But what if he truly only wanted to help? Was she doing Cammie and Travis a huge disservice by not staying and allowing Donovan to bring a doctor in for Cammie?
Those intense green eyes. Eyes that saw far too much. That probed the very inside of her mind. He was a man who made Eve feel safe, and perhaps that was what scared her the most. Because one mistake, just one, and Cammie and Travis would pay the price for her stupidity. It was better to trust no one, a mantra she’d embraced when they’d fled California, than to risk trusting the wrong person.
But still, she couldn’t shake Donovan Kelly from her mind. He clung tenaciously, refusing to budge. He was handsome, no doubt about that. But it wasn’t his physical attractiveness that intrigued her. Though he definitely had no shortage of physical beauty. The man was built solid from the feet up.
He wasn’t overly tall. Certainly taller than her petite frame, but he didn’t loom over her either. But what he lacked in height, he certainly made up for in other areas. His chest was massive and his upper arms bulged with muscles. It was evident that he stayed physically fit.
But perhaps what had caught her attention the most was simply the way he looked at her. Like he . . . cared. As though somehow their connection was more personal than one of someone helping another human being in need.
Maybe that was fanciful of her. Okay, so it totally was and it made her a flaming moron to even dwell on that possibility. But once it had taken hold, she couldn’t rid herself of that feeling. It was a nice sensation. Warm and soothing. Like he was.
And he’d been wonderful with Cammie. It would have been easy for a man like him to scare the bejeebus out of Cammie, and yet he’d taken great pains not to frighten her. He’d been extremely gentle with her—and Eve for that matter.
In another life, Eve would have had the confidence—and the freedom—to act on such an attraction. She wasn’t overly bold, but neither was she a shy woman afraid to speak her mind. She’d never been one to adhere to outdated societal mores. Such as the man being the one to ask out the woman. If she met a man she was interested in, she’d never hesitated to take the initiative. Some men liked that. Others? Not so much. Their loss.
But now? That Eve no longer existed. Maybe one day she’d get her back. But for now, dating and relationships were at the very bottom of Eve’s priorities. She had a family to protect and raise. She had to stay one step ahead of Walt. Maybe she’d never have a normal life again, but if by not having one she ensured that Travis and Cammie had a quality life, free of Walt’s abuse, then she’d gladly give up any hopes she had of a future of her own.
Besides, what man would be willing to take on a ready-made family like hers? No way she’d ever give Travis or Cammie up. So even if she were in a position to have a normal relationship with a man, it was doubtful that many guys would sign up to raise a teenage boy and a four-year-old girl.
Shaking herself from her ridiculous thoughts—what a monumental waste of time it was to even consider her future when it was absolutely uncertain and changed from day to day—she grabbed the backpack and then pushed the two suitcases to the door so they’d be ready to go when Travis returned with Cammie.
A moment later, Travis came back with Cammie dressed and in her shoes. Eve bent to make sure the laces were secure and that she would be comfortable for the long walk ahead. When Cammie grew tired or didn’t feel well enough to walk, Eve and Travis would take turns carrying her on their backs.
Though they were certainly used to walking great distances and to carrying Cammie, the thought still made Eve grimace. But it had to be done, and the longer they stood here delaying the inevitable, the longer it would take to get to that bus station. And maybe they wouldn’t need to go all the way to Jackson. Clarksville was closer. The army base was there, so there would certainly be a bus depot.
She sighed, racked by indecision. How was she to know what the right choice was? She hadn’t had time to plan this out. Donovan’s visit and his proposed return with a doctor had panicked her. Maybe she should have let the doctor come, find out how serious Cammie’s illness was and then cut and run.
She raised a trembling hand to her temple and massaged as she tried to sort her scattered thoughts.
Travis’s worried voice broke through her frustration.
“Are you all right?”
