“You were very likely right,” Donovan said quietly.

“A lot of good it did me,” Eve choked out, tears still straining at the corners of her eyes.

It was obvious she was holding very tightly to her control and that she could crack at any moment. Donovan was prepared. He’d hold her. Let her cry. Whatever she needed because it wasn’t likely she’d allowed herself to show any weakness in front of her brother and sister. She wouldn’t have wanted to make them more afraid than they already were.

Eve wiped at the corner of her eye, her jaw clenched tight as she took a brief moment to gather her composure before continuing her story.

“After Cammie was born, I was allowed to see them more often than I had in the past. When Walt began paying for my schooling—he chose the college. He chose everything. He even scheduled my classes. I hated it. I hated how he controlled every aspect of my life. He bought me an apartment closer to where he and Mom lived. All utilities were in his name. Everything was. The car I drove. And on the surface it looked like a stepfather being generous. Stepping up and taking on a daughter who wasn’t his responsibility. He liked looking good when it suited his purposes. Everything he did was carefully orchestrated.

“While I wasn’t a real member of the family—and he was always certain to be very clear about my role in the ‘family’—on paper it looked as though he had taken me in as his ‘own.’ Access to my mother and Travis and Cammie was strictly monitored. I was never to just come over. He told me when I could be there, and if I was even a minute late—he dictated the exact times I was to be there—he punished me by making it that much longer before I could see them again. My life was spiraling out of control, or rather becoming more firmly under his control, and I didn’t see a way out. There was too much at stake. I knew it was all wrong, but God, I didn’t know what to do! If I balked, my mother would suffer. I’d be cut out of her life and God only knew what he’d do to her or Travis and Cammie as a result.”

She took a deep breath, strain evident on her brow. Donovan knew that they’d come to the point where things got worse and she was valiantly trying to keep her emotions in check.

“Until then, I truly didn’t believe that Walt was physically abusive. Verbally and emotionally? Yes. I had no illusions that he wasn’t a maniacal control freak and that he manipulated everyone around him. As naïve as it sounds, I’d never suspected his abuse was physical—there had never been evidence. Until Cammie was three years old. My mother changed. I mean not that she was ever the mom who’d raised me, the woman she’d been before she married Walt. She was more subdued. Her marriage to Walt had changed her. She’d lost her spark, the happiness in her eyes, and she rarely smiled like she used to.

“But then I started noticing bruises. Oh, she always had an excuse. Don’t all abused women have ready excuses when they don’t want people to know they’re being abused? But the excuses kept mounting and I knew that he was hurting her physically. I couldn’t stand by and let that happen. I tried to talk to my mother about it, but she immediately shut me down. She’d get this terrified look on her face and beg me never to speak of it again.

“And I couldn’t do that,” she whispered painfully.

She closed her eyes, tears finally seeping down her cheeks, leaving stark trails on her pale face. Donovan wanted to touch her. He wanted to wrap his arms around her and hold her while she grieved. But he knew she wasn’t finished. Not by a long shot. There was still a hell of a lot that had happened to get them to the point where they were now. Desperate. Running. Scared out of their minds.

“I went to the police and told them that Walt was abusing my mother. I couldn’t just stand by and allow that monster to hurt my mother. I realized that if he abused her, what was to say he wasn’t also abusing Travis and Cammie?”

Dread took hold of Donovan. “What happened then?”

She lifted her tear-filled gaze to his. “Walt was furious. Of course the police merely came to the house and questioned both my mother and Walt. They both denied any such thing and Walt gave some ridiculous story about how the bruises got there. The police left. After all, they could hardly arrest Walt when my own mother denied he was abusing her.”

Donovan let out a pent-up breath, knowing full well how things worked. He’d seen too many cases in real life. Knew exactly how unfair the justice system was sometimes. If Eve’s mother had refused to press charges, the hands of the police were tied.

“Walt confronted me,” Eve said. “He rarely directly communicated with me, unless it was to issue a dictate. I was largely ignored. Not part of the family. Travis and Cammie weren’t even allowed to say my name in Walt’s home. I was regarded as a servant, like someone in Walt’s employ, and was treated accordingly.”

“Did he hurt you?” Donovan demanded, his voice cold as rage brewed and stirred in his veins.

“He th-threatened me,” she said falteringly. “He was furious. Told me that I better shut up and mind my own business or I would never see my mother again. He threatened to evict me from my apartment, take away all of his financial support. Not that I cared about any of that. One of the conditions of his support, which he basically forced upon me via my mother and her pleas for peace, was that I not work. He didn’t want me to have the means to support myself. He wanted me solidly under his thumb just like my mother and his children. So he told me that not only would he put me out on the streets and withdraw all his financial support, which meant no school as well, but that he’d make certain there was no place that would hire me.

“I was numb. I didn’t care about what happened to me. But it made me ill to know that he was beating my mother and I was supposed to knuckle under to his threats and go on as if I didn’t know what was going on behind closed doors in that house.”

She closed her eyes as more tears slipped soundlessly down her cheeks.

“He beat her to get back at me. He admitted it when I saw her next. When I saw what he’d done to her, he stood there and told me it was my fault. That I’d done this to her. That if I’d kept my mouth shut and minded my business that this wouldn’t have happened to her. And he did and said all of this right in front of my mother. Blamed me as she stood there, bruises on her face and around her neck. Her hand was swollen and bruised. I think he’d broken several of her fingers, but of course he’d done nothing to help her. Hadn’t taken her to a doctor. Hadn’t put them in a cast. And I had to watch my mother stand there, eyes dull, all the life taken right out of her while he blamed me for the fact that she was in pain. I’ll never forget the way she looked at me. Not with blame, but begging. She was begging me to let it go. Not to make him angry again.”

