“Hell, how far is this kid walking to work anyway?”
Rusty looked as unhappy as Donovan was.
“I don’t know, but it’s been what, a mile so far?”
“Almost two,” Donovan said grimly.
“He’s turning onto that gravel road ahead,” Rusty said, leaning forward in the seat. “I hope he hasn’t made us and is throwing us off.”
“We’ll drive by like we’re going ahead and then circle back,” Donovan said.
He accelerated and drove past the road the kid had turned onto. He glanced over to see the kid walking along the side, his back to the highway. Donovan went up a ways and then did a U-turn and drove back to the road.
“Damn it!” Rusty said when they took the turn. “I don’t see him now!”
Donovan accelerated down the road, dust kicking up behind them.
“Look! There he is!” Rusty said, pointing to the right.
Donovan continued past the run-down trailer and made another turn around to circle back. When they pulled into the driveway—if you could call the rut in the yard an actual driveway—Rusty tensed, her expression sorrowful as she took in the trailer the kid lived in.
He reached over to squeeze her hand.
“This was me when I was his age,” Rusty whispered. “God, it makes me sick to think of him living here with two sisters. It’s barely big enough for one person, let alone three.”
Donovan grimaced and nodded his agreement.
The yard was overgrown and badly in need of mowing. But that was the least of the issues. There was a blue tarp over one half of the roof of the trailer. There were missing shingles in other places. The skirting was missing. One window was busted out and there was a missing step leading up to the door.
It didn’t even look livable. The thing should have already been condemned.
He cut the engine and then looked over at Rusty.
“Remember what I said. You stay behind me until I’m certain this is safe. I’ll knock and see what happens. When and only when I tell you it’s okay, you can tell your story of shorting him money. I want to get inside so I can assess the situation myself.”
Rusty nodded. “Let’s go before they get spooked with us just parked out here like this. They’re probably scared to death, with the way the kid was acting.”
Donovan opened his door and got out. He wasn’t carrying a gun, which was unusual for him. But he hadn’t counted on needing one today. Now he wished he’d kept one in his truck at all times.
He motioned for Rusty to get behind him as they carefully mounted the rickety steps.
There was no screen door and when he knocked, the door shook as if just that little force could knock it over. Hell, it would be child’s play to break into this place.
He waited several long seconds before finally the door cracked the barest inch and he found himself staring into the most startling golden-colored eyes.
“Can I help you?” the woman asked.
He was momentarily speechless. Rusty had mentioned sisters. But this was an adult woman. Not that old. Early twenties was his guess.
But what gutted him was that reflected in those beautiful eyes washed with glints of amber and gold was stark fear.
“MY name is Donovan Kelly, ma’am,” Donovan hurried to say, wanting to alleviate the terror in her eyes. Her fear had put knots in his stomach and it was all he could do not to charge in, take control and demand to know what the hell was scaring the holy crap out of her.
He restrained himself—barely. But his radar was beeping like an incessant alarm.
Was she in an abusive relationship? But no, Rusty had said the kid said he only lived with his sisters. Was this woman abusing the kid? His stomach knotted all over again. No, that couldn’t be the case. The fear in her eyes wasn’t of discovery—of her abuse of others. There was something far darker than that, something his eye was trained to catch from the many years he’d saved just such women from horrific situations.
“What do you want?” she asked in a voice too soft to be called blunt. Her words wavered, like she was barely hanging on to the urge to turn and flee. Her hand gripped the dilapidated door frame until the tips of her fingers and her knuckles were stretched thin and bloodless.
He swallowed because what the hell was he supposed to say to that? That he wanted to know what the fuck had scared her? What she was hiding from? That he only wanted to help?
Rusty saved him from his grappling decision by pushing forward, inserting herself in front of Donovan—exactly what he’d told her not to do.
“We’re really sorry to barge in on you,” Rusty said, keeping her voice soft and unthreatening. “But I shorted Travis when I paid him for today’s work. I felt horrible when I realized it. He’s a hard worker and he’s been such a blessing to have in the store. I brought the money so he’d have it.”
There was a hint of relief that briefly shadowed the young woman’s eyes before apprehension crept back in. Almost as if she had reminded herself not to take anything at face value. Those lessons were ones learned the hard way, and Donovan was convinced this was indeed a woman who’d learned hard and fast that the world was not a good place.
And then Travis appeared at the door, all but shoving the woman behind him as he faced Rusty and Donovan. He sent Donovan a wary look but quickly shifted his focus to Rusty, as if he wanted to hurry and get the entire thing over with so he and his sister could retreat behind closed doors.
But Rusty wasn’t going to be put off. Donovan had to hand it to her. She was ferocious when she set her mind to something.
“Can we come in?” Rusty asked. “We won’t take but a minute. In addition to the money I owe you, I realized we hadn’t discussed your work schedule beyond this weekend, and I would like to have you come in a few hours each day if you’re interested. If we could come in and talk a few minutes, then we can get it all worked out and we’ll be out of your hair.”
She smiled as she said it, even nearly fooling Donovan with the innocence of her request.
Travis gave a panicked, deer-in-the-headlights look as he glanced over his shoulder and then back to Rusty and finally letting his gaze flicker warily over Donovan.
Rusty edged forward, even as the kid was obviously racked with indecision, like she was confident that her normal request would be granted. She was already on her way in before Donovan could make a grab for her. Damn it, they had no idea what was inside this house or why the occupants were scared out of their minds. He didn’t want Rusty—or himself—to be caught in the middle of a dangerous situation.
