“Rusty, if you need help, you can call any of us. You do know that, right?”
She nodded. “I do. I just wasn’t sure how to handle this and Nathan is less likely to freak out on me.”
“Shit. What have you done now?”
“I haven’t done anything!” she said indignantly. “Well, not exactly.”
“What does ‘not exactly’ mean?” he asked dryly.
She glanced back over her shoulder again and then heaved her shoulders in resignation. “I sort of hired someone to work part time at the hardware store.”
“Sort of? Either you did or you didn’t. And why didn’t I know anything about this? I spoke to Dad earlier and I’m sure he would have mentioned it. So my next question is, does Dad know about this new employee?”
“No,” she muttered. “I haven’t gotten around to telling him yet. But I wasn’t planning to keep it from him! I only just hired the kid yesterday. I’ll pay him out of my own pocket if Frank doesn’t want to hire him.”
Donovan studied Rusty intently. “You said kid. And you sound very passionate about this kid. Mind telling me the whole story?”
“I was going to call Nathan. I said that. I want to follow him home after he gets off.”
Donovan blinked. “You want to do what?”
“He’s in some kind of trouble, Van. I can see it. You don’t understand. It’s like looking at myself when I was that age. He’s scared shitless and he’s hungry and needs the money. He says he doesn’t have parents. Just two sisters he looks out for. Now that’s a hell of a lot of responsibility for a fifteen-year-old kid. I’m worried about him. I wanted to check this family of his out. Make sure he’s not in any danger. But I’m not stupid. I wasn’t planning to go alone. I was going to ask Nathan to go with me. And now you’re here,” she finished lamely.
“And you want me to follow this kid with you to where he lives. What then? Do we just say, ‘Oh, hi! Just wanted to make sure you weren’t being chained in a basement’?”
She shook her head, but her shoulders had relaxed and a smile flirted with the corners of her lips.
“I hadn’t gotten that far in my plan yet. I was hoping Nathan would have an idea. I can’t explain it, Van. I hurt for this kid and I only just met him yesterday. You’d like him. He’s quiet. Very respectful and he’s obviously protective of his sisters. I just want to see if there is anything I can do to help.”
Donovan’s heart softened at the earnestness in her eyes and her impassioned speech. And the hell of it was, he had a huge soft spot for women and kids. Especially kids. It ate at his gut to think of a fifteen-year-old boy living hand to mouth, working part time in a hardware store to support two sisters. Where the hell were his parents?
“I’ll go with you,” he finally said. “But, Rusty, you’re going to do it my way and you’re going to listen to everything I tell you. Got it? Which means you stay behind me at all times, and if I tell you to cut and run or to get down, then you better do exactly that. We have no idea what kind of situation we’re walking into, so I expect you to pay attention.”
She nodded vigorously. “There’s another thing, Van. And I don’t know how to do it without being pushy.”
“You? Pushy?” he mocked.
She rolled her eyes but laughed. “Okay, yeah, I can be pushy. But this is for a good cause! The kid is hungry. And if he’s hungry I can only assume his sisters are as hungry as he is. I bought him a burger for lunch yesterday and he scarfed it down in about three bites. So today I got a burger for him, but he didn’t eat it. He didn’t want me to know he hadn’t eaten it. He hid it and is saving it. My guess is he’s bringing it home for his sisters to eat. And that kills me, Van. I was that hungry once. It’s why I broke into your parents’ house. I was starving and would have risked jail just to have something to eat. I don’t want that to be this kid. I want to bring them food. I have to do something. I can’t just stand by, knowing what I know and seeing what I see and do nothing.”
Donovan slung his arm around her shoulders and pulled her into his chest for a hug. “You’re a good kid, Rusty.”
She elbowed him. “I’m not a kid anymore!”
He chuckled. “No, you’re not. You’re a young lady now. I forget that sometimes. Hard to believe so many years have passed since you were adopted into the Kelly clan.”
“They’ve been the best years,” she said softly.
“Okay, so here’s what I propose. We follow the kid home. See what his situation is. Then we can figure out how to get them what they need. I can do some checking on him and his sisters.”
“Thanks, Van. This means a lot to me.”
“No problem. Just do me a favor, okay? In the future, call me or call someone before you make a decision like this. It may have worked out this time and the kid may not mean any harm, but there’s no guarantee the next time won’t be different. I don’t want you getting hurt, Rusty. You can always call me or anyone else in the family.”
She smiled. “Having so many older brothers is kind of cool, you know?”
He rolled his eyes. “And I think having older brothers is a pain in the ass.”
“That’s because Sam and Garrett are pains in the ass,” she said with a laugh.
“Very true. Okay, so what time are you setting the kid loose? And I don’t see a car so I’m assuming he lives close enough to walk?”
“I have no idea. He didn’t exactly fill out an official application, so I don’t know his address. And no, he doesn’t have a car and no one drops him off or picks him up. Don’t know how far he lives, but he’s definitely been walking.”
“Could be hard to tail him without him knowing it if he’s on foot,” Donovan said dubiously.
Rusty grimaced. “Yeah, he watches his back. It’s why I know he’s scared shitless and is in some kind of trouble. I mean, most kids walk around oblivious. Especially in a small town like this. They walk like they don’t have a care in the world. This kid? He walks like he expects someone to jump out at him at every turn. He’s very cautious. Constantly looking around.”
“You’ve been watching this kid pretty closely.”
