Brighter Than the Sun Page 90

He propelled her forward and they walked back down the aisle, smiling at the offered congratulations and the obvious joy shared by everyone in attendance. When they got to the vestibule, Joe hurriedly pulled her into another long, breathless kiss. He reluctantly pulled back to see her eyes laughing up at him.

“Well, I only have a few seconds before they follow us,” he grumbled. “It’s not a crime to take every opportunity to kiss your wife on your wedding day.”

She leaned up and brushed her mouth across his. “Indeed not,” she murmured.

Then the doors opened as attendees began flooding out of the sanctuary. They stood and smiled until those not in the wedding party had exited, heading toward Marlene and Frank’s house where the reception would be held. Sean, however, stood in the vestibule, his expression brooding as he stared into the church.

“Come on,” Zoe whispered, tugging at Joe’s hand. “We have to take pictures.”

Joe sent Sean a curious look as he and Zoe walked by, wondering what was up and why he looked as though he were about to explode. Then something Zoe had said the night he’d climbed through her window registered, and the veritable lightbulb went off.

“Holy shit!” he whispered in Zoe’s ear as they walked through the doors and down the aisle. “Rusty and Sean?”

Zoe halted in midstep and turned, looking up at Joe, her expression pleading. “Please, Joe, you can’t say anything to anyone. I’ll explain later. I promise. But you can’t say anything or you’ll just make things worse for Rusty, and they’re already bad enough.”

“Is he why she left?” he asked harshly.

He had the sudden urge to walk back through the doors and beat the shit out of the man responsible for causing his sister so much pain that she’d left her own home, but Zoe was silently begging him to let it go, and he wasn’t about to do anything to mar her wedding day.

“I’ll tell you later,” she hissed.

He leaned down and kissed her so the others would think that was the reason for their hesitation.

“Later,” he agreed. “And I’ll want to know if I need to beat the county sheriff’s ass when it’s over.”

Zoe rolled her eyes and shook her head. Then she let go of his hand and hurried to where Rusty was being hugged and mauled by all his brothers. She sent him another pleading look and this time he understood that she wanted him to shield Rusty from inquisition from his five brothers.

Man, was he going to get shit for throwing in with the women, but hell, ask him if he gave a fuck.

He waded into the middle of his brothers and wrapped Rusty up in a huge bear hug as if he was thrilled she was here. And he was. But he maneuvered her away from the others, amid questions being asked by Sam and Donovan.

Still hugging her, he turned so his mouth was not visible to his brothers and whispered in her ear, “Don’t worry, sweetheart. Stick close to me and Zoe. We’ll keep the heat off you. And just a heads-up, Sean is in the vestibule and he’s got a massive brood going on.”

Rusty pulled away, her desperate tears diminishing as surprise and gratitude replaced them. “Thank you,” she said in a ragged voice.

Joe tugged gently at her hair. “You look beautiful in that dress and heels by the way. I kept my end of the bargain. I’m glad to see you did as well.”

She laughed and then impulsively hugged him, squeezing the breath out of him. “I miss you,” she whispered.

“Miss you too, baby girl. I know you’re not ready to come home yet, but remember one thing for me, will you? This will always be your home, and when you are ready, we’ll be waiting for you with open arms.”

“Damn it, don’t you dare make me cry in front of everyone,” she said fiercely.

The photographer interrupted and for the next hour, there was no time for questions as the poses were run through, groups were formed and dozens and dozens of photos were taken.

Toward the end, Zoe pulled Rusty to her side and then turned to the photographer, asking him something in a voice too low to be heard by anyone. Then she and Rusty walked to the steps that led to the platform where the pulpit, baptismal and choir section were situated and turned to face the back of the church while the photographer issued instructions.

But for the last picture, Zoe held up her hand to the photographer and said, “One more.”

Then she wrapped her arms around Rusty’s waist, turning them both outward to face forward and she pressed her cheek to Rusty’s. Rusty was visibly emotional as she wrapped her arms around Zoe, so the two were connected, cheek to cheek, and smiling so big that the faces of everyone watching softened.

Zoe turned and kissed Rusty’s cheek and the photographer quickly snapped a shot before the two separated. Zoe held Rusty’s hands in front of her, and Joe knew this was her silent good-bye. Sadness gripped him even in his happiest hour. He hated the idea of Rusty being so unhappy, and he knew that Zoe would be sad in the coming days, but he would be right by her side to put a smile on her face every time.

He walked over, ready to lend his support in any way possible. He glanced between the two women. “What do I need to do?” he asked in a low voice.

Zoe smiled at him, the love in her eyes glowing like the brightest star in the night sky.

“Tell everyone we’re done here and are heading to the reception, then herd everyone out front, and if they ask, tell them I wanted a moment alone with Rusty.”

Rusty squeezed Joe’s hand, her face contorting to keep her emotions at bay.

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