“I don’t know,” Donovan admitted. “That’s why I wanted you to go with me to check on her. I’d say she’s been sick several days. Their living conditions are deplorable. They don’t have enough to eat. I took groceries over today, but their roof—if you can even call it that—leaks in a hundred different places, and with all the rain we had last week, I doubt that helped Cammie’s condition any.”
Maren grimaced, her eyes shining with sympathy and concern. “Of course I’ll go.”
“I’ll go with you,” Steele said.
Donovan shook his head. “No way, Steele. I know it chaps your control-freak ass to stand down on this one, but if you show up, I guarantee we won’t get anywhere near them. Not to mention they’ll likely bolt. When I say Eve’s trying to keep it together, I mean trying, as in barely managing it. She was spooked enough with just me there. You show up?”
“He’s right,” Maren said, looking pointedly in her husband’s direction. “You’ll scare the poor woman witless.”
“Maren is in no danger,” Donovan said. “The only people who live there are Eve, Travis and Cammie. Travis is a good kid. Shouldering way too much responsibility, but you have nothing to fear. I’ll be with Maren the entire time. No way I would let her go into a situation where I wasn’t absolutely certain she’d be safe.”
Steele’s lips thinned, but he didn’t argue the point.
“Besides, I’ll need you to keep Olivia,” Maren said in amusement.
Steele’s gaze automatically fell over his daughter, and his expression softened. His face lost the hard lines that seemed permanently etched in his skin, and his eyes lightened with love.
“I’m trusting you with my life,” Steele said as he lifted his gaze back to Donovan.
They were words echoed from months before when Donovan had pulled Maren from the helicopter wreckage while Steele had waited, helplessly pinned.
“I know,” Donovan said quietly. “I’ll take care of her. I promise.”
Steele nodded and then glanced in Maren’s direction. “You ready? Little bit is about ready for her nap.”
Maren laughed. “Which means she’ll eat on the way home first.” She shook her head. “I swear this kid eats more than Steele does.”
“What time do you want her here tomorrow?” Steele asked as he rose, cradling his daughter in the crook of his arm. “I’ll bring her here and wait for y’all to get back.”
Maren rolled her eyes. “Because heaven forbid I drive myself.”
Steele shrugged. “I need to talk to Sam.”
Maren nodded, a quick look exchanged by the couple. Donovan lifted an eyebrow.
“Yeah. I know you’ve had my team, Van, and they couldn’t be in better hands, but I’m ready to get back in. Maren and I have talked about it and it’s time. Her practice is established and she’s going to be taking the patient load back on, and it’s time for me to get back to my team before they forget who they belong to.”
Donovan chuckled. “As if that’s going to happen. I’ll miss them. It’s been great working with them over the past several months. But I know they’ll be glad to get their team leader back.”
Donovan walked out to Steele’s SUV with them. Steele turned back to Donovan, his expression serious.
“Give Sam a heads-up on the weather, okay? It’s supposed to get bad. Don’t know if he’s had an eye to the forecast or not.”
Donovan frowned. “Will do. Y’all be careful too.”
Maren rolled her eyes. “Oh, we’ll be spending the night in the basement, no doubt. After the baby was born, Steele set up a bedroom down there, and if there’s so much as a chance of severe storms, that’s where we sleep.”
Steele grunted. “Can’t be too careful. Not much of a duck-and-run kind of guy.”
“Got a point,” Donovan said. “See y’all in the morning.”
Donovan watched as they drove away and then glanced across the way to where his brothers’ homes were. They were all separated by several acres and Nathan’s was even farther away, nestled on a bluff overlooking the lake. Things were quiet. No current mission. They weren’t even training today.
The new team had trained extensively over the last several months and Sam had given them all time off, a precursor to setting them loose on their own.
Skylar and Edge had moved closer to the compound while Swanny still lived with Joe in Sam’s old cabin a short distance away. Skylar and Edge spent a lot of time at Joe and Swanny’s place. It was good for them to bond. Build camaraderie and form the foundation of a solid team.
Complete immersion. They’d spent every day together for the last few months, but now it was time to give them a break before parceling out missions to the new team and trusting them to get it done.
It was hard for Donovan. He’d admit that. He had complete faith in all the teams, but it didn’t mean he didn’t worry. Nathan and Joe were his youngest brothers. They’d always be his younger brothers, which meant his instinct was to protect them whether they needed it or not.
And the truth was that Nathan, Joe and Swanny had all been through hell. Nathan and Swanny more so, but Joe hadn’t had an easy time of it either. Donovan worried from time to time that they weren’t ready.
But he and Sam and Garrett had agreed. They were solid. It was time.
So the next mission would be drawn by Nathan and Joe, with Steele’s team acting as backup. Now that Steele was getting back into action, things would get back to normal and Donovan would step back and not take as active a part in the missions.
Not that he’d ever just stand back and keep out of action. Sam and Garrett had taken more of a managerial position over the last year. They coordinated, did the planning, called in the teams as needed, but they’d stepped back.
They both had wives—and now both were expecting new additions to the family. Their loyalty belonged first to their wives and then KGI. Of all the Kelly brothers, Donovan and Joe were the most involved, although Nathan had stepped up as the new team came together.
Things were going . . . well. He winced, not wanting to jinx them all, but things were definitely quiet on the home front. Everyone was . . . happy. They’d survived setback after setback and had come out the stronger for it.
