Brighter Than the SunBy: Maya Banks
ZOE. Your name is Zoe Kildare now.
Zoe mentally cautioned herself while she paced back and forth, her agitation only increasing as she stopped to check her watch. Where was she? Rusty should have been here by now. Zoe’s mind raced with a number of gruesome possibilities. What if she’d been found out? What if she’d led Rusty straight into harm’s way?
The door burst open and she barely managed to suppress her surprised cry of fright. She sagged with relief when her college friend Rusty Kelly hurried through carrying a stack of folders and loose papers.
Rusty dropped the load onto the coffee table and pulled Zoe into a fierce hug. The two women held on to each other for a long moment before Rusty finally pulled away, her gaze sweeping up and down Zoe as if assessing her condition.
“Are you okay?” Rusty asked anxiously.
Zoe swallowed and nodded though tears pricked her eyelids.
Rusty gave her another bone-crushing hug, and Zoe held on to her friend just as tightly. Then Rusty guided her to the nearby couch and urged her down, sitting diagonal to her and gathering her hands in her firm grip.
“Did anyone follow you? Did you see anything out of the ordinary or get a sense that anyone was watching you?” Rusty asked urgently.
Zoe shook her head. “No, I don’t think so. I was careful. I did everything you told me. I made it appear as though I was heading west to California.”
Rusty nodded approvingly. “That’s good, but we can’t afford to waste any time nor can we ever adopt a false sense of security. You went to college here and it’s a city you’re familiar with, so it stands to reason this is a logical place you’d go.”
“I can’t stay here,” Zoe choked out.
“No, you can’t,” Rusty said calmly. “I need you to answer some questions for me, Stel—I mean Zoe. Damn it. We can’t afford to slip. You’ve got to be aware and on your toes at all times. You cannot react to your real name. You can’t flinch, show any awareness. You have to act as though you assume whoever is using it is calling someone else’s name. And you absolutely have to be tuned in to your alias and behave as if it’s the name you were born with.”
Zoe nodded, clasping Rusty’s hands more fiercely. Her heart felt as though it were going to beat right out of her chest. Not a minute had passed since overhearing Sebastian’s—or whoever the hell he was—conversation six days ago that fear hadn’t been a living, breathing constant for her. Her entire life had been upended the day she’d been crushed and had learned what a gullible, naïve fool she’d been. Had always been.
“Zoe is a name I’m intimately familiar with,” she admitted, lowering her eyes in embarrassment. “When I was a child, I felt so isolated . . . so alone that I made up an imaginary friend. Zoe. Zoe Kildare. I had no other friends. I was a stranger in my own home. My father barely acknowledged my presence.”
She broke off, tears threatening once more. Damn it. She’d shed no more tears over her father or a bastard like Sebastian. She’d never mattered to anyone in her life, so why should she have believed for a moment that she would matter to the man who became her lover? A man whom she’d overheard laughing and saying what a chore it was to have to fuck a loser like her. Just the memory had her cringing with humiliation.
“Oh honey,” Rusty said, her own eyes going bright with tears.
Zoe shook her head, firming her lips. “They aren’t worth your tears or mine. Now, what questions did you have for me?”
Rusty sighed but returned to the matter at hand. “Did you ever at any time mention me, my name, anything about me, to Sebastian, your father or anyone? Think hard, Zoe. This is important.”
Zoe frowned as she thought back. But no. She hadn’t wanted to risk Rusty in any way—Rusty was her first and only true friend. The only person in her entire life who was real and loyal. She shook her head in response to the question.
“Are you one hundred percent certain?” Rusty persisted.
“I wasn’t exactly on speaking terms with my father,” Zoe said bitterly. “And when I was with Sebastian we didn’t talk about my life outside of our ‘relationship.’ I was too worried he would find out about me . . . who I was . . . and that he’d hate me, never knowing he knew all along.”