Donovan sighed. Not much older than Rusty, and yet in other ways, probably a hell of a lot older. While Rusty had definitely had a not-so-great childhood, those days were behind her now. She had a life and a family. She could take on the world now, because no one around her would ever let her fall. He wanted that for Eve. The knowledge and confidence that came from knowing she was safe.

“I told you a little about me. My family. What my brothers and I do. You’ve seen where and how we live. We help people like you every single day. I could regale you with the impossible, horrible situations we’ve gotten people out of, but I don’t want you to even contemplate some of those scenarios. Because if nothing else, you’re safe now. And you’re safe here.”

Her breath caught in her throat and she went so still that he could see her pulse in her neck. She stared back at him, eyes wide and so full of the hope she’d extinguished earlier that it was like taking a fist to the gut. He could tell she was waging an inner war to end all wars. Her teeth sank into her bottom lip, and she gave him another look filled with consternation.

He should press his advantage right now and go hard at her. She was wavering and he could easily pull her in. But he didn’t want her trust that way. He wanted it because it was what she gave freely. He wasn’t sure why it mattered so much, but there it was.

“You make it sound so easy,” she murmured. “And God, I wish it were. As if telling you, as if accepting your help, would make it all be okay.”

His grip tightened around her hand, this time picking it up so he held it firmly in his grasp. A silent message to her that it would be okay. Unable to resist and praying he wasn’t making a huge mistake, he brought her hand to his mouth and pressed a kiss to the softness of her palm.

Her eyes widened, the shock of the sensation registering every bit as much with her as it did with him. They both sat there, frozen in silence, staring at each other, awareness flowing like a current of electricity between them.

He’d never been seized by such a strong urge to kiss a woman before. With any other woman, if he felt this strongly, he would already have her in his arms, his mouth on hers—and every other part of her body he could get his mouth on. Restraint had never cost him as much as it was costing him right here in this moment. It was a pain he’d never experienced, and he hoped to hell he didn’t have to experience it much longer.

“It is that easy,” he said, his tone unwavering as he spoke. It was laced with conviction. The same conviction he wanted her to eat, sleep and breathe. “I know it will take time for you to trust me, Eve. All I can do is show—prove—to you that my words are not just that. Words said to make you feel better. I’m not being arrogant. I’m stating an absolute truth. My brothers and I—all of KGI—will protect you and Cammie and Travis. With or without you sharing what it is that we’re up against. Granted, it will make my job, and theirs, a hell of lot easier if you tell me what I need to know—and I need to know everything—but regardless, I’m not about to let anything happen to you or your family.”

She inhaled sharply and then held her breath as she stared at him. He could see the wheels turning furiously in her mind. Her indecision was written all over her face, but he also saw the moment she capitulated and acceptance registered. He almost squeezed her hand, but held himself in check, not wanting to let his elation or sense of victory be broadcast. He’d do nothing to damage the first strings of trust that were starting to form. Much like a spider’s web taking shape. But nothing so sinister. No, the stirrings of the initial brush of her trust was a beautiful thing. Something he’d never forget and never take for granted because he knew what it cost her.

“I’m not sure you’ll believe me,” she said with helplessness he hated hearing.

“Try me,” he said, careful not to offer blind reassurance because then she wouldn’t believe him.

She sighed and closed her eyes, withdrawing her hand. He let it go, wanting her to be able to compose herself and gather the courage necessary to confide in him.

She slipped her hand into her lap, balling it with her other, and again, she took a deep, steadying breath.

“Would you feel more comfortable in the living room?” he asked.

He wanted her in a place and position where he could touch her. Offer encouragement. And so without waiting for her response, he stood and extended his hand to her.

She slid her soft fingers over his palm and then gripped his hand as he pulled her to a standing position. Perhaps she needed a few more moments to think of how she wanted to present her story. Donovan would wait as long as necessary and not pressure her to hurry.

She tugged self-consciously at his T-shirt, making sure it covered as much of her as possible as he led her into the living room. He seated her on the couch, taking the position next to her. He didn’t immediately crowd into her space. She was agitated enough without him adding more intimacy. At least not yet. That would come later. He’d hold her, do whatever was necessary to comfort and reassure her.

One of her hands fluttered to her forehead and for a moment she massaged absently, her nostrils flaring from the deep breaths puffing in and out. Then she closed her eyes again, as if bolstering her flagging courage, and when she reopened them, resolve shone brightly.

She turned toward him, pulling her leg up to tuck underneath the shirt she wore. For a moment she clasped her ankle, anxiety reflected in the furrowing of her brow.

“Cammie and Travis are my half brother and sister,” she began. “My mother married their father when I was young. At first I didn’t spend much time with them. I mean she didn’t have custody, and for a long time I wondered if she didn’t want me. It wasn’t until later that I realized she’d been protecting me.”

Donovan’s eyebrow went up, but he was careful to remain silent and not interrupt.

“She had Travis when I was nine and then Cammie several years later. I had thought . . . I had thought she wouldn’t have any more children. But Walt—my stepfather—wanted a daughter and he insisted that my mother give him one. I can remember their argument,” she said with a flinch, as if the memory still burned brightly in her mind.

“I was nineteen and I was visiting. I didn’t get to see my mom much. Especially after Travis was born.”

Donovan frowned and broke in to ask the question burning his tongue.

“I assume you were with your dad then since you weren’t living with your mom. So where was he and where is he now?”

Eve flushed and he regretted interrupting her, something he’d promised himself he wouldn’t do.

“My father left us when I was too young to remember him. My mother’s sister—my aunt—took me in when Walt refused to let me live with them.”

“What a piece of work,” Donovan muttered.

