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The darkest hour, p.28
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       The Darkest Hour, p.28

         Part #1 of KGI series by Maya Banks
 
Page 28

 

  Rusty frowned unhappily. She’d fucked up this time. And the pisser was she hadn’t meant to. They’d never believe her, though. They’d want her out on her ass because nobody would allow anything to upset poor, pitiful Rachel.

  She should start packing, but then she hadn’t come here with anything. Everything she owned had been bought by Marlene and it just didn’t feel right to take it.

  The knot grew bigger in her stomach. Stupid, stupid, stupid. It wasn’t the first time she’d been taken in by a friendly face. When was she going to learn that no one was ever nice to her without an ulterior motive? Except Marlene. Rusty hadn’t yet figured out any reason the woman had been so nice to her other than that she wanted to.

  She liked the Kelly brothers because they didn’t pretend. They didn’t like her, they didn’t approve of her, and they didn’t make a secret of it. She could take that kind of bluntness. Truth was, she wasn’t that crazy about any of them either even if she did admire them in a twisted sort of way.

  She admired all the Kellys. They were fiercely loyal to each other. She wanted that. Wanted to be part of something that big and larger than life.

  “Dream on,” she muttered. After today she’d be back on the street trying to figure out where her next meal was going to come from.

  Heavy footsteps on the stairs made her flinch. She squeezed her hands harder, determined not to let anyone see their betraying tremble.

  No knock. No doubt she’d lost any privileges she may have earned in this house. The door swung open, and Nathan stood there, his expression solemn. Well at least his eyes weren’t sparking hatred. She knew she’d run into that just as soon as she faced Rachel’s little protective brigade.

  “Mom wants to see you downstairs, Rusty. ”

  She flashed a resentful glare in his direction. “Don’t you mean your brothers want to yell at me?”

  Nathan leaned against the door frame and studied her with that disturbing, probing stare that told her he saw way too much. “You don’t think they have reason?”

  She started to pop off some smart-ass remark, but she closed her mouth. She had no defense, and they both knew it. With a resigned sigh, she rose from her perch on the bed. Better to just get it over with.

  “Take me down to face the firing squad,” she muttered.

  Worse than Nathan taking her to task, he remained silent. He just looked at her with those eyes that saw too much. She’d much rather he snarl at her or tell her what a fuckup she was.

  Injecting steel in her suddenly jellified spine, she went stiffly down the stairs, dreading the bottom with every step. They were all gathered in the living room. Just great.

  She tromped down the steps, not looking at anyone. Still, she could feel their heated stares, feel the anger coming off them in waves. Worse, she could sense the deep disappointment coming from Marlene’s direction.

  She chanced a look at Frank, and her heart sank when she saw not anger, but sadness.

  Forgoing a seat near any of them, she perched on the brick hearth instead. She could hear the intake of breath as they prepared to launch into a diatribe about how evil she was.

  “Look,” she blurted. “I didn’t mean to do it. I know you all hate me. I get it. I fucked up. ”

  “Watch your mouth, young lady,” Marlene said in her snippy motherly tone that Rusty loved so much. Maybe because her own mother had never spoken to her in such a way. Like a real mom.

  “I just want to know why you did it,” Ethan demanded.

  Rusty glanced up and wished she hadn’t. Ethan stood between Sam and Garrett, and they all scared the bejesus out of her. They were pissed. Okay, she got that. They even had the right to be.

  Her throat swelled and she swallowed angrily. Damn if they’d make her cry. No one could make her cry. Not her crazy-ass mother. Not her mother’s stupid husband who called himself Rusty’s stepfather. They could all go straight to hell.

  Surprisingly, Nathan came to her rescue.

  “Cut the interrogation,” he said to his brothers. “Let her tell us what happened. You’ve already tried and convicted her. ” Then he turned to Rusty. “Okay, let’s hear it. ”

  Something in his expression made her want to explain. It made her want to fight for her place in this family where before she’d been prepared to say fuck you all and hit the road again. She didn’t have any experience with seeing it when people looked at her, but she could swear it was . . . trust.