She nodded. “Yeah. I’ve been trying to figure out how to approach him. I’ve gone back and forth in my mind about how to do this. I would just ask him straight out, but that would spook him. Been there, done that. If anyone had come out like that to me, I’d have been gone in a shot. I didn’t trust anyone, and I don’t imagine he does either.”
“I know you had a rough life,” Donovan said softly. “It’s pretty damn awesome that you’re wanting to help this boy out.”
Her cheeks went pink, but her eyes gleamed with happiness over his praise.
“I need to get back so he doesn’t get antsy. If you could hang around, I planned to let him work thirty more minutes. I’m paying him in cash and I’m going to intentionally short him a twenty. He won’t say anything. I know that much. He’ll take whatever I give him and be grateful. But it will give us an excuse to follow him to his house. I can tell him I shorted him and we can check out his living conditions.”
Donovan gave her a rueful smile. “You’ve got a quick mind, kiddo. I swear you could take over the running of KGI and probably rule the world one day.”
She grinned cheekily. “I wouldn’t turn down a tech geek job with you guys. Then I could play on Hoss.”
Donovan scowled. “Hoss is mine. No one touches him but me. Besides, I’m not letting you anywhere near our computers. You’d hack into them in thirty seconds.”
“I can’t help it if my tech skills are superior to yours,” she said loftily.
“Oh, good Lord,” he muttered. “That’s one hell of an ego you’ve got. I’m the geek in the Kelly family, thank you very much. The really hot, intelligent geek women are powerless to resist.”
Rusty burst into laughter. “And you talk about my ego?”
He grinned and then pushed her toward the hardware store. “Go take care of the kid. I’ll park a block down and watch when he comes out. If you’ll hightail it down to my truck, we can follow him and see what happens.”
“Thanks, Van. You’re the best!”
“I expect you to remember that,” he said dryly.
She hurried off with a wave, and Donovan walked back to his truck to move it farther down the street. He couldn’t believe he’d just been roped into this craziness, but he also knew that he couldn’t just look the other way and pretend ignorance. If this kid truly was in trouble and needed help, he couldn’t ignore that. He hated to think of any child bearing so much responsibility at such a young age and worse, going hungry.
His pet charities were all about helping disadvantaged children, homeless and hungry children, and the majority of his financial support went to shelters for abused women. He’d cofounded a foundation to give support and financial help to women getting out of abusive relationships. His family didn’t even know about it. Not that they would object in any way. The Kellys as a whole gave back a lot financially and by taking on missions that aided women and children without receiving a cent in compensation.
He just hadn’t wanted to make a big deal of his foundation, so he’d funded and set it up with two women who oversaw day-to-day operations and gave him a heads-up when they ran up against a woman who needed more than just financial help. In those cases, KGI took on the mission whether it was to rescue a kidnapped child or to get a woman out of an unhealthy situation. They funded her new life and gave her the opportunity to start over in a place they felt was safe.
His brothers knew of his weakness when it came to taking missions involving children or women, and they were more than happy to lend assistance in any way they could. They gave him shit about his soft spot, but they were every bit as determined as Donovan was to right wrongs against victims.
Hell, the Kelly wives were survivors in their own right and kick-ass women to boot. His brothers were lucky sons of bitches, as were the team leaders, Rio and Steele. They’d all met their women in less-than-ideal situations, but they’d fallen hard and fast, and Donovan envied their connection to their wives. He wanted that. One day. He wasn’t in a hurry. It would happen when it happened. But he wanted a family of his own. A wife. Children. To be a bigger part in a family that was his alone.
For now, he played the doting uncle to Charlotte, his oldest brother’s daughter, and to his younger brother Ethan’s twin boys. And now Rio had a thirteen-year-old daughter and Steele was the proud new father of a daughter. The world was changing around him, and yet he was seemingly standing still. Same routine. Same job. Every day.
He couldn’t complain about his love life. He had sex. But he wasn’t into cheap thrills or getting laid just to get a piece of ass. He respected women far too much to indulge in meaningless one-night stands. As a result, his relationships were few and far between, and he hadn’t fucked his way through countless women. And he was okay with that. When the day came that he met the one, he wanted to be able to tell her that he hadn’t been some man whore. He wanted her to know that she was special. For that matter, he wanted it to be special for him as well.
Maybe that made him old-fashioned or a prude. He didn’t really give a damn. His parents had brought him up to be respectful not only of others but most of all himself. If he couldn’t respect himself, how could he expect respect from others?
Fifteen minutes after he’d relocated down the street, he saw the kid Rusty had hired walk out of the hardware store. She was not wrong. This kid checked his surroundings. In fact, he brought more attention to himself because he was being so cautious. He walked slowly, his head turning side-to-side and then over his shoulder in a regular rotation.
He was a big kid. Tall and muscular, but thin. He had a look to him that told Donovan he was very likely malnourished. His face was thin and his expression was somber. He picked up speed at the end of the block as he crossed the street.
Damn it. If Rusty didn’t hurry her ass up, they were going to lose him.
Just when he’d decided to take off after the kid on his own, Rusty hurried out and ran toward his truck. She slid into the passenger seat and Donovan backed out.
“You’re right about him being wary,” Donovan muttered as he slowed to a discreet distance behind the kid. “He’s too obvious about it, though. If a cop sees him they’re going to pick up on the fact that it looks like he has something to hide.”
Rusty nodded and frowned. “Yeah, I know. But I can hardly tell him to act more casual, you know?”
“Yeah. I hear you.”
They drove slowly for several minutes and Donovan cursed.