“You’re a very courageous, loyal person,” Donovan said, reaching to touch her cheek with the back of his knuckles.
She shook her head. “No,” she whispered. “I’m not. If I were, I would have never let it go that long. I wouldn’t have given up. My mother would still be alive.”
Tears had thickened her voice and shone on her pale cheeks. Before he could correct her belief, she plunged forward, seemingly needing to get it done and said, like ripping off a bandage instead of peeling it slowly.
“And then she died,” she said, a sob welling from her throat. “And I knew. I knew he’d killed her. It wasn’t me being paranoid or delusional. I know that son of a bitch had killed her. Who knew why? Maybe she’d finally mustered her courage and had threatened to walk away. Maybe she tried to walk away. She would have never left Travis and Cammie there under his care. She would have taken them. Likely come to me for help. She knew I would. God knows I’d offered it to her enough times.”
“Jesus,” Donovan muttered. And yet there was more. So much more.
“I was shocked that he allowed me at her funeral. He acted . . . conciliatory. He asked me to come over after the visitation. The first time I’d been allowed in his home since that awful day I’d come with the police. He said Travis and Cammie needed me. That he needed me. I didn’t care what he wanted or needed. I was only concerned about Travis and Cammie, and I wanted to see them with my own eyes. I wanted to see if he’d hurt them—if he’d ever hurt them. I had to know. I had to see them so I could promise them I’d get them out of there as soon as I could.
“Travis and Cammie were understandably quiet. In shock. Cammie was white faced and strangely tearless the entire time. It was as if she had no clue what was going on. Maybe she hadn’t accepted that our mother was gone. I just remember how quiet and still the house was. How ominous it was. I was scared to even be there because it was a house filled with . . . evil. His presence was everywhere. His stamp was on every piece of furniture, artwork. Nothing of my mother. None of her personal touches. The entire house screamed Walt and his influence. And then . . .”
She shuddered and went silent, remaining so as she visibly grappled with her anger—and grief. When she kept silent, her forehead furrowed, her lips drawn into thin, white lines, he leaned forward, sensing that she needed more than the brief touches he’d offered.
Carefully, gauging her reaction for any signs of protest, he pulled her into his arms. After only a moment’s hesitation, she went readily, burying her face in his chest. He anchored her against him, holding her tightly, his arms wrapped completely around her. He laid his cheek against her silky hair and breathed in her scent.
She felt so soft and warm in his arms and infinitely fragile. But so very precious. He’d give anything in the world to slay her dragons and the demons that haunted her dreams—and her reality.
“Then what, Eve?” he murmured against her hair. He needed to know the rest. And she needed to rid herself of the poison that had festered for so long.
She shuddered again in his arms and tensed, as if trying to hold back the mounting sobs. Had she ever cried? Even once? Or had she been too determined to put up a brave front for Travis and Cammie?
“He called me into his study. It was a room strictly off limits to everyone. My mother. Travis. Cammie. No one but him was ever allowed inside. Except business associates or friends he invited, but my mother had never stepped inside and neither had my brother and sister.
“I remember being so ill at ease. I was devastated by the loss of my mother. I was bitter and angry and convinced I was facing her killer. I worried what would happen to Travis and Cammie. If I would ever be allowed to see them again now that my mother—my only link to them—was gone.
“I hated the feeling that I was at his mercy. I hated . . . him. I’ve never hated anyone. I’ve never felt violence toward another human being, and yet if I’d had a gun in my hand in that moment I would have killed him.”
“Why did he call you into his study?” Donovan prompted softly.
She shuddered in his arms and then went completely still. Dread filled Donovan at her hesitation. He made himself loosen his grip around her because his emotions were in turmoil and his anger and frustration was mounting. The last thing he wanted was to hurt her inadvertently. To mark her beautiful skin. It made him physically ill to even think that his hand had caused a woman pain.
“He wanted . . . He wanted me to . . . Oh God, Donovan, it’s sick.”
Tears soaked into his shirt, the material clinging damply to his skin. He stroked a hand over her hair, murmuring words of comfort close to her ear.
“He wanted me to, for all practical purposes, replace my mother.”
Her voice was so filled with horror that each word was choked out as if it disgusted her to even say them out loud.
Donovan stilled as her statement played over and over in his mind. That could mean a lot of things, but he knew her stepfather’s intent was sick and twisted.
“He t-touched me. In a way he’d never touched me before. In fact, he had always been careful to maintain his distance. I wasn’t treated as family. As one of his children like Travis and Cammie. He was always so impersonal with me. And yet at times I could feel him staring at me and it made me so uncomfortable. I hated when he looked at me because I felt . . . unclean.”
He pressed a kiss to the side of her head, over the soft strands of her hair, clenching his jaw in frustration that he had to sit here helpless, powerless to do anything but listen as she spilled the horror she’d endured for so many months.
Eve had said she wanted to kill her stepfather, but Donovan wanted the same. He’d suffer no remorse whatsoever, and he still didn’t have the entire story. One that was going to get a lot worse.
“He told me that if I wanted to maintain contact with Travis and Cammie, I would do exactly as he wanted. That I’d move into the house, and into his bed. That I would act as his mistress because he’d never marry me. Never give me that honor, as if I would consider it such! And if I complied with all his wishes, he’d forgive my past sins and he’d allow me to act as mother and sister to Travis and Cammie. But if I resisted, if I denied him anything he wanted, he’d make certain that I would never see my brother and sister again and that furthermore he’d make it so I had nothing. And then . . .”
Her voice trailed off and sobs shook her shoulders. He held her tighter, kissing her hair, stroking her back and rubbing in a circular motion, trying to offer comfort she badly needed.
