week either.”

“Around. But if you’re going to stage a B and E, then I’ll need to be elsewhere tomorrow night,” she drawled, hoping to diffuse his concern.

“You seriously think I should break into my own parents’ house?” he asked skeptically.

Rusty rolled her eyes. “Duh? Let’s see, I have a big-ass window, a good-sized tree that happens to reside just outside this big-ass window, but if you have issues with climbing trees, there’s always a ladder. The window will be unlocked. You’re welcome, by the way.”

“Smart-ass,” he said with no heat. Then his tone grew serious. “I hope you know I was never angry with you, Rusty. I’m grateful Zoe had you and even more grateful for all you did to protect her. I love you, and you better damn well wear a dress to my wedding.”

Rusty smiled through a wash of tears and then she had to turn the phone downward so the receiver didn’t pick up the sound of her crying. She sucked air in through her nostrils and tried like hell to be cool and keep Joe’s mind occupied with what it should be on: Zoe. And making her happy.

“If you get her to marry you, I’ll even wear heels,” she said lightly.

“I’m gonna remember that,” he said gleefully. “And thanks, Rusty. Love you, girl.”

She leaned back, resting her head against the rock, focusing on the shimmering surface of the water as tears carved harsh lines down the sides of her face.

“Love you too,” she choked out. “Gotta go. Be happy, Joe.”

CHAPTER 29

MARLENE was up at her usual hour to shower before waking Frank and leaving him to use the bathroom while she prepared breakfast. She sighed as she made her way into the kitchen. The house all but groaned under the weight of so much pain and sadness. Her girls were hurting, and it broke Marlene’s heart that she couldn’t fix things and make everything all right.

She walked by the counter to open the fridge when she saw an envelope with her name on it. Frowning, she retraced her steps and picked it up, feeling that it was fairly thin. She studied the handwriting, noting that it was awfully similar to Rusty’s. But why would Rusty leave an envelope for her?

With shaking hands, she tore open the seal and pulled a single folded sheet of paper out. As she read the first few lines, her vision blurred with tears and she sank heavily down onto one of the stools.

Dear Mom,

I have so much to thank you for that it would take an entire ream of paper and an entire day to list everything, so I’ll thank you for the single most important thing you and Dad ever gave me. Love. I never knew what love was, what it felt like, and I never loved anyone until you let me into your lives. You gave a young, vulnerable, teenaged girl something more valuable than all the money in the world. You gave me a sense of value. Of self-worth. The knowledge that I could have and deserved better. You believed in me when nobody else did. I’ll never forget that. You saved my life. I hope you know that. I wouldn’t be who I am and what I am today if it weren’t for you.

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