She yanked her head toward him, sure that guilt was plastered all over her face. She’d never been adept at hiding her feelings.
“It was time to go,” she said simply.
A slight frown thinned his lips. “I was bringing a doctor out to see Cammie. Why would you leave before then?”
Her shoulders sagged and she dropped her gaze, but she could still feel his boring into her. Could feel the weight of his stare and the judgment behind it. He thought she was an idiot. That she hadn’t wanted her sister to get help.
“The more people we are exposed to, the greater the risk,” she said so she wouldn’t be overheard by the occupants of the front seat. “I can’t risk Cammie and Travis that way. I won’t.”
Donovan sighed and then surprised her by reaching for her hand. He laced his fingers through hers and squeezed. Warmth traveled all the way up her arm and into her chest. His touch was comforting. Like sunshine on a cold day. He made her think crazy things. Worse, he made her hope.
“Listen to me, Eve. And listen well. I’m going to help you. I’m going to protect you and Cammie and Travis. No ifs, ands or buts about it. I realize you don’t trust me. Yet. But I’m going to prove to you that not everyone in the world is out to get you.”
“You don’t understand,” Eve said, her voice rising as she grew more upset. “You risk a lot by becoming involved. And I could never forgive myself if helping me caused you trouble. I know you probably think I’m exaggerating, but Donovan, I’m not! You can’t fix this for us. Nobody can.”
Her voice ended in a defeated sob. Just hearing the fatalistic words brought home the hopelessness of her situation. She dragged her hand from Donovan’s and buried her face in both palms.
She hated to break down in front of Cammie and Travis. They needed her to be strong, to be their rock. But she’d gone too long without cracking and now every fear, every desolate thought came pouring out.
“Don’t cry, Evie.”
Cammie’s sweet, concerned voice filtered through Eve’s quiet sobs. Travis’s arm went around Eve, hugging her tightly. Then Cammie pushed forward, wrapping her slender arms around Eve’s neck and squeezing.
“I love you,” Cammie whispered against her ear.
“Oh darling, I love you too,” Eve choked out, ashamed of her outburst.
“He said he’d help us,” Travis whispered. “Maybe we should . . .”
He broke off and glanced at Donovan with uncertainty in his eyes.
“Maybe we should let him.”
“Your brother is a smart man,” Donovan said.
Eve pulled her head up and looked at Cammie’s sweet face and then over to her brother to see him staring intently at her, purpose glittering in his brown eyes.
“Listen to him, Eve,” Donovan prompted. “The three of you need help. You can’t continue to run yourselves ragged. At some point you have to take a stand. Stop running and face whatever it is head on. I’ll help you if you let me.”
“But you don’t know what you’re up against,” she whispered. “God, don’t you think I’d love to have help? Do you think I want this kind of life for Cammie and Trav? I’d do anything in the world to give them the kind of life they’re entitled to. They deserve better than this. Better than I can provide.”
“You’re doing fine,” Travis said fiercely. “You’ve done everything to protect us, Evie. You talk about what our lives should be like, but what about your own? You don’t deserve this. You’ve never deserved this. You should have a life too and not fear going to jail because of me and Cammie.”
Eve stared stricken at him, at what he’d said for the others to hear. Regret immediately clouded his eyes and he lowered his gaze.
“I’m sorry, Evie. I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“Whatever it is, I can help,” Donovan said, seemingly unfazed by Travis’s admission. “There’s a lot you don’t understand about me and the connections I have. Helping people is what me and my brothers and our teams do.”
Eve stared at him in puzzlement. “You’re right, I don’t understand.”
Donovan touched her cheek, stroking it with gentle fingertips. He traced a line down the curve to her jaw, warmth and compassion in his eyes. “Just give me a chance, Eve. That’s all I’m asking. Right now what you need is medical attention. A place to sleep where you don’t have to worry about being rained on. Food to eat. And you need to feel safe. I can do all those things for you if you just give me a chance. I don’t expect you to believe me overnight. But for now, trust me. Okay?”
Shocked at how simple he made it sound, all she could do was nod wordlessly. Satisfaction simmered in his eyes and he pulled his hand away, leaving her feeling bereft of his touch. As long as he touched her, she did feel safe, as insane as it sounded. But she absolutely believed this man when he told her no one would hurt her or her brother and sister. She just hoped to hell she didn’t regret her decision. And that Cammie and Travis didn’t pay for her mistakes.
Several minutes later, they pulled up to a huge gate. Joe reached up to push a button and the gate began to swing open. Travis and Cammie both stared in awe as they drove inside the fenced area.
It looked like a combat zone or at the very least a high-security military base. There was a landing strip and a hangar that housed two jets. There was also a helicopter parked on the pad. To the right there was a firing range and to the left a large building with no windows.
Then they got to the houses that dotted the landscape. There were five houses spread out, all lining the cliffs that overlooked the lake. Eve glanced uneasily at Travis as they exchanged wide-eyed stares. Had they jumped from the frying pan straight into the fire? Had she resigned them all to a prison there was no escape from? She couldn’t imagine that they could just walk out of such a heavily fortified fortress.
“What is this place?” Eve whispered.
“Home,” Donovan replied. “It’s home.”
She sent him a puzzled look. “Home? Who in the world lives in a place like this?”
“We do,” Joe said with an amused grin.
She looked up to see him watching her in the rearview mirror.
“Well, not me, at least not yet,” he continued. “Swanny and I still bunk in my oldest brother’s old place, but if my brothers get their way, I’ll be building a house here soon.”
Donovan grunted his agreement.
“I’m so lost,” Eve murmured. “Who are you people?”