  She glanced over to where Marlene and Frank sat. Marlene’s face was drawn into a pained expression. Shit, it looked like she’d been crying. Frank . . . he just looked disappointed. Rusty would rather stick an ice pick through her eye than put that look on his face.

  Then she turned back to Ethan, Sam and Garrett, and she finally realized why she hated them so much. They were pissed beyond reason because Rusty had done something that hurt Rachel. Rachel, Rachel, Rachel. Rusty didn’t hate her, but she envied her so much it was like poison in her blood. She wanted someone to feel as strongly about her. She wanted brothers—a family—to love her and want to protect her from all the bad shit in the world. Just like what they were doing for Rachel. Rachel who’d been through hell and didn’t deserve any of Rusty’s vitriol.

  “I just wanted to be . . . one of you,” she choked out.

  A tear rolled down her cheek, and she slapped the back of her hand against it, mortified that anyone would see her crying like a baby.

  Sam’s eyes flickered, and his arms lowered from their position over his chest.

  “Care to explain that? How does you doing a hatchet job on Rachel and shoving KGI into the spotlight make us believe you’d want to be part of this family?”

  “I didn’t know he was a reporter,” she said miserably. “He was at the party so I assumed he was someone you all knew or trusted. He was nice and funny and he seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say. He wanted to talk to a member of the family and it felt so good, for just a minute, to pretend that I was. ”

  “Oh, honey,” Marlene whispered.

  “But why would you say those things about Rachel?” Ethan demanded. “Do you have any idea what this will do to her when she sees it? She’s at the therapist this morning, Rusty. She’s there because she’s about to break. She has nightmares. She’s afraid she’s losing her sanity, and her family is the one safe harbor she should have above all else. Why would you try to ruin that?”

  Rusty hung her head, no longer trying to hide the hot tears that splashed onto her hands.

  “I don’t hate her. I didn’t mean to hurt her, I swear. It just all came out. I envied the way everyone seems to rally around her. I was afraid now that she’s back that Marlene wouldn’t want me to stay anymore. I thought maybe I was some lame replacement for Rachel. ”

  “Rusty. ”

  She whipped her head around at Frank’s gravelly voice. Even the others stopped whatever it was they were going to say. It was obvious they respected their father. They loved him and he held sway over his sons.

  “Come here,” he directed as he shoved forward in his recliner.

  On trembling legs she pushed up from the hearth and took the few steps to where he sat. Oh God, if he denounced her in front of everyone, it would kill her.

  She couldn’t look at him. Couldn’t stand to see the judgment in his eyes.

  Instead he took her hand in his much larger one, one that was wrinkled and weathered by age. He squeezed comfortingly, and her astonished gaze swung to meet his.

  “You were never a replacement for Rachel. Marlene, bless her heart, has decreed that you’re part of the Kelly clan. God help you. That means for better or worse you’re family. Now, not everyone has to like it. I can’t shield you from that. You have to earn your stripes in this family. You don’t automatically get respect or privilege. You earn it. ”

  Her mouth fell open. She had no response, no defense for the acceptance and forgiveness she saw in his eyes. She didn’
t deserve it, but she wanted it. Oh God, she wanted it so badly she could taste it.

  She heard a strangled protest behind her, but a disapproving look from Frank silenced it immediately.

  “You owe Rachel an apology,” he said sternly. “You also owe my boys an apology for bandying their business about. ”

  “Y-yes, sir. ”

  He nodded approvingly. Then his gaze softened until the lines at the corners of his eyes wrinkled and spread out.

  “This won’t be the last time you screw up. Just don’t make a habit of it. Around here, we take responsibility for our mistakes. We don’t hide from them. Understand?”

  “Yes, sir,” she said again, stronger this time.

