“You’re already looking at Eve, Cammie and Travis as yours,” Garrett pointed out. “We just don’t want to see you get hurt, man.”
“I just want what you both already have,” Donovan said, his voice lowering and shaking lightly with emotion. “And maybe Eve is that person. Maybe not. But I won’t ignore what I feel when I look at her just because I don’t have all the pieces to the puzzle yet. Just like neither of you turned away from your wives who at that time were just a mission. Just someone in trouble.”
“Point taken,” Sam said in a grudging voice. “Know that we have your back and that if you have feelings for Eve, beyond that of someone in need, then we consider her family and one of us. We’ll do whatever we can to help. No way we’ll allow any harm to come to Cammie and Travis. Or Eve. But we want you to go into this with your eyes open. You’d be taking on a teenager and a four-year-old, and that’s not going to be easy.”
Donovan laughed, some of the tension easing from his shoulders. “Isn’t that what Ma did with Rusty? Travis isn’t the belligerent, defensive kid that Rusty was, not that she didn’t have good reason to be. Travis is a good kid. Scared but determined to protect his sisters. He shouldn’t have a care in the world at his age, but instead he’s giving up his childhood and becoming a man long before his time. I’d be proud to consider him my son, though it’s not like I’m old enough to have fathered him.”
Sam and Garrett both chuckled, relaxing their rigid stances.
“Yeah, well, you would have had to have gotten one hell of a head start if you fathered a fifteen-year-old kid when you weren’t much older than him,” Garrett said.
Donovan sighed. “Some days I feel a hell of a lot older. We’ve all seen more in our somewhat young lives than any dozen people will ever see or experience. That shit ages a person. It’s time I started thinking about settling down and having a family of my own. Time is passing me by and I’m standing still. I love KGI. I wouldn’t have any other job. But I don’t want it to become my entire life. I want what you guys have. A wife to come home to. Children to fill my house. I want a reason to live and a reason to come back from every mission.”
Sam and Garrett exchanged quick, worried glances. Donovan knew he sounded weary and that they weren’t used to hearing this kind of heavy shit from him. But he was tired. He was ready for change. He was ready for life to stop passing him by while he stood on the fringes living for each mission with nothing to come home to afterward.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Donovan said dryly. “Like it’s time to break out the straitjacket and haul me away. I’m a big boy. I can take care of myself and I damn sure don’t need you interfering in my love life. You’re getting way ahead of yourselves anyway. Contrary to what you might believe, I’m not plunging recklessly into a situation without examining every angle first. But when I say this, I know you’ll understand what I mean, because it was like this for you when you met Sophie and Sarah. When I look at Eve, I see something more than a woman in danger. I see someone who’s different from every other mission I’ve worked. I may not know where this will take me yet, but it’s not going to stop me from taking the path.”
“I get it,” Garrett said softly. “It was like that for me with Sarah. But I’ll remind you that you hounded me about getting too emotionally involved. You were worried about me at the time and you even offered to take over the mission because you thought I was getting in over my head. I’m just returning the favor here.”
Donovan smiled. “I appreciate the brotherly concern, but I got this. Okay? Now if you two will get on home to your wives, then I can get on with figuring out how to get Eve to trust me enough to share whatever trouble she’s in.”
Sam held up his hands in mock surrender. “Okay, okay, lecture over. We won’t bring it up again. Swear. Just watch your six and know that we’ll be watching it too. Goes without saying that whatever you need, we’ll do.”
Donovan rose from the couch and grinned at his brothers. “I know it’ll be hard for Garrett to keep his mouth shut.”
“Fuck you,” Garrett grumbled.
“Hmm, and now I have blackmail material. You step out of line and I tell Sarah you’re dropping F-bombs again.”
Garrett glared back at Donovan while Sam burst into laughter. Donovan herded his brothers toward the door, anxious for them to be gone. Eve and the others had been asleep for several hours and they’d be hungry soon. He wanted a few moments alone with Eve so that maybe she’d open up to him.
DONOVAN was warming the plates of lasagna and preparing to get a tray together so he could bring everyone food in bed when he looked up and saw Eve standing in the doorway of his kitchen.
He was ridiculously charmed by the image. His T-shirt hanging to her knees, slim legs and bare feet visible. Hair tousled and her eyes droopy with the remnants of sleep, her hand propped on the door frame as she gazed nervously in his direction. He liked her in his space. Like she belonged here. With him. He’d said as much to his brothers, but seeing her right here and now only solidified his feeling of . . . possession. Was this what his brothers had felt when they’d first met their wives? Had they known from the first moment that she was the one? He knew Garrett had been in way over his head from the moment he’d seen Sarah.
And yes, as Garrett had said, Donovan had even warned him off. For all the good it had done him. But now he understood. He got it in a way he hadn’t gotten it then. And he knew, just as Garrett had known, that Eve’s future was inexorably tied up with his. He accepted that. Would accept no other possibility. But he also knew it wasn’t going to be easy. But then it hadn’t been easy for any of his brothers or their team leaders. And well, nothing good was easy.
“Come on in,” he invited, waving her toward the table. He knew she was uncomfortable dressed in only his shirt, but he was determined to act normal, as if she weren’t standing there in just a thin pair of panties and his oversized T-shirt. “I was warming up food to bring you in bed, but if you’re up to it, you can eat with me at the table, and then we’ll wake Travis and Cammie up to eat. Unless they’re awake already?”
