Brighter Than the Sun Page 85

Joe leaned down, still cupping her face in his palm, and silenced her with a kiss. He infused the wealth of his love for her, holding her with the most tender of touches, as though she were the most precious person in the world. In his world, she was. Absolutely. He’d never been more certain of anything in his life.

“You keep referring to the kind of people I am and the kind of people you are,” he said gently. “Let me ask you something, baby. What do you think of Sam’s wife, Sophie?”

Zoe’s brow furrowed in obvious confusion. “She’s wonderful and so nice and beautiful. Why would you ask such a question?”

“What about Garrett’s wife, Sarah?”

“Joe, why are you asking me if I like your sisters-in-law? They’re good. They’re everything I’m not.”

“And Eve, Donovan’s wife?” he persisted.

She shook her head in confusion. Unable to contain himself a second longer, he pulled her into his arms, feeling the rapid beat of her pulse against his own.

“I think there are some things you need to know about some of my brothers’ wives. Then maybe you’ll finally get what I’m trying to make you understand.”

She frowned again as she waited for what it was he had to say.

“Sophie’s father, when he was still alive, was the second or third—I forget where exactly he ranked—most wanted man by the CIA.” He watched as she processed that information, her eyes widening in surprise. “And Sarah? Her half brother was also someone the U.S. wanted to take down very badly, and he shot Garrett when Garrett was still in the Marines. In fact, Garrett and Sarah met because at the time, Garrett was using her to get to her brother and bring him down for good. And then there’s Eve’s father. He was an abusive pedophile, a complete monster who murdered Eve’s mother and was making creepy-as-fuck overtures toward Eve’s half sister, who at the time was only four years old. For that matter, neither one of Rusty’s biological parents were worth a damn, and I know you don’t think she’s tainted or unworthy and that you love her as much as she loves you.”

Zoe stared at him in utter bewilderment, her expressive eyes flashing a rapid-fire exchange of hope versus defeat. Much the same war he’d been waging since the day she’d been taken from him.

“But most of all, I love you,” Joe said, emphasizing each word. “I want forever with you and no one else. I don’t give a shit who and what your mother and father were. You’re who I care about. You’re who I love, and I’ll never love anyone else. You’re who I want to marry and have children with.”

He cupped her cheeks with both hands, framing her beautiful face with his palms as he stared down into her eyes. “Love me back,” he whispered. “Take a chance with me—on me. I won’t let you down, Zoe. I’ll never let you down. I’ll spend the rest of my life loving you if you’ll let me.”

She reached up and curled her fingers around his wrists and held on as she bowed her head in his grasp. He felt the dampness of her tears against his thumbs and he ducked down so he could meet her gaze once more.

“Hey, what’s this?” he asked softly.

“I love you too,” she said on a sob. “I love you so much. I want forever too. I want it more than anything. I’m so tired of dreaming, Joe. Just once I want something real that’s mine. You.”

Sweet relief swept through him with so much power that it momentarily weakened him. He closed his eyes and then pressed his mouth to the top of her head.

“Thank God,” he whispered. “Thank God.”

She slid her hands up his arms and over his shoulders, wrapping her slender arms around him. He caught her to him and held on tightly, burying his face in her hair, savoring holding everything that was important to him in his arms.

“I want to be better than my parents were,” she said tearfully. “I want my children not to just feel loved but for them to know they’re loved. And I want their father to be you.”

He smiled, tugging her hair gently, pulling her away so that their noses nearly touched.

“It’s a damn good thing, honey, because I wouldn’t be very tolerant of another man fathering your children.”

He trailed a finger down the bruise on her right cheek and then traced the split in the corner of her mouth that was still red and tender looking.

“How are you doing?” he asked quietly. “I’m so goddamn sorry I left you unprotected. It’ll never happen again, baby. I’m starting construction on our house inside the compound just as soon as you pick out the plan you want. And until it’s finished, when I’m not around, you’ll be inside the compound where I know you’ll always be safe.”

“It was my fault—”

He pressed his finger over the uninjured side of her mouth. “Shhh. It was not your fault, and I don’t want you saying it. Ever. Deal?”

“Only if you never apologize to me again,” she said, tilting her chin upward in defiance.

He chuckled and pressed his lips to hers again, eager to taste her, to glory in the simple act of finding the woman he’d spend the rest of his life with and to be so blessed as to have her love him back.

“Only if you marry me as soon as it can be arranged,” he challenged in a husky tone.

Her eyes went glossy again as she stared silently into his. Then sadness replaced her earlier joy.

“What’s wrong, baby?”

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