Eve nodded and attempted a reassuring smile for him and Cammie both. “I was just thinking. Jackson is so far away. Maybe it would be better if we went to Clarksville and got a bus from there. It puts us farther away from Memphis, but it would cut our walking time down considerably.”
She glanced down at Cammie as she spoke, realizing that it was the right thing to do. Cammie didn’t need to be out in God only knew what kind of weather, in the heat and exposed, for any longer than absolutely necessary.
“I was looking on the map at work earlier,” Travis said. “If we go to Clarksville, then maybe we should consider going north into Kentucky instead of south to Mississippi. And you could pawn the jewelry in Clarksville instead of waiting. They probably have several pawnshops since it’s a military base town, right?”
Here they stood, poised to leave in the dead of night, and didn’t even have a solid plan of attack. Weariness blew over Eve, despite the fact she’d just slept for a few hours.
“I think you’re right, Trav. What you say makes sense. And the farther north we go, the cooler it will be at least. Mississippi in the dead of summer can’t be all that wonderful.”
They weren’t used to the heat and humidity in the South. They were accustomed to a much cooler climate with far less humidity than here. Cammie had suffered even before falling ill.
“Maybe I can even find work in Clarksville just for a day or two before we move on,” Travis suggested. “It couldn’t hurt to pad our cash a little.”
“We’ll see,” Eve said. “For now, let’s just head that way and we’ll cross the other bridges when we get there.”
Cammie slipped her hand into Eve’s and squeezed. Tears burned Eve’s eyelids as she gazed down at the sweet little girl who was offering Eve reassurance. It should be Eve comforting her siblings, and instead they were trying to reassure her.
Eve squeezed back and smiled. “Shall we start our next big adventure?”
Travis took the backpack from Eve and curled his hand around the handle of one of the suitcases. Eve lifted Cammie’s hand and then reached for the other suitcase as they opened the door and stepped into the night.
A stiff breeze immediately blew over Eve’s face, startling her with its ferocity. There were bites of rain mixed in the wind, and it pelted her skin, eliciting a shiver. Damn it. She’d thought the rain was over.
“Should we wait it out?” Travis asked in a concerned voice.
Eve stepped farther out into the yard, turning her face up to look at the sky. There was an eerie howl that unsettled her. The quiet that had bothered her earlier was reinforced.
“No, let’s go now,” Eve said. “It will be morning soon, and I want to be off the main roadways before it gets light.”
Travis nodded and shut the door behind him.
“Ready?” Eve asked Cammie in a light tone.
“Ready,” Cammie said resolutely.
They started across the yard toward the road. The deep ditch in front of the trailer gurgled with runoff. Water ran through the big culvert that served as their driveway and swirled its way farther downstream.
They were to the road when the wind suddenly picked up and nearly blew Eve over. Her grip tightened around Cammie’s hand just as a roar sounded.
Fear tightened Eve’s gut and she hesitated, glancing back at the trailer, which shook with the force of the wind.
“Maybe we should . . .”
She never got to finish the thought.
Debris began pelting them. Dime-sized hail began hitting the ground—and them—and the roaring became so loud that it nearly deafened Eve.
Cammie screamed when the force of the wind nearly tore her hand from Eve’s grasp.
“We have to take cover!” Travis yelled. “I think it’s a tornado!”
Oh God. Oh God. Oh God. The trailer was no shelter from a tornado. It was the very last place they should be.
“The culvert!” Eve cried. “Get in the culvert and stay down!”
She shoved Cammie forward and reached back for Travis’s hand to pull him along. A tree branch blew between them, knocking Travis back several feet.
Eve stumbled toward him, torn between her need to protect Cammie and her desire to make sure Travis made it. To her horror, the wind tugged mercilessly at Cammie, and it took all of Eve’s strength to maintain her grip on her wrist.
“Get Cammie in the culvert!” Travis shouted.
“No! I won’t leave you, Trav!”
“Evie, do it! Go!”
Eve stared stricken as yet another limb blew right into Travis’s side, sending him sprawling to the ground.
