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, na•ve 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."
Rusty looked relieved and then smiled, her eyes lighting up with triumph. "I don't want you to worry. I have the perfect plan."
Zoe looked at her in confusion, but Rusty went over and gathered the stack of folders she'd carried in with her. She began placing items in front of a stunned Zoe.
"First, here's your driver's license. You're from Chicago, by the way. Here's your birth certificate, passport and Social Security card. Oh, and credit cards with an already well-established credit history. You have a penchant for books and wine, judging by the purchases. And clothes. I made you a total clothes and shoe whore. You even have Facebook and Twitter accounts that date back seven years-do you have any idea how long it took me to make up and post inane details of your life as well as establish fake friends for you? Oh, and you also have a solid purchase history with Amazon, including a Kindle and plenty of e-books. You're a devoted fan of cookbooks, romance and science fiction."
Zoe looked at her in utter bewilderment. Then she latched on to one of the last things Rusty said. "Cookbooks?" She broke into hysterical laughter. "I can't even boil water!"
Rusty shrugged. "Details. Not like you'll have to prove your culinary prowess, and it was all I could come up with on such short notice."
Zoe's jaw gaped in awe. "Rusty, how on earth did you accomplish all this? Isn't this . . . illegal?"
Rusty didn't look overly concerned. "What can I say? I have mad tech and hacking skills. I impressed even myself this time."
"I have no idea what to say. This is . . ."
Rusty gave her a cheeky grin. "Brilliant? Genius?" She made a show of blowing on her nails, a devilish gleam in her eyes. "Oh, and by the way, after you got your BA, you also graduated with an MBA from DePaul University. I didn't want any similarities to your past reality."
"I think I'm kind of afraid of you right now," Zoe said, though some of the panic that had been ever present since hearing of her intended fate from her scumbag ex-lover eased, and for the first time she began to feel . . . hope.
Rusty rolled her eyes. "It's just as well you can't tell anyone what I've done because it's not like my overbearing brothers would ever believe I was more tech savvy than my geek-god brother, Donovan. Not to mention a certain asshole sheriff who's the bane of my existence and hasn't missed any opportunity to demean and insult me over the years but then inexplicably decided to give me the most delicious kiss of my life. Not that there've been that many."
Zoe winced in sympathy. She was the only person Rusty had confided in about her love/hate relationship with Sean Cameron, the sheriff of the county she lived in.
"Apparently we both suck when it comes to men," she said lamely.
"No, sister. We don't suck. They do," Rusty said emphatically.
"I'll drink to that," she muttered.
Rusty leaned forward and squeezed her hands, sympathy brimming in her eyes. "He's an asshole, Zoe. And not worth your time or regret. You did nothing wrong. He played you. That's on him. Not you."
"Doesn't make me any less stupid," Zoe muttered.
"Well, join the crowd. I should have knocked Sean's teeth out when he pulled that stunt and especially since he apologized and said it never should have happened. But noooo. I stood there like a moron. God, I'm mortified to this day and avoid him at all costs."
"So you said you had the perfect plan," Zoe said, purposely turning the subject away from what was clearly a painful, embarrassing memory for Rusty.
Rusty's eyes lit up as she smiled. "I have the perfect plan. You're going to come home with me and stay for a while. You know. A friend I met at a conference while in college and kept in touch with. Marlene and Frank will love you and take you in just like family."
Zoe's expression became troubled. "That's not a good idea, Rusty. I don't want you or your family exposed to any danger. You've already risked far too much."
To Zoe's surprise, Rusty laughed. "I realize we've both kept our secrets during our friendship-you keeping the fact your father is involved in organized crime, and me? Well, let's just say that the very safest place for you to stay until we figure out a better plan or nail Sebastian's sorry ass to the wall is with my family. He doesn't stand a chance against my brothers, not to mention all the people who work for them."
Zoe's eyebrows went up in question.
Rusty held up fingers as she ticked off her points. "Apart from the fact that the asshole sheriff is exceedingly protective of our family and is an adopted family member much like myself, my brothers kick asses for a living. They're all ex-military and someone would be a fool to ever cross them in any way, and once you come home with me as a friend? Well, consider yourself a member of the Kelly clan. Their motto is 'no one fucks with the Kellys,' and trust me, sister, that isn't just an idle boast."