“God,” Donovan breathed. “I’m so sorry, honey. You know it wasn’t your fault, right?”

She hesitated just long enough for Donovan to realize that no matter what she said, she did blame herself. It enraged him. He sucked in steadying breaths because he wanted to explode and that was the last thing she needed.

“I know whose fault it was,” she said in an unconvincing tone. “It wasn’t mine and it damn sure wasn’t my mother’s. I think he thought I’d let it go. That he’d bullied her—and me—into accepting it all. But it only made me that much more determined. I was furious. I’ve never been so filled with rage in my life. I honest to God could have killed him in that moment. If I’d had any sort of a weapon, I would have killed him on the spot and gladly gone to prison if it meant my mother and Travis and Cammie would finally be safe and free of him.”

Donovan had a very good idea of where this was leading. “You went back to the police, didn’t you?”

She nodded numbly, her eyes glazing over, her gaze going vacant and distant. So much pain crowded into those beautiful amber eyes. And guilt. That was what tore Donovan to pieces. The guilt and sorrow in her expression.

“I went straight to the police. I told them everything that had happened. How he controlled everyone around him. The lengths he’d gone to subjugate everyone under his authority. I told them he admitted to my face that he’d beaten her. That he’d said it was my fault. I begged them to go immediately. To look at my mother’s bruises and to do something about it. I told them there was no way to know if he abused Travis and Cammie, that they were all so frightened of him that they wouldn’t dare go against his dictates.”

“Did they believe you? Did they investigate?” Donovan queried.

“I don’t know if they believed me. I think they thought I was a hysterical female. But yes, they took me with them and went to Walt’s house. What happened next . . .” She shook her head, disbelief still evident in her features. “I had no idea just how prepared he was for something like that. When I think of all the foreplanning he had to do to mastermind it, I’m just blown away. I mean, I knew he was a controlling asshole. I knew he had money and power. But I never imagined just how far he’d go to discredit me. How long he had to have planned to set into motion what he did. It sounds so farfetched, and yet he made it happen.”

“What did he do? Donovan asked, dread centering in his chest.

She sent him a look filled with bewilderment. “When the police showed up, Walt actually looked pained. All of a sudden he adopted the look of a concerned ‘parent.’ He looked grief-stricken, as laughable as it sounds. He told the officers I had a history of mental illness and paranoid delusions. That he hadn’t wanted to hospitalize me because he hoped I could lead a normal life. He told them he’d always considered me his daughter even though I wasn’t his blood. That he was paying for me to go to school. Paying my expenses. Bought me an apartment. Which all sounds fishy as hell and like crap, right? Only, he produced medical records documenting a long history of mental illnesses, a list of medications that I’d refused to take. And this was from a reputable hospital that specialized in mental health. He had a letter from a well-known psychiatrist! I was so dumbfounded that I didn’t even know what to say. Walt poured on the charm. Said his wife was accident prone, and with a toddler, who could blame her? That Cammie was an active three-year-old who kept my mother busy and that the bruises were from a fall down the stairs trying to prevent Cammie from taking a tumble. He had the police eating out of his hand, and he made me look like some deranged lunatic off her meds. There was honest-to-God sympathy and admiration for Walt in the policemen’s eyes. Like he was such a good person for taking in a daughter from his wife’s previous marriage and getting me the help I needed. I wanted to vomit because he’d covered himself so well that I would have believed him. There was an entire fake medical file on me dating back to when I was just a child. It appeared as though I’d been in and out of this facility for years. So of course the police took him at his word and then were all stern with me about filing false police reports and wasting department resources when their police had far more important, real matters to attend to.”

“Son of a bitch,” Donovan bit out.

Yeah, the bastard certainly had covered every one of his steps. He’d planned for everything, including discrediting Eve in everyone else’s minds. Her stepfather was a formidable opponent, but Donovan swore then and there that the asshole was going down and Donovan was going to enjoy every minute. He wanted Walt to suffer every bit as much as he’d made Eve suffer.

“He then made good on every single threat he’d issued,” Eve said quietly. “He withdrew all financial support. Evicted me from my apartment. All I had were the clothes on my back and enough cash to eat for a few days. I quickly discovered just how far his reach extended when I tried to apply for jobs. I would have taken anything. I wasn’t picky. My next plan was to hire an investigator to build a case against Walt, and I needed money for that. But no one would hire me. It was like there was this giant red flag that hovered over my name. Only when I left the immediate area to seek out a job elsewhere did I finally manage to score a waitressing job. The pay was shit. The tips were miserable. But it was enough to rent a one-room efficiency apartment in a shitty part of town.

“Walt cut me out entirely. Refused to allow me to see Mom, Travis or Cammie. He said he didn’t want them influenced by my continuous bad decisions. That if in the future I proved I’d learned my lesson he would reconsider, but there would have to be a hell of a lot of changes, meaning I would have to submit to being under his thumb. A robot to act as programmed.”

“Asshole,” Donovan growled. “Did he hurt you, Eve? Did he ever hurt Travis and Cammie?”

“I’ll get to that,” she said quietly.

Donovan swore viciously under his breath.

“He kept me away from them, completely isolated for months. No calls. If I called, I wasn’t allowed to speak to any of them. They weren’t allowed to call me. I worked, saving every penny I could. I barely ate. Each dollar was precious and I knew I’d need money to build a case against Walt and expose the bastard for what he was. But I also knew that I was up against a powerful, wealthy man who had endless connections and that it wasn’t going to be easy. But I was driven. I refused to just give up and allow my mother and my siblings to suffer any longer.”