“None of my brothers met a nice small-town girl, dated, became engaged and got married. Well, except Ethan, and he and Rachel more than made up for their somewhat boring courtship with plenty of drama after the fact,” he said in a grim voice.
Her brow furrowed at his sudden change in demeanor. “What happened?”
“Long story,” Donovan said. “Rachel is a schoolteacher, and she went on a mercy mission to South America in June after school let out. Her plane crashed on the way home, and it was thought she died. There were no survivors. We thought her dead for an entire year when in fact she was being held captive by a drug cartel and they hooked her on drugs to control her.”
Eve’s eyes rounded in shock. “Oh my God. Are you serious? How on earth did you find out? And how did you get her back?”
“We went in and kicked some cartel ass,” Donovan said bluntly. “We brought her back home, but her recovery wasn’t quick. They had some rough times. She lost most of her memory from the drugs that were forced on her. She still doesn’t have everything back, but enough to remember a lot of bad things that happened before she left on that trip. She and Ethan have had a rough road back together, but they’re strong—she’s strong. She’s one hell of a survivor. She just had twins a year ago.”
“Wow,” Eve murmured. “You weren’t kidding when you said you and your brothers kick some serious ass. Taking on a drug cartel? It sounds like something out of a movie.”
Donovan’s lips quirked. “That’s just the icing on the cake, honey. The rest of my brothers all met their wives under less-than-ideal circumstances. So maybe now you can see that the way you and I met doesn’t bother me in the least.”
Eve’s breath caught and she stared up at him, uncertain of what to say. What could she say? She blurted the first thing that came to her mind.
“But you don’t know me. I mean, we just met. How can you possibly think you want . . . anything . . . from me? What do I possibly have to offer you except one giant headache? It seems to me that you’re doing all the giving and I’m doing all the taking and giving nothing in return.”
He nudged her chin upward with gentle fingers. “That’s not true. You’ve given me something very precious indeed. Your trust, Eve. And I know what that cost you. So believe me when I say that I know what a gift you’ve given me. A woman’s trust is the most priceless gift she can give to a man. Her belief in his ability to keep her safe and protect her from all harm.”
He lowered his head again, not as hesitant or as slow as he’d been just moments earlier. He brushed his lips across hers but quickly fused his mouth to hers, stroking hot and wet with his tongue. This time she didn’t hesitate either. She met his advance, tasting him this time instead of allowing him to do all the exploring.
She inhaled deeply, savoring the spicy masculine scent that clung to him. It wasn’t cologne or aftershave. It was just . . . him. She sighed into his mouth, enjoying the simple pleasure of being in his arms.
It was easy to forget everything but this man. Easy to forget the world around them. The danger she and her siblings faced. The very real threat of Walt and how far his reach extended. Here seemed a million miles away from reality. This was a reality she much preferred.
Was it wrong of her to want to forget? Just for a little while?
“Just to let you know,” Donovan murmured against her mouth. “I’m going to take it slow with you. But my idea of slow and someone else’s is probably very different. So consider yourself warned. When I want something, I go after it. And I play to win. I’ve waited a long time for this—for you—and I’m not going to waste a single minute in seeing where this takes us. I fully intend to have you in my bed—permanently. And soon.”
Her pulse raced, fluttering wildly in her veins as she processed his solemn vow. He hadn’t sounded unsure of himself at all. No, he’d uttered those words with absolute confidence. She licked her lips, her mouth suddenly dry.
“What about Travis and Cammie?” she asked in a low voice.
Donovan sent her a look of genuine puzzlement. “What about them?”
She cleared her throat. “If we . . . if you . . . if we do this thing, where does that leave Travis and Cammie? I’d never leave them, Donovan. I’d never abandon them. And there’s so much unresolved. I’m for all practical purposes a kidnapper.”
Just saying the words sent a new wave of terror coursing through her body. She trembled against Donovan, her hands shaking.
“Even if you didn’t mind them being . . . here . . . with us . . . it’s not like we can just pick up and play house. I’m a criminal. I could go to jail for what I’ve done.”
Donovan held up his hand and then gently pressed a finger to her lips to shush her. “Listen to me, Eve. Of course you won’t abandon Travis and Cammie. I would never expect you to do any such thing. You’re a package deal. And I want the entire package. As for you being a criminal and going to jail? That’s not going to happen. We’ll find a way to take your stepfather down. And when that happens, you—and Travis and Cammie—and I will be a family.”
She had absolutely nothing to say to that. She didn’t even know how to respond to such a statement. To such blind acceptance. It baffled her that he would identify her as someone he wanted a future with when he’d known her only a few short days. And that he’d accept baggage that most men wouldn’t ever sign up for.
And the way he said family instilled such a fierce wave of longing within her that she ached with it. She wanted that. God, she wanted that so much. For Travis and Cammie to be safe and happy. To have all the normal things a four-year-old and a teenager had. And children of her own. It was all she’d ever dreamed. A large, boisterous, happy family. She wanted to hug his solemn vow to her heart and never let go. But it seemed so . . . impossible. All of it.
She stared at him in bewilderment because in all of this, there was still one huge question mark. How did she feel about him?
HAVING coaxed Eve back to bed so she could rest comfortably with Cammie, Donovan retreated to the kitchen to dig up the fixings for pancakes. He wouldn’t prepare them yet. He wanted to let Travis, Cammie and Eve sleep for as long as they would before disturbing them for breakfast.
He knew the moment Sean entered the main gate of the compound. An alert was triggered and the video monitors in the kitchen zoomed in on the vehicle, doing a retinal scan of the driver and confirming Sean’s identity.