Even the team leaders were settling down. Donovan had honestly never thought he’d see the day that Rio and Steele would positively ooze domesticity. And yet both men were married, had daughters and were no longer eating, sleeping and drinking all things KGI.
They had all turned their eyes toward him, swearing that he was next. And it wasn’t that he didn’t want that. Of all his brothers, he’d probably been the least resistant to marriage and family. He just hadn’t met the right woman yet.
When he married, he knew that his wife and children would get a hundred and ten percent of his loyalty. And he hadn’t yet met a woman who made him reorder his priorities.
He studied his cell phone a moment and then shoved it back into his pocket, deciding to head over to Sam’s to give him the heads-up on the weather and Steele’s return.
EVE was waiting anxiously just inside the doorway when Travis walked up to the trailer. As soon as he walked in, his gaze caught Eve’s and worry instantly flooded his eyes.
“What’s wrong, Evie?”
She put a hand to his arm in an attempt to reassure him, but she couldn’t very well do that when she knew they had to run. Again.
“We need to leave,” she said in a low voice.
Alarm blazed across his face. “What happened? Did he find us?”
She shook her head. “No. At least I don’t think so. It’s just that . . .” She blew out her breath and then glanced in Cammie’s direction. “We need to go. We’ve gained the notice of too many people here. Donovan was here today and he plans to bring a doctor over to see Cammie tomorrow. I don’t want to risk it.”
Regret dulled Travis’s eyes. “I liked it here. I had hoped . . .”
“I know,” she whispered. “I’d hoped too. It will be better the next place, Trav.”
It was what she’d said every time they’d picked up and fled, and they both knew it was a lie. It would never be better until Walt was no longer a threat.
Travis pulled out several folded bills and handed them over to Eve. “I hope this will help some.”
Eve took the money and then hugged Travis, pulling his lanky frame into her arms. “Thank you, Trav. You are an amazing guy. Donovan brought groceries when he came today. We’ll pack everything we can carry with us. We can’t afford to just leave it behind.”
Travis hesitated and then pulled away, his eyes troubled. “Evie, do you think we’re doing the right thing by leaving? Maybe . . . Maybe they do just want to help.”
“I want to believe that. But I can’t risk you and Cammie by trusting the wrong people. And while they may not be any danger themselves, we risk a lot by exposing ourselves to even more people here. The fewer people we gain the notice of, the safer we are.”
Travis nodded. “I understand. When do you want to leave?”
Eve glanced again to where Cammie was sleeping on the couch. “After it gets dark, I think.”
“There are some pretty dark clouds in the distance,” Travis said. “It’s completely black to the west. Maybe we should wait until whatever storm passes before we take Cammie out.”
Eve nodded her agreement. “Yes. We’ll pack what we can and let Cammie rest for as long as she’s able. After the storm passes, we’ll head out.”
“Have you given any thought to where?” Travis asked quietly.
Helplessness gripped Eve as she contemplated Travis’s question. “Yes and no,” she said honestly. “I thought perhaps we could head south. Or maybe west toward Jackson. With the money you’ve brought in here, it’s possible we could afford bus tickets to the next state at least, but I’ll need to see a schedule and prices. We could take the bus into Mississippi, to a larger town. I think that was our mistake here. We stopped in too small a town not to gain notice. In a larger city, we’d blend in better and maybe even be able to get a cheap hotel. I can pick up a waitressing job and you can stay at home with Cammie. Hopefully she’ll be better by then.”
“And if she’s not?” Travis asked fearfully.
Eve inhaled sharply. She wouldn’t contemplate that possibility. It did no good to borrow trouble.
“She will be,” Eve said in a determined voice.
“Tell me what you want me to do and I’ll get started,” Travis said.
“Get the two suitcases out of the closet and put in as much food as possible from the pantry, anything that’s nonperishable in one and pack what clothing will fit in the other. Cammie doesn’t need much. Just her nightclothes and a pair of shorts and a top. I’ll get one or two changes of clothing to put with whatever you pack of yours.”
Travis nodded and then walked quietly through the living room toward the bedroom where the suitcases were closeted. Eve followed behind and stopped at the rickety dresser and opened the top drawer to where her mother’s jewelry rested in a torn box.
Regret and sorrow tugged at her chest as she faced the inevitable. She hadn’t wanted to part with the only things she, Travis and Cammie had left of their mother. She’d wanted to keep them for Travis and Cammie to have. But they needed the money more than they needed the reminder. She hadn’t wanted to risk pawning it before now, saving it for a last resort. It was too risky. Pawnshops required ID. But time had run out, and this was her only option now.
The jewelry wouldn’t bring much, though it was fine quality and expensive when it had been purchased. But pawnshops didn’t pay even a fraction of retail value. The few hundred dollars she could hope to get from the sale would have to be stretched to provide a place for them to live. Hopefully the food that Donovan had brought earlier that day would last them for some time if they ate sparingly.
“She would want you to use it, Evie,” Travis said.
She turned to see Travis staring at her, at the box in her hand.
“I know,” she whispered. “But I had wanted to save this for you and Cammie. It’s all we have left of her.”
Travis shook his head. “No. We have our memories. Good memories. She was a great mom. You’re a lot like her, Evie. You look just like her and you have her same heart. She would be so proud of you for doing what you have to protect me and Cammie.”
Eve felt guilty for the brief surge of anger she had to battle back. She was in turns angry and sorrowful over her mother’s decision to remain with a husband she knew to be a danger to her children. Her mother knew, and yet she’d never tried to get out. To get Travis and Cammie out of his reach.