He knew she would have gone in and checked on Travis, and he also knew she wouldn’t have left Cammie alone in the bedroom if she was awake. Though he had intended to bring her dinner in bed, he now jumped at the opportunity to have dinner with her—alone—in the kitchen. They needed to get a lot out of the way. And he had to see if she trusted him enough yet to confide in him.
“No, they’re still asleep,” she said in a low voice as she moved toward the table.
Unease was evident in the way she held herself, the hesitance in her eyes as she watched him, standing awkwardly next to a chair still pushed underneath the table. And she was quick to hide her legs behind the table, as if the image of her bare legs weren’t already burned into his memory.
He carried a plate of lasagna, just out of the microwave, and set it down in front of her.
“What would you like to drink? I have sweet tea, lemonade or a variety of sodas.”
As he spoke, he pulled her chair out for her and motioned for her to sit. When she lowered herself, he caught her elbow, making sure she didn’t suffer any effects of the medication he’d administered earlier. She went utterly still at his touch and then glanced up at him underneath her long lashes.
She had to feel it too. This electric connection between them. No way could she be unaware of the current. To reinforce the sensation, he caressed the skin just above her elbow with his fingers. It was a gesture meant to comfort, but the heat from her flesh bled into his hand and up his arm.
“Tea is fine,” she murmured.
“I’ll be right back with a glass and a fork for you to eat with.”
He pushed the plate so it was directly in front of her and then went to collect her drink, forks for both of them and the plate he’d left sitting inside the microwave while he’d brought hers to the table.
A moment later he returned, sliding her glass across the table before taking the seat catty-corner to where she sat at the head.
“Feel up to eating?” he asked when she didn’t dig in right away. “Did the medicine make you queasy? I have medication that will settle your stomach and ease the nausea if you need it.”
She shook her head. “No. I’m fine. I was just enjoying the smell. It looks delicious.”
She picked up her fork and delicately cut into the wedge of lasagna. He watched her eat, watched the fork disappear into her mouth and fantasized about kissing that mouth. Then he shook his head and dug into his own food. He wasn’t the least bit subtle about his perusal of her. He wasn’t scoring any points in his bid to make her trust him by leering at her like some crusty old man wanting to get into her pants.
He gave her a moment to eat, not wanting to potentially upset her and cause her not to finish her meal. By the looks of her, and from what he’d seen of their trailer, he knew she’d missed far too many meals already.
It was only when she slowed and then finally set her fork down with a sigh, only a few bites left, that he put his own fork down and reached over to slide his hand over hers.
She tensed but didn’t pull from his grasp, a fact that gave him great satisfaction. But her gaze lifted, seeking information from him with that silent stare.
“Eve, we need to talk,” he said gently.
She flinched, but didn’t look away, instead facing him bravely, resignation written in the lines on her face. He hated that look. So defeated. Confiding in him wasn’t conceding defeat, and he didn’t want her to look at it as failure on her part to protect her siblings.
“I don’t know how much I can tell you,” she whispered.
He tightened his hold on her hand, stroking her knuckles with his thumb. “You can tell me anything. Everything. I need to know it all so I know what we’re up against.”
Her eyes narrowed in puzzlement and she looked at him in utter bewilderment. “You said we.”
The confusion in her voice made him ache. Clearly it baffled her that he’d included himself in her problems. Well, she’d better get used to it, because he was inserting himself.
She shook her head as if to clear her senses. “You aren’t up against anything, Donovan. I am. I can’t involve you with my problems. It isn’t fair. You don’t know me. You don’t know Travis or Cammie and you don’t know what their father is capable of.”
Well, they were getting somewhere at least. With those words, she’d confirmed Cammie’s statement that it was her father who’d hurt Eve and who had likely done something to hurt those children. Something bad enough to make Eve cut and run, sacrificing everything in her bid to keep them safe. It also confirmed his suspicion that Eve, Travis and Cammie didn’t share the same father. Which left her mother as the blood tie. Unless Eve had lied about Cammie and Travis being her siblings, something he didn’t believe. He’d seen the love for them shining in her eyes. Had seen how fiercely protective of them she was.
“What did he do?” Donovan asked, trying to keep the anger from his tone. She needed gentleness and understanding. She didn’t need his rage.
This time her gaze lowered and her head bowed as she stared down into her lap. He picked up her fingers so he could curl his around hers and he pulled gently to get her attention once more.
“Eve, you can trust me.”
She stared into his eyes, hope stirring in the depths of hers. Just as quickly, she shut it down and her gaze dimmed, vanquishing the brief light that had shone just seconds before.
“Please don’t take this the wrong way, Donovan. You’ve been very kind. But I can’t afford to trust anyone. There’s too much at stake. All it takes is one wrong decision on my part, one wrong move, and Travis and Cammie suffer as a result.”
“And not yourself?”
She flushed, color rising rapidly up her throat and into her cheeks. “I don’t matter. They do. They’re so young. Innocent. They have their entire lives ahead of them and Travis has already sacrificed so much of his. I want them to have normal lives. I want them to be happy and secure. I just want them to be safe.”
Her voice ached with emotion. It reflected so much need and desire that it made him ache.
There was so much wrong—and right—about her statement that he had to take a few moments to figure out which part he wanted to address first.
“You matter, Eve,” he said, taking on the most important part of her declaration. “Never think you don’t. Yes, your brother and sister should have all those things you mentioned. But so should you. You’re young. You have your entire life ahead of you. Just how old are you anyway?”
“Twenty-four,” she murmured.