“Trav!” Cammie screamed.
It was Cammie’s hysterical cry that galvanized Eve to action. She spun, rapidly hauling Cammie into her arms. Adrenaline gave her strength as she dove for the culvert, bearing Cammie’s weight the entire way. They hit the ground just as a limb crashed down on them, hitting Eve squarely in the back.
All her breath was knocked painfully from her lungs, leaving her gasping for air. Her eyes watered and stung as bits of hail and rain hit her face. Cammie squirmed beneath Eve, and she worried that Cammie was being smothered by Eve’s weight.
Pushing herself up, impeded by the heavy limb, she crawled toward the ditch, determined to get Cammie to safety so she could return for Travis. As she gained her footing, she heaved Cammie upward once more. She was nearly there when she stepped into a hole.
Her ankle gave out, wrenching painfully, and she went to her knees, gasping in pain. Damn it. She was so close. She wouldn’t give up now. They’d survived the worst so far. No way she was going to let a damn tornado take them down now.
Using the last of her flagging strength, she managed to push Cammie into the culvert. Water rushed around them, tugging at their bodies. If it got much deeper, they’d be swept away.
“Listen to me, Cammie,” Eve shouted above the roar. The wind whistling through the tunnel along with the rushing water made it almost impossible to be heard. “I’m going to position you in the middle of the culvert. Get a handhold on whatever you can and don’t move! I have to go back for Trav.”
Cammie whimpered but nodded, her fingers wrapped tightly in Eve’s drenched shirt. It took everything Eve had to pry her hands away and leave her alone in that culvert even for a few moments. She was terrified of losing Cammie. She was terrified of losing Travis. Neither was an option. She’d die before letting that happen.
She kissed one of Cammie’s hands and then cupped her small face in her hands. “Stay here and don’t move,” she ordered. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
Stumbling back, she edged her way out of the culvert, relieved that the water level had remained unchanged. Her entire body was heavy as she slogged her way up the ditch. The wind beat mercilessly at her. She was pelted by rocks, small limbs and other debris. Something slammed into her side, eliciting a cry of pain. She went down hard, getting a face full of mud.
It took a moment for her to realize that what had hit her was the door to the trailer. She glanced up in the direction of the trailer and to her horror saw that it simply wasn’t there any longer. No part of it was there. It had simply vanished, blown away by the tornado.
A warm metallic taste filled her mouth. Blood. She wiped at her lips with the back of her hand, removing some of the mud and blood.
“Travis!” she yelled.
A firm hand gripped her wrist, pulling her to her feet.
“I’m here, Evie. Now come on. We have to get into the culvert with Cammie.”
She was so relieved she nearly passed out on the spot. Grimacing as she put weight on her twisted ankle, she leaned against Travis and turned back toward the culvert.
The wind whipped viciously around them, turning the most ordinary things into deadly weapons. Her hair snapped violently against her face, cutting into her skin. It was as if the sky had caved in and rained down on them in every conceivable direction. And then to her astonishment, her entire body lifted in the air before being slammed back down, separating her and Travis.
“Evie!” Travis cried.
“Get to Cammie,” she bit out. “You have to shield her, Travis. Don’t worry about me.”
“I’m not leaving you!” he roared.
“Damn it, Trav! You made me leave you. Now do it! I’ll make it. You’re stronger than I am. You have to get to Cammie and make sure she isn’t swept away by the wind or the water. Get in there and do not come out until I come for you. Are we clear?”
With a frustrated growl, Travis crawled toward the culvert and Eve pushed herself up again, fighting the force of the wind and the weight of the debris raining down on her. Just as she got to her feet once more, the wind swept her away, lifting her several feet into the air. It tossed her aside like discarded trash. She landed yards away from the culvert, pain splintering through her body. She was barely conscious, but the one thought that hammered through her every bit as strong as the wind was that she had no hope of making it to the culvert.