“He told me to get on my knees and please him. That if he was satisfied by my effort, he would allow me into his house. But he wanted me to remember that if I disobeyed even once, he’d punish me and make me sorry I was ever born.”
“Son of a bitch,” Donovan swore. “Tell me you didn’t do it.”
Eve yanked away from him, her eyes stricken and wounded. “Of course I didn’t. How could I? He killed my mother! He disgusted me. I’d rather have nothing than to accept what he was offering.”
Donovan cupped her cheek. “Shh, darling Eve. I wasn’t disgusted with you. Never with you. I’m furious at how he tried to manipulate you.”
“He was f-f-furious when I told him to go to hell,” she choked out. “He hit me. It was a cold, calculated strike, one I knew he’d meted out many times before. On my mother. He split my lip and then threw a tissue at me and told me I’d better not get any blood on his rug. Then he told me to get out and never to come back. That I’d never see Travis and Cammie again and that he would ruin me. What was there to ruin? I had nothing. He’d seen to that. All I had left was my pride. My sense of self. And I wouldn’t allow him to take that too.”
Donovan leaned forward and kissed her forehead, the closest he’d come to actually kissing her lips. She closed her eyes and leaned into his mouth, her breaths escaping in long exhales.
“How then did you escape with Travis and Cammie?” Donovan asked, finally putting the pieces together. But what she said next made him realize that there was much more.
“Travis called me,” Eve said quietly. “It had been a few weeks since Walt had thrown me out of the house. I had no idea what he’d said to Travis and Cammie. I was certain that he would have poisoned them against me. But then Travis called, and he knew. He knew that I hadn’t just deserted him and Cammie. He begged me to help them. He was worried about Cammie. Oh God, Donovan. Travis said Walt was acting weirdly toward Cammie. Insisting that she sleep with him at night. Touching her inappropriately. Travis was terrified that if they remained there any longer that he would hurt her. Continue to hurt her.”
Curses exploded from Donovan’s mouth as rage swelled out of control in his chest. It shouldn’t have surprised him. Nothing should have surprised him after Eve had related so much about what an utter asshole Walt was. But he hadn’t been prepared for the fact that her stepfather would have molested his only daughter. Had that been why he was so adamant about Eve’s mother giving him a daughter?
He wanted to hunt the bastard down and kill him with his bare hands. Fury sizzled in his veins until it was all he could do to sit there, holding and comforting Eve, when he wanted to take the man apart who’d done so much harm to three innocent people. Four, counting Eve’s mother. He didn’t disbelieve Eve’s assessment that Walt had killed his wife. Donovan could well believe it.
“I told Travis I’d do whatever I could. That we’d run. Together. That I’d never leave him and Cammie. That I wouldn’t have left them but Walt had thrown me out of the house and forbidden contact. I later discovered that one of the maids had helped Travis. She’d known what Walt’s intentions were toward Cammie and she’d given Travis her phone to call me, and with the maid’s help, they sneaked out of the house at night after Walt had gone to bed. Her husband drove Travis and Cammie to meet me at a local grocery store. And he gave us his truck. I was stunned at his generosity, but he only told me that he and his wife, the maid in Walt’s house, had a daughter and they’d never allow anyone to hurt her like Walt was trying to hurt Cammie. So we took his truck and drove. We kept on driving until I was able to trade it in on a different vehicle. I gave a false name and it was a dealership that wasn’t exactly concerned with having all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed. I was concerned that Walt would have discovered who helped us and it would be too easy for him to find us if we continued to use the maid’s husband’s truck.
“So we set out in the other car and drove as far as we could. It broke down outside Dover, which is how we came to be here. I had enough money from temporary jobs I picked up along the way to rent the trailer. I knew we needed to stay long enough to build up enough cash to make our next move. But then Cammie got sick and I couldn’t leave her, so Travis got the job in the hardware store.”
“You were planning to run again last night,” Donovan said gently.
Eve flushed, pulling away from him to stare down at her lap. “Yes. I thought we were gaining too much attention. I’m not saying we didn’t appreciate all you and your sister were doing for us. But then there was the doctor you were going to bring over. The more people we were exposed to, the more likely it would be that we would be found. We were going to walk to Clarksville, where I could pawn my mother’s jewelry, and then take a bus into Kentucky. To a larger city. My mistake was in stopping in such a small town. We needed to go someplace larger. Where we could blend in and not draw much attention to ourselves.”
“I hope I’ve dissuaded you of that notion now.”
She gazed up at him, confusion still bright in her eyes. “I just don’t understand you, Donovan,” she said helplessly. “I don’t understand any of you. Why? Why would you help someone you don’t even know? You act like you . . . care.”
Donovan sucked in his breath, knowing that what he had to say could very well scare her off for good. That she might flee at the very first opportunity, not that he planned on giving her one. But he couldn’t lie to her either. She’d never trust him if he wasn’t completely honest with her. So he took a huge risk and laid it out.
“I do care, Eve. I care a hell of a lot.”
EVE stared in shock at Donovan. There was no deception in his expression. His eyes were earnest. Blatantly honest and . . . sincere. He definitely cared. But she got a ridiculous sense that it wasn’t caring about someone in trouble. Like he’d care about a job he was doing. Hadn’t he said that he and his brothers helped people like her all the time? How crazy was it for her to read further into this? To assume he had feelings that went beyond the normal? Like she somehow mattered to him? That he was attracted to her?
And was she attracted to him? Or was this some crazy savior/victim thing going on? Her falling for the first guy who expressed concern and seemed to care for her?