“We’re people who help other people in trouble,” Swanny said, swiveling in his seat to look at Eve and her siblings. His expression was serious, but his eyes were soft and friendly, contradicting the harsh look given to him by the scar that raked across one side of his face.
His words should have reassured Eve. Because she and her brother and sister were definitely in trouble and they definitely needed help. But the words didn’t reassure her. They just made her more nervous about the man in whom she’d placed her and her siblings’ trust.
As if sensing her unease, Donovan reached for her hand again, curling his fingers around hers. Familiar warmth spread up her arm. She loved his touch. It was something she could become addicted to. Just a brief moment when she felt that all was well and that Walt didn’t exist. It was a stupid thought and one that could get her killed if she didn’t snap out of it.
There was no safe harbor from Walt. There never would be. She had to remember that.
“It’s going to be okay, Eve. I swear it.”
The quiet vow shook her to her core. He sounded absolute. How could anyone make such a promise? Especially when they had no idea what they were up against?
For the first time, Eve’s confidence faltered. Her confidence that her situation was hopeless. Donovan made her believe—made her want to believe—that he could protect her and keep her brother and sister safe. Was she a fool to get sucked into this? But would she be an even bigger fool to turn away such a huge gift? Was she doing Cammie and Travis a disservice by not at least seeing where this took them?
She glanced anxiously at Travis, looking for any sign that he shared her same fears. But what she saw took her breath away and made the decision for her. Hope. She saw hope in her brother’s eyes. Saw the same glimmer in Cammie’s. A look of awe, as though Donovan were a knight in shining armor, a savior from the months of desperation and constant worry that their past would catch up to them. And there was the fact that Cammie, who was terrified of all men, was curled trustingly against Donovan’s chest, her head resting just below his chin.
“Okay,” she whispered, the simple word catching in her throat.
Oh God, don’t let her be making the wrong decision.
Satisfaction glinted in Donovan’s eyes. His fingers tightened around hers as he gave them a squeeze.
The truck pulled up to a large house that looked brand-new. Everything was shiny, the paint fresh, the landscaping immaculate. There was no evidence here that a deadly tornado had ripped through just hours before. The only sign was two fallen tree branches at the corner of the house and a few scattered smaller limbs.
Joe hopped out of the truck, as did Swanny. Donovan handed Cammie out to Swanny after reassuring her that he would take her back as soon as he helped Eve out and then climbed out himself.
The door opened on Travis’s side, and Joe made to assist him out of the truck, instructing him to lean on Joe and to take it slow. Then Donovan reached for Eve, carefully helping her to her feet. He kept hold of her arm, his touch achingly gentle, until he was certain she could stand on her own.
Cammie didn’t protest Swanny holding her, but the minute Donovan reached for her, she all but jumped into his arms, wrapping her arms around his neck, her fingers digging into his skin with the force of her hold.
Donovan took it in stride, cradling her close. Swanny fell in beside Eve, offering his arm. When she stumbled, more because of bewilderment than not having the ability to walk on her own, Swanny’s arm swiftly curled around her, anchoring her to his side.
“Take it nice and slow,” Swanny said in a low tone. “We’ll get you inside and make you comfortable until Maren gets here.”
It took her a moment to remember who Maren was. Donovan had said his doctor friend’s name was Maren. The one he’d wanted to bring over and examine Cammie.
Her gait was hesitant and to Swanny’s credit he didn’t rush her. He stayed with her every step of the way, his pace measured as he helped her toward the house.
Travis and Joe went ahead of her, and it concerned her that pain had creased Travis’s face the moment he got out of the truck and began walking. What if he was seriously injured? A hospital was out, but if it was a choice between him getting the care he needed or not, she would have no choice but to risk a trip to the ER and possible hospitalization.
“You’re going to pass out if you don’t slow your breathing down,” Swanny murmured.
She swallowed and gulped in a steadying breath, exhaling through her nose in an effort to get control. It did no good to assume the worst-case scenario. A doctor would examine him. Then they’d go from there.
But still, she whispered an urgent prayer that none of their injuries were severe and that Cammie’s illness wasn’t bad enough to require hospitalization.
They walked into the foyer and then into a sprawling living room that looked bereft of furniture. There was only a small sofa, a recliner and a huge television on the far wall. No end tables, nothing hanging on the walls. And it smelled of fresh paint.
Donovan put Cammie onto the couch while Joe guided Travis into the recliner. Then Donovan turned to Eve.
“Welcome home,” he said softly.
DONOVAN waited until Eve was seated comfortably on the leather couch, and then he bent and deposited Cammie beside her but warned her in low tones not to hurt Eve by climbing onto her lap. Eve looked as though she would protest and even reached for Cammie, but Donovan shook his head.
“She’ll be right beside you, Eve. You need to take care of yourself. Leave Travis and Cammie to me and the others. I’ll go call Maren right now so she can head over. She was planning to be here this morning anyway, but the storm may have delayed her somewhat. I need to find out if they suffered any damage and if she can still make it over.”
“And if she can’t?” Eve asked, unable to keep the worry from her voice.
Donovan slipped his hand over hers, squeezing reassuringly. “She’ll make it. If she’s delayed, then I’ll do what I can to make sure you’re all comfortable. I act as the team medic when Maren isn’t around. I know my way around medical equipment.”
She was still bewildered by just what she and her siblings had walked into.
“Are you all in the military or something?”
Donovan grinned while Joe chuckled.
“Not any longer. But we all used to be. I was in the Marines. Joe and Swanny were in the army. My other brothers have served in various branches. The only one we don’t have covered is the air force.”