A few moments later, Sean tapped at the kitchen door and Donovan motioned him inside. Donovan’s head came up when the alert sounded again and he saw Rusty’s Jeep pulling through the gate, pausing as she stared into the camera for the retinal scan.
Sean frowned. “What’s Rusty doing out so early?”
Donovan shrugged. “Guess we’ll find out shortly.”
Sean remained silent until Rusty came to Donovan’s door. Donovan met her and pulled her into a quick hug.
“Hey, kiddo. What brings you out so early this morning?”
Her expression was troubled, which immediately put him—and Sean—on guard. Sean looked intently at her, his gaze probing.
“Why are you here?” Rusty asked Sean, a note of defensiveness to her voice.
“I have information about Eve,” Sean said shortly.
“So do I,” Rusty said in a grim voice. “But I’d like to hear what you have to say.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Sean countered. “You need to stay out of this, Rusty. I don’t want you getting involved. You could get hurt.”
She rolled her eyes. “You don’t spill, I don’t spill. And I think you’ll be interested to know that someone was nosing around the hardware store this morning.”
Sean immediately came to attention, but so did Donovan. He turned to Rusty, his expression brooking no argument. “Tell me,” he ordered.
Rusty sighed. “Some guy came into the hardware store this morning. Real smooth. Casual. Drives an expensive car. I got the license plate numbers so you can run them,” she said to Sean.
Sean nodded his approval, grudging respect in his eyes as he stared back at Rusty.
“What did he say?” Donovan demanded. “What did you tell him?”
“I’m getting to that,” Rusty said. “He looked completely out of place. Dressed in designer digs, you know? Expensive shades. Not a hair out of place. Looked styled, salon styled, I mean. And he had enough product to take a few layers off the ozone.”
Donovan simmered with impatience as he waited for her to get to the point.
“He asked real casual if I’d seen a woman and two kids, one a teenager and one a four-year-old. Called her by name. Called Travis and Cammie by name. Said that he was their father and that he was deeply concerned. That Eve was unstable and a danger not only to herself but to others, and that he feared what would happen if she wasn’t institutionalized and put back on her medication soon. Said he’d gotten a report that Travis had been spotted in the hardware store.”
Donovan frowned. Fuck. Not what he wanted to hear. He ran a hand through his hair and grimaced.
“I couldn’t very well deny that I’d seen Travis or he’d know I was lying,” Rusty said. “So I told him that yeah, a kid matching Travis’s description had come through several days before. Wanted to pick up a little extra cash so I hired him for a couple of days, paid him and then he split. I told him he didn’t show up for work and that I hadn’t seen him in days so I assumed he’d moved on. I even told the guy that he’d mentioned sisters because again, I didn’t want this guy suspicious that I was hiding anything. I figured if I was honest, I wouldn’t give him any reason to suspect that we were helping Eve, Travis and Cammie and that maybe he’d buy the story that they’d already left the area.”
“You played it smart, Rusty,” Donovan said.
Sean nodded. “You did the right thing. But I doubt I need to run the plates to figure out who he is. After what I dug up, it’s pretty obvious who he is.”
“What did you find?” Rusty asked, an anxious note to her voice.
Sean hesitated. “I’d rather not involve you, Rusty. I hate that you even had a run-in with this guy. You should have called me the minute he showed up. What if he’d hurt you? Or what if he hadn’t bought your story? You being alone with him in the store is bullshit. You ever pull a stunt like that again and I’ll tan your ass.”
Rusty snorted her displeasure. “I’m not a kid, Sean. I can handle it. And I want to know what kind of trouble they’re in. I like Travis a lot.”
Sean glanced at Donovan, and Donovan nodded that he should spill what he’d found out in front of Rusty. She needed to know what they were dealing with, especially if this asshole had already been to the hardware store. He would speak to his dad today and make damn sure that one of his brothers was there at the store and that Sean made regular drive-bys, and under no circumstances was Rusty to work the store alone anymore.
“It’s not good, Van,” Sean said. “She’s wanted for kidnapping. She’s reported as highly unstable. A history of mental illness and she’s believed to be a danger to herself and to Travis and Cammie. The father has gone public and it appears he has a lot of pull. He plays the grieving father very well. He lost his wife tragically and now he’s lost his children to a deranged woman.”
“What a load of bullshit,” Donovan said furiously.
“You get the real story yet?” Sean asked, cocking his eyebrow up at Donovan’s reaction.
“Yeah, I got it,” Donovan said through gritted teeth. “Eve thinks he killed her mother and I agree with her based on everything she’s told me. He’s a controlling, abusive asshole, and he was making moves on Cammie before Eve got her and Travis out of his grasp.”
“Son of a bitch,” Sean swore. “I’d like a shot at that motherfucker.”
“So would I,” Rusty said darkly.
Sean pointed a finger at Rusty. “You stay out of it. Understand? You leave this to us, Rusty. Do not get involved.”
“Whatever,” she muttered. “I’d still like to kick him in the balls.”
“So what are you going to do?” Sean asked. “What do you want me to do?”
Donovan sighed. “Hell if I know. Yet. I have to talk to my brothers about it. Him being here changes everything. If he knows they were here, then he’s a lot closer on their trail than Eve thought. He may or may not buy that they’ve already left, but at least if he discovered where they’d been living, the trailer is destroyed so he can’t think they would have remained here. Hell, he might even think they were killed.”
“Then he might stick around longer,” Sean said. “If he’s worried that they were hurt or killed in the storm, he’ll be scouring the local hospitals and he’ll likely pull in the local and county police. You know I won’t betray the fact that I know where they are, but I can’t say the same for other officers. You know I won’t let on to them, but if other officers discover information about Eve, then they’ll likely act on it accordingly. If that happens, you’ve got a problem.”