Brighter Than the Sun(117)

By: Maya Banks

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.

“Just stay in touch, honey,” he said quietly. “And don’t be a stranger. If you ever need anything, I’m just a phone call away. I’ll come, no questions asked.”

“That means more to me than you’ll ever know,” she said. She squared her shoulders. “Okay, let’s do this.”

Joe sauntered back toward the group and announced that it was time to head to the reception. He motioned toward the front as he began moving everyone in that direction. Donovan frowned and glanced back at Rusty, but Joe nudged him.

“Zoe asked for a moment alone with her. I told her we’d wait out front.”

Seemingly appeased, Donovan looked back one more time and then followed the rest out of the church.

Zoe waited until the doors closed and then she turned back to Rusty, swallowing several times in an effort to clear her throat.

“It means the world that you came and stood for me.”

Rusty smiled. “I’ll always stand for you, sister. And hey, don’t worry about me, okay? I’m fine. Really. And I’m making it on my own. It’s been . . . liberating in a way.”

“Just be careful and remember I love you.”

Rusty leaned in to hug her. “Love you too. Now go on. Your husband is waiting for you and you have a kick-ass honeymoon to go on.”

“Call me soon?”

“I will. After you get back from your honeymoon.”

Rusty glanced nervously toward the front and Zoe turned her toward the back. “Hurry before Sean loses his patience and barges in anyway.”