“Don’t lie!” Eve demanded, fury lacing the explosive outburst. “Don’t lie like everyone else has. At least be honest. That would be a novelty for sure.”

Rusty sent her a look of genuine confusion. She had no idea what had prompted this craziness but whatever it was, it was not good. One only had to look at Eve to know this was a woman nearing her breaking point. It was only a matter of time until she snapped. Unless Rusty was able to come up with something fast, this was all going downhill in very short order. Hell, it already was.

“You’d really leave Cammie and Travis?” Rusty asked again, purposely making her tone soft and unaccusing.

Pain splintered through Eve’s eyes. Hell, it made Rusty hurt to see the very real agony in Eve’s expression.

“Of the two, their father or Donovan, who would you prefer for Cammie and Travis to be with? I know Walt will hurt them. No matter that Donovan betrayed me, I don’t think him truly capable of hurting those children. He cares for them deeply. Me, not so much, since he plans to turn me over to my stepfather. The sacrificial lamb, so to speak, so he can protect Cammie and Travis.”

Rusty couldn’t have been more shocked if Eve had pulled the trigger and shot her where she stood. Her mouth gaped open as she stared back at Eve. It was then she realized that Eve believed every word that had come out of her mouth. Somehow, she’d gained the belief that Donovan had betrayed her—or would. How the hell was Rusty supposed to convince her differently? For that matter, what did she really know of the situation?

Donovan hadn’t shared much about Eve, or his feelings for that matter. He’d been extremely possessive of Cammie and Travis and, Rusty had thought, of Eve as well. Had she been so horribly wrong about a man she called brother?

No fucking way. Which meant Eve had some fucked-up intel. The question was, how had she arrived at such a ridiculous conclusion?

Eve took a step forward, her eyes once more gleaming with resolve. She lifted the gun higher so it was aimed directly at Rusty’s chest. A cold chill snaked down Rusty’s spine. She was good at reading people. It was a skill that had served her well and had saved her ass on more than one occasion.

And right now she absolutely believed that Eve meant every single word of what she was saying. This was a desperate woman, making desperate choices. She had the gun to prove it.

Shit, shit, shit. What the hell was Rusty supposed to do?

She had no choice. She had to do as Eve asked, or rather demanded. It was too risky. What if Eve squeezed that trigger a little too hard in her effort to convince Rusty she meant business? Even if Eve had no intention of shooting Rusty, she could well do it by accident.

“Where do you want me to take you?” Rusty asked in defeat.

There was no triumph in Eve’s gaze. No sense of victory. She just looked . . . sad.

“To the hardware store. I’ll leave you there, but I’ll need your Jeep. Sorry. I don’t have a choice,” Eve said in a low voice.

Jesus God, she was standing there pointing a gun at Rusty and threatening to shoot unless Rusty cooperated, and in the next breath she was apologizing for the fact that she planned to steal Rusty’s ride.

Eve draped a shirt over the hand holding the gun and then motioned for Rusty to walk out of the house and back to her Jeep.

When they got outside, Eve directed Rusty into the front while she climbed in back and reclined on the seat so no one would see her head. But she angled the gun so it was pointed at the side of Rusty’s head. Rusty would have to be extra careful going over any bumps because she sure as hell didn’t want the gun accidentally discharging.

“Make sure you don’t do anything to alert anyone when we leave the gate,” Eve said in a low voice that was filled with purpose. “I know retinal scans are performed upon entering but that all you have to do to get out is punch in your key code from your vehicle, so there’s no need to roll down your window or even pause. If you do, I shoot. It’s that simple.”

That simple? Jesus. Rusty was beginning to wonder if the reports had been right and Eve was mentally unstable. Because normal people didn’t wield a gun and make threats.

But a desperate person did.

And whatever had driven Eve to her current level of desperation had to be bad. Rusty wasn’t a fool. She knew Eve had strong feelings for Donovan. But she also knew that she wasn’t as confident about her acceptance in the Kelly family yet. And who could blame her? Her life had been shit. Cammie’s and Travis’s lives had been shit. Rusty had been quick to condemn Eve for deserting her siblings, but it was in fact a selfless gesture on Eve’s part. Rusty had seen the pain that had swamped Eve’s eyes at the mention of leaving them behind. That kind of grief couldn’t be faked. And yet she was leaving them. With Donovan. Donovan, who she was convinced would protect them from her stepfather.

The question was, why didn’t Eve trust Donovan to protect her as well? What was it she’d said? That Donovan had betrayed her?

There were so many questions Rusty wanted answers to that her head was spinning. And she had no idea how to get those answers from a desperate woman pointing a gun at Rusty’s head.

This was one time when she wished Sean were actually pulling his hover routine and were around. Rusty might not be sure of the cop or his intentions. And that kiss had certainly put a different spin on things. But she did know Sean was a damn good cop with a very caring heart. How many times had he gone to the wall for the Kellys? How many times had he done things that could well jeopardize his reputation and career in law enforcement in order to do the right thing?

Yeah, she could use Sean about now. He had a level head and he was loyal to his bones. He could talk Eve around. She was sure of it. He’d certainly talked down Rachel on more than one occasion when Rachel was at her most vulnerable and precariously close to a nervous breakdown.

Eve’s break from reality certainly qualified in this instance. Rusty didn’t believe for a moment the woman was crazy or mentally unstable. Emotionally unstable at the moment? Hell yeah. She’d apparently been thrown one hell of a curveball. Rusty just wished she knew what the hell had gone on in that house to make Eve resort to such desperate measures.

Rusty did as Eve had demanded. She’d keyed in the code and accelerated through the gates so the cameras would only pick up on Rusty in the Jeep. She’d even murmured a caution to Eve to get as low as she could. Hell, she was practically aiding and abetting the woman. Maybe she was the one losing her damn mind.