"What on earth do they do? I mean, apart from kicking asses for a living and being ex-military."
"They run an organization that takes a wide range of assignments from personal protection to hostage retrieval to messy jobs the government doesn't want to soil their hands on but don't mind throwing KGI under the bus for in order to achieve their purpose. They've done fugitive recovery, rescue missions, obliterated terrorist organizations, and that's when they aren't meeting their significant others while on a mission."
Zoe studied her for a long moment. "You're not joking, are you?"
Rusty shook her head. "Nope. When I say they are the ultimate badasses, I am not in the least bit exaggerating. Wait until you meet them!"
"Uh, maybe that's not a good idea," Zoe mumbled. "I'd feel better staying to myself as much as possible."
Rusty shrugged. "If you come home with me, it's inevitable you'll meet them at some point. Just be yourself and act casual. If you start acting all weird and jumpy then they're going to get suspicious, and that's the last thing we want."
"So you aren't going to tell them about . . . me? I mean, the truth?"
Rusty's eyes grew earnest. "I would never betray your confidence, Zoe. You're my friend, and as far as they're concerned, we're friends who met in college and you're visiting me while we decide what to do with our degrees and futures. The less they know, the better. In fact, no one but the two of us ever needs to know the truth. That's how fuckups happen. I'm going to keep you alive no matter what it takes. I won't let that asshole get his hands on you."
Zoe took a deep breath. "So when do we leave then?"
"We're almost there," Rusty said cheerfully as they crossed the bridge over Kentucky Lake.
"It's beautiful here," Zoe breathed. "It seems so quiet and peaceful. No hustle and bustle of a big city. Are the people here nice?"
Rusty wrinkled her nose. "For the most part. I mean, like any small town we have our share of nosy busybodies whose sole ambition in life is to make others miserable, but the Kellys are very respected in this area. Frank owns a hardware store in Dover, and as I told you, all six of his and Marlene's sons served in various branches of the military. I was on the other side of the fence growing up. White trash. Troublemaker. Loser. Pick your poison. My life changed when I broke into Frank and Marlene's house because I was starving and my asshole stepfather didn't give a shit about anything except where to score his next hit. He wasn't choosy. Alcohol, drugs, whatever would get him hammered the fastest. Taking care of a stepdaughter dumped on him by his slut of a wife wasn't exactly a priority. I wouldn't have ever stayed the first night with him, but I had nowhere else to go and I was too young at the time to pull off acting older than I was, so I would have just gotten hauled into the foster care system. At least my stepfather was the devil I knew and I learned to get around him." She grimaced. "Most of the time."
"God, Rusty. My life wasn't exactly wonderful, but I was never abused and I never went without. My father saw to it that I had the best of everything. Most likely so I wouldn't be more of an embarrassment to him than I already was. I mean, it was obvious that my own mother had no use for me. She left and couldn't be bothered to take her daughter with her."
Rusty scowled. "I don't see much of a difference in our situations. We were both unwanted, and that does a number on a child, as we can both attest to."
"That's true," Zoe admitted.
"I was so lucky," Rusty said, her features going soft, her eyes lighting with love and pride. "Marlene and Frank are the very best kind of people. Marlene took me in without question, even confronting my asshole stepfather and then permanently removing me from his custody. They even adopted me after I turned eighteen because they wanted me to know they truly did consider me a part of the family. Their daughter."
"They sound wonderful," Zoe said wistfully.
"Wait until you meet them," Rusty said, smiling. "I give it a day before Marlene claims you as family. My brothers give her shit about her propensity for collecting 'strays.' Strays being all the people she's adopted into the family over the years. It's impossible not to love her and Frank."
"They sound too good to be true," Zoe admitted.
"They're the real deal. You'll see soon enough."
Zoe twirled the ends of her long hair nervously through her fingers and glanced at her reflection in the side-view mirror.
Copyright © 2017 by Maya Banks. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.