“He did me a favor,” Eve said wryly. “I didn’t know it at the time, but now I’m grateful he refused to take me in and consider me a daughter.”

Donovan tensed, knowing that what she still had to tell him was not going to be good. But he was already quite aware that nothing about Eve’s situation was good.

“Go on,” he encouraged, not wanting to shut her down with his interruption.

She sighed. “Anyway, I remember hearing them argue. My mother felt that she was too old to have another child. Travis’s pregnancy had been very difficult for her and there was already such a gap between my and Travis’s birth, and now she was looking at having an adult daughter and a preteenage son. She didn’t want to start all over again, and I can’t blame her for that. Walt told her she was being selfish and was only thinking of herself. She then reminded him that he already had a daughter. Me.”

Eve’s voice became shaky, and she gave a visible shudder that told him all too well what she thought of being considered her stepfather’s daughter.

“I was visiting. One of the rare times I was allowed to see my mother. They were arguing in their bedroom, which was on the main floor of the house while all the other bedrooms were upstairs. And when she mentioned me, that he had a daughter, he told her that I wasn’t his blood and that he wanted a daughter that was his. That there was no way he would consider another man’s leavings as his child.”

Even though it was evident that Eve had no wish to be considered the man’s daughter, there was still pain in her voice at how coldly Walt had dismissed her. As though she weren’t good enough. How abandoned must Eve have felt? Not wanted by her biological father. Not allowed to see or be with her own mother. Taken in by an aunt and rejected by her stepfather. It made Donovan furious that she’d suffered so much pain. And that much more determined to ensure that she suffered no more.

“I brought it up to my mother the next day when I got a few minutes with her alone. It was rare that Walt ever let me be around her without him present. It was almost as if he were afraid I’d try to turn her against him. I told her what I’d overheard. Not the part about him not considering me a daughter, but I asked her if she was going to have another child.”

Eve’s lips turned downward and tears gathered in her eyes.

“I’ll never forget how resigned she looked. And you have to understand. My mother loved me and Travis. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to have children. But the doctors had advised her not to get pregnant again after Trav. It was too difficult a pregnancy for her and I knew Walt knew this. It pissed me off that he could call her selfish when what he was asking her to do was a risk to her health.”

“And what did she say?” Donovan asked gently.

“She said that she didn’t have a choice, that it was what he wanted, and how could she deny him his wish for another child? I told her that it was selfish of him to ask her to have another. And she freaked out. Not that she got loud or argued with me. But I remember the utter panic that entered her expression. She got really quiet, like she was afraid that we would be overheard even though Walt had taken Travis to the grocery store. But she was like that. Always on guard, as if she expected him to barge into the room at any moment.”

Donovan nodded but kept quiet. She was into it now, and the words were tumbling out, almost as if she were, for the first time, unloading a fierce burden. And it likely was the first time she’d spoken to others of this.

“Then I asked her if she was happy. Really happy. And I asked her if she’d considered leaving Walt. That I would help her. I would quit school. Get a job. Do whatever I could to help her. And she really panicked then. I don’t think I’d ever seen her that scared. I mean, she was always reserved around Walt. Skittish even. She was what I would call totally submissive. What he said went. Always. But when I said all that, she told me to promise her that I would never mention it again. She was so emphatic. She made me promise never to say anything to Walt about it. Then she said that if he knew, he’d never let me see her again.

“Now I already a good idea of how controlling he was, but I honestly thought it was an ego thing. That he didn’t want any reminder of the fact my mother had been married before. But this went deeper than that, and it scared me. She grabbed me by the shoulders and told me she loved me and that she never wanted not to be able to see me and for me not to be a part of her life. She said if having another child secured that option for her, then she’d do it without any reservations. I began to realize then just how my stepfather had gotten her to agree to have another child. He’d threatened her. With me. It made me sick.”

Donovan grimaced at the sadness and anger in her voice. He put his hand on her shoulder, squeezing lightly, a reminder that he was here and that she was safe. That her stepfather couldn’t harm her now.

“I had to promise her, even though it sickened me to have to swear that I wouldn’t stick up for her. That I wouldn’t help her or ever mention Walt’s treatment or unreasonable demands. But she was so upset. So terrified that I couldn’t do anything else.”

“So she got pregnant with Cammie,” Donovan said softly.

Eve nodded, unable to speak for a moment as tears knotted in her throat. After a minute or two, she cleared her throat and continued.

“Walt was thrilled with my mother’s pregnancy, and for a time, he was nice. Generous even. He allowed me to see my mother more. Even offered to help me through college, something he’d never offered before. I didn’t want to take it. I wanted nothing from him, but again, my mother begged me to make peace. Not to rock the boat. She was happier than I’d ever seen her. She seemed to shine. Her pregnancy was progressing well and, to Walt’s credit, not that he deserves any,” she said fiercely, “he treated her very well. Made sure she rested, didn’t lift a finger. He employed a full staff and they waited on her hand and foot. It was like Walt had a lobotomy or something. He was a different man, or at least that was the front he put on. So I capitulated. Allowed Walt to basically come in and take over my life. Later I realized that it was just his way of controlling not only my mother and Travis but me as well. And I knew. I mean, I’m not a complete idiot. I knew I shouldn’t allow him to make any decisions about my life or make me beholden to him in any way. But I was willing to do anything for my mother. I wanted her to be happy even if I knew in my heart that she’d never truly be happy with a man like Walt. I couldn’t tell her no when it was obvious that any refusal of Walt would bring down his wrath not only on me, but my mother and brother as well. He would have cut me out of my mother’s life. I wouldn’t have been allowed to see her or Travis and certainly not the new baby.”