Travis stepped back and sent a look of apology toward the inside. To his sister? Someone else?
But Donovan didn’t give him a chance to change his mind. He pressed forward, keeping close on Rusty’s heels in case he needed to shove her down quickly and cover her.
The very first thing he saw was a very young child—a girl—huddled on a tattered couch riddled with holes, a takeout box from the sandwich shop down the street from the hardware store perched on her lap.
Her mouth was smeared with ketchup and mayonnaise and her hands full of the burger Travis must have brought home. The one Rusty had bought for him and had told Donovan that he hadn’t wanted her to know he hadn’t eaten. Now they both knew why. He had brought it home to his sister—just a baby—because she was likely starving.
Donovan was gripped by rage as his gaze swept over the living room—if you could call it that. They were living in absolute squalor. It wasn’t that the interior was messy or unkempt, as if they were slobs who discarded trash or food on the floor. In fact, what was there was neat and well ordered. But the condition of the trailer was deplorable.
In at least four places on the floor that he could see sat plastic bowls, presumably to catch leaks from the sagging ceiling. It had rained two nights earlier. He flinched to imagine them living here. No protection from the elements.
It was also then that he realized how warm the interior was. Hot, muggy. No air conditioning. The windows, such as they were, the ones not already broken out, were cracked to allow air to flow inside.
It took every bit of his control and training to keep his expression impassive and not to let free the full force of his reaction to what stared him in the face.
“Is there a problem . . . ,” the older sister began, her voice soft but laced with fear and hesitancy.
The minute Rusty had barged into the house, Donovan behind her, Travis’s older sister had immediately flown to the couch, placing herself between the young girl—she couldn’t be more than three or four—and Rusty and Donovan.
Though she tried to look calm and poised, it was obvious she was prepared to fight or flee at a moment’s notice. As if she’d had plenty of experience in . . . both.
“No problem at all,” Rusty said cheerfully. “As I said to Travis, I wanted to pay him the cash I accidentally shorted him for the hours he worked today, but I also wanted to check with him so we could work out times for him to come in and work this next week. That is, if he’s willing.”
Travis and his sister exchanged quick, worried glances.
Donovan cleared his throat, determined to add his own two cents.
“Perhaps it would be best if you introduce yourself—and me—so she knows who her brother is working for,” Donovan suggested pointedly.
Rusty’s hand fluttered. “Oh, of course. How rude of me!” She strode over to where Travis’s sister sat and thrust out her hand. “I’m Rusty Kelly.”
The woman tentatively took Rusty’s hand but remained silent. Donovan’s gaze narrowed.
Rusty turned in Donovan’s direction. “That’s my older brother, Donovan Kelly. Well, one of them,” she added with a grin. “There’s a lot of us Kellys! Six older brothers, if you can believe it. Not to mention all the other unofficial family members Mama Kelly has adopted over the years.”
Donovan didn’t blame the woman’s look of utter bewilderment. He drew up short of shaking his own head at Rusty’s exuberance. She was overdoing it just a little in the let’s-get-nice-and-friendly effort. And it wasn’t working to relax any of the occupants of the room. If anything, they looked even more ill at ease.
The child clutched at her older sister’s hand and edged more firmly behind her, her eyes wide as she swiped at her mouth with the back of her other hand.
“Who are they, Evie?” she whispered. “What do they want?”
Evie. Well at least they were getting somewhere.
Donovan took a step forward, risking that “Evie” wouldn’t tuck tail and run, the child hauled over her shoulder. He extended his own hand but wasn’t as forceful as Rusty had been. He simply held it out and waited for her to take it. If she would.
“Glad to meet you, Evie,” he said gently.
After a long moment, she slid slender fingers over his palm, and an electric sensation snaked up his arm and into his shoulder. Her touch was a shock, one he hadn’t expected. Neither had she, judging by the way she quickly yanked her hand back, looking up at him with even more confusion clouding those liquid amber eyes.
The woman was beautiful. Scared. Haunted. Shadows hung from her like picture frames. But she was stunning. She was too thin. It was obvious they were struggling to even survive, and yet her fragility only made her more beautiful. He was mesmerized by those eyes. Could simply stand there and stare into them, picking out all the different flecks of gold and chestnut.
“It’s Eve,” she said huskily. “My name, that is. Cammie and Trav call me Evie. It’s their pet name.”
Donovan knelt on the threadbare carpet in front of the couch and smiled warmly at the child. “You must be Cammie. Pretty name for a very pretty young lady.”
She looked confused and huddled more fiercely behind Eve’s back. Eve reached over her shoulder to snag Cammie’s hand that had crept up toward Eve’s neck.
“It’s all right, Cammie,” she whispered. “He won’t hurt you.”
Even as she issued the promise, she turned hastily, staring pleadingly into Donovan’s eyes as if begging him not to make a liar out of her. Goddamn, but it sickened him that these two females—and their brother—had been conditioned to expect harm from others. And not just others, but particularly men.
Cammie had been nervous, yes, when Rusty had moved in her direction. But when Donovan had approached, the child had panicked and damn near climbed up her sister’s back.
He wanted to demand to know who the hell had hurt them, who had taught them pain and fear and who the hell they were running from. Then he wanted to take apart the son of a bitch with his own hands, and the very next thing he wanted was to ensure that nothing would ever harm this ragtag family again.
How crazy was that?
Five minutes in their presence, and he was ready to rush in, take over their lives and make them promises he had no business making. And no guarantee that he could even keep them since he didn’t have a fucking clue what they were up against.