But she wanted to help, damn it. And she wanted to buy time to figure out what the hell was going on in Eve’s head.

The drive to the hardware store was short. It wouldn’t be opened yet, a fact that might work in her favor because one, she was supposed to be with Eve at Donovan’s house, and two, someone noticing her in this early might question it. One of the perks of living in a small town. Everyone was up in your grill and in your business, and it wouldn’t surprise her one bit if a concerned citizen called Sean or one of the Kellys to let them know someone was at the hardware store before opening.

She could only hope.

“Park in the back,” Eve directed, as if she’d read Rusty’s thoughts about someone noticing they were in this early. “I don’t want the Jeep in sight, nor do I want anyone to see me getting into it.”

Rusty did as she directed and pulled around back to the loading dock, where delivery trucks backed to the entrance to unload stock.

“What exactly is your plan, Eve?” Rusty asked curiously. “I mean, you’re just going to leave me here?”

The two women got out but not before Rusty saw Eve’s grimace and her look of regret. She was almost apologetic as she led Rusty inside—at gunpoint—and then directed her to find rope.

“I’m going to have to tie you up and leave you behind the register. Someone will find you soon. You won’t have to be there for long. But I can’t have you alerting anyone before I have time to get as far away from here as possible.”

Rusty took down one of the coils of rope, picking the softer kind that wasn’t so damn abrasive. If she was going to have a stint tied up behind the cash register, she at least wanted to be as comfortable as possible.

She turned to Eve, casting a wary eye at the gun in her hand. She damned the fact that the surveillance cameras were capturing it all on film. Just more trouble for Eve, who was already a wanted criminal. She cringed knowing there was little to be done this time. It was all there in vivid detail.

Why the hell was she sympathizing with a woman holding a gun on her? She needed her own head examined.

“Empty the register and get the money bag from the safe,” Eve said quietly. “And tell your father I’m sorry. Truly I am. I haven’t met him, but he’s obviously a good man and he doesn’t deserve this from me. But I don’t have a choice. I have to survive. I won’t go back to my stepfather. I’d do anything in the world to keep Cammie and Travis safe, but Donovan will protect them. I won’t be the sacrificial lamb. I wouldn’t survive a day back in his power.”

Rusty moved slowly toward the cash register, opening it even as she reached down and unlocked the safe that held the cash reserves. Money she would have taken to the bank this morning when she came in to open. It was telling that she had no compunction about giving it to Eve. There was something about her quiet desperation and the fact that she kept apologizing that got to Rusty.

Her brothers would say her heart was too soft and that she had no sense of self-preservation. It wasn’t that at all. She saw a woman completely and utterly devastated and fighting to keep her sanity intact. And to survive. Because whatever she thought, she was convinced that she was being given up to her stepfather.

She didn’t have all the pieces to the puzzle yet, but she’d heard enough from Eve to realize that Eve believed Donovan was going to turn her over to her stepfather. And keep Cammie and Travis. Jesus, but this was one twisted-up mess.

She stuffed the cash from the register into the bag holding the other cash and then carefully slid it along the counter toward Eve. And then Eve, regret simmering in her eyes, motioned for Rusty to sit so she could tie her up.

“Eve? Can I ask you what happened? What this is all about? I’m not fighting you. You can talk while you’re tying me up. But I deserve that much, don’t you think? I helped Travis. I like him a lot. He was me when I was that age. I’m worried about him—and you.”

Eve’s features tightened, anger replacing some of the regret. “Donovan has a weakness for women and children but especially children,” she quoted. They were words Rusty had heard many times over the years. It was frequently said about Donovan. “In this case he has a weakness for Cammie and Travis. He loves them. I believe that or I wouldn’t leave them with him where I know they’re safer. He’ll protect them.”

Left unsaid was the fact that Donovan’s weakness only extended to Eve’s siblings and not her, and Rusty knew that was absolutely untrue. But how to get Eve to see that? What the hell had gone wrong? How could she so horribly misunderstand Rusty’s brother? Couldn’t she see the man was not only in love with Cammie and Travis but Eve as well?

“It’s what everyone says—what everyone knows,” Eve continued before Rusty could protest. “Children are his weakness. His Achilles’ heel. And I was just the means—collateral damage—to get what he really wanted. Children. A family. One that doesn’t include me.”

She broke off, grief choking her words, and Rusty could see her fighting tears with her every breath.

“That’s crazy! Donovan would damn well protect you too!” Rusty said fiercely. “If you gave him the chance. It’s not just those kids he wants, Eve. He wants you too!”

Eve held up a hand after securing the knot around Rusty’s ankles. “Don’t! Just don’t. You’ll only defend him, and his actions are indefensible. You’d side with him. I’d expect you to. He’s your family—your brother. I’m not. I know where your loyalty lies and it’s not—and shouldn’t be—with me.”

“Bullshit!” Rusty snapped. “I’ll help you. Whatever you need, Eve. We’ll work this out. Let me help you if you won’t let Donovan. But you taking off like this is not the answer and you know it! You’re scared shitless. You don’t want to hurt me. You sure as hell don’t want to shoot me. You keep apologizing, for Christ’s sake. Hardened criminal you aren’t, and you sure as hell aren’t mentally unstable. That’s bullshit and I don’t believe it for a minute.”

Eve’s expression saddened and the anger left as she gazed thoughtfully at Rusty.

“Even if I thought I could trust you, I couldn’t—wouldn’t—put you in any danger. You’re right, Rusty. You were kind to Travis and I’ll always appreciate that. You have a good heart, but I can’t let you help me. It’s too dangerous. My stepfather would kill you without thought. And as I said, your loyalty belongs to your family. Not me.”