  CHAPTER 28

  RACHEL stumbled out of the therapist’s office, inhaling the smell of new paint, new drywall. The entire neat little building was sparkly new. It was a gorgeous office. The kind you didn’t mind sitting in while waiting forever for your appointment. Only she couldn’t wait to get out. The walls were closing in around her and so was her panic.

  “Rachel. ”

  The therapist’s voice slithered like barbwire over her nerves. Kate . . . Kate Waldruff. Or something like that. Perfectly nice. Understanding. Professional. Appropriately sympathetic. It was all Rachel could do not to childishly put her hands over her ears.

  Instead she stopped and turned around to face the worried expression of the therapist. Rachel’s heart thudded so painfully against her breast that she put one palm over her chest as if to hold it in.

  “I wish you’d let me call someone for you at least. You’re upset. ”

  Rachel tried to smile. “I’m okay. Really. I just want to go home. Thank you for trying to help. ”

  Kate sighed. “I can’t work miracles in one session, Rachel. Give it some thought. Call me back when you’re ready. I’ll fit you in no matter what. ”

  Rachel nodded and fled the sterile office building, out into the bright sunlight that nearly blinded her. She got into Ethan’s SUV before she gave in to the horrible itching.

  Her flesh felt alive. Ants. Bugs. Thousands of them. They’d invaded her bloodstream, and there was only one thing she knew that would make them go away.

  She licked her lips. Right now she’d give anything for a needle. Anything at all. It shamed her, but desperation made up for a lot of shame.

  The session had sliced her open. Made her feel so bare and vulnerable and helpless. God, she hated the helplessness above all else. Intellectually she knew, she knew that one session wasn’t a cure-all. But somehow she’d hoped that by some miracle the therapist could listen to her rattle on about absolutely nothing and then offer a pat solution. Then she could go home, get on with her life and live happily ever after.

  Need, harsh and edgy, rose until she thought she might go mad with it. She gripped the steering wheel and stared over the parking lot to the small grocery store across the highway. There was a teenage boy doing stunts on his skateboard.

  Would he know how to score what she so desperately needed? How did she even broach such a subject. Hey, kid, know where I can get drugs?

  Her door was open and her legs swung down so her feet met the pavement before she realized what she was doing. She stood, shielded by the window, staring in horror at the boy. Just a kid. Someone she had been perfectly willing to ask to break the law.

  She pressed a fist to her mouth to stifle the sob working from the depths of her soul. What was she thinking? Had she honestly gotten out of the truck with the intention of buying drugs?

  She’d like to tell herself no way in hell, but she knew differently. If he was closer, if she had more courage, if she wasn’t afraid of ruining what was left of her life, she’d be over there in a heartbeat, braving everything for temporary relief from the clawing pain so deep she might never be able to assuage it.

  Before she could do something incredibly stupid, she threw herself back into the truck and started the ignition. With jerky movements, she thrust the truck into gear and roared out of the parking lot and onto the highway toward home.

  She shook from head to toe, her hands rattling against the steering wheel. Tears streamed from her eyes until she could barely make out the road in front of her.

  Had her life come to this? Had she finally come home—a place she’d convinced herself didn’t really exist in those long, harrowing days in captivity—only to piss away any chance she had of a normal life?

  What was it about her that she was trying to destroy her life? She was doing her best to think the worst of her marriage, of a man who’d risked everything for her. She had a family who loved her and supported her unconditionally, and she was prepared to ruin not only her life, but the life of some kid she didn’t even know, and to destroy the people who loved her.

  Maybe she was as crazy as she secretly feared. Maybe the bastards who’d held her had destroyed her after all.

  She felt completely and utterly broken.

  She had no idea of the miles she’d traveled, only that she was driving too fast and too recklessly. Something deep within crumbled and she felt precariously light. The sound of a horn blaring wrenched her from her desolation long enough for her to swerve back into her lane.

 
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