“No, sweetheart,” Donovan said gently, it taking absolute concentration not to give in to the fiery rage brewing inside him. “I will never hurt you. Never. You can take that to the bank. I’d like to help you. Your brother and your sister. I’d like to be your friend.”
Both Cammie’s and Eve’s eyes went wide. Cammie looked uncertain, while Eve froze. Not a single tremor went through her body. It was as if she’d turned to ice. He could feel her staring at him, staring holes through him as if trying to figure out who and what he was. If he was a threat. If he was telling the truth.
Goddamn it, but he’d never felt so damn helpless in his life. He was a man of action. He wasn’t one to fuck around and play games. He never hesitated when it came to someone needing help. And yet he knew he couldn’t do that here. This was a delicate situation that he had to tiptoe through as though walking through a minefield. One that could blow up in his face at any moment.
“We don’t have any friends,” Cammie mumbled. “Evie says it’s not safe.”
“Cammie, shhh,” Eve said, turning swiftly to silence the child. She turned back to Donovan, a weak smile wavering on her face. “Cammie has a very active imagination. Most four-year-olds do, you know.”
She was nearly the same age as his niece, Charlotte. Charlotte, who was surrounded by a huge, loving family. Charlotte, who never had to worry where her next meal came from. Or if it would come. Charlotte, who had doting uncles and aunts. Grandparents to spoil her rotten. And an entire organization of badass military operatives who’d start a fucking war to protect her.
This child was the complete antithesis of his niece and her life, and it broke Donovan’s heart.
Rusty cleared her throat and inserted herself to alleviate the sudden awkwardness wrought by Cammie’s confession.
“As I was saying, Travis—and Eve—I can work Travis in a few hours every day this week, and of course he’s welcome to come in next weekend as well. I’m absolutely flexible, so whatever works for you is fine with me.”
Unease crossed Eve’s face, and then she glanced down, shame and embarrassment flashing in her eyes before they were hidden from view.
“Thank you,” she said quietly. “But I don’t intend for him to have to work long. Just until Cammie is better and I can leave her. I don’t know if things will work out here, so I’d hate for you to depend on Travis when we only plan for him to have a temporary job.”
“And why wouldn’t they work out?” Donovan prompted carefully.
Her eyes became shuttered, the golden flecks dimming as her expression became indecipherable. She lifted one shoulder in a careless shrug. “There are no guarantees. Ever. It may or may not work out that we can stay here. I have to prepare for reality.”
“And if it doesn’t?” Donovan challenged. “What then?”
“We move on,” she said simply.
She said it so matter-of-factly that Donovan knew this wasn’t new to them. He had no idea for how long they’d been running or how far. But relocating on short notice—and often—was not foreign to them at all.
He thought a whole host of crazy things. Things that would have his brothers thinking he’d lost his goddamn mind. Maybe he had. He had to get a grip. Take a step back, take a deep breath and gain some perspective before he did something really crazy like haul every one of them out of this dump and move them into his brand-new, very empty house, which had finished construction mere weeks before.
It was a house built with a large family in mind. The family he knew one day he wanted to be his. Though he had no immediate plans. No specific woman in mind. No one waiting in the wings. No one he was even considering. He hadn’t allowed anyone that close.
But it didn’t mean he didn’t know what he wanted. Someday. He’d always known. A wife. Children. A house full of children. Noisy, rambunctious. Much like his own upbringing in a house full of brothers, two older and three younger.
He wanted that life for himself. Wanted to carry his childhood into his adult life. Provide that warm, stable, loving home for his own children that Frank and Marlene Kelly had provided him and his brothers. He wanted nothing more than to come home to his own wife after being away on a mission. To be welcomed back with a sweet, loving smile. To be surrounded by his children. His kids. A part of himself. His blood.
But for now the house stood alone. A symbol of his hopes for his future. Apart from the other houses his brothers lived in at the Kelly compound surrounded by a tight security field. A reality of their lives and the career choices they’d made.
Empty except for the bare essentials. He’d always known that whenever he settled down, he wanted his wife to decorate. To put her feminine stamp on the furnishings, the wall decorations. He looked forward to girly, frilly knickknacks and fighting over the bathroom sink and arguing over leaving the toilet seat down.
All the things his brothers good-naturedly bitched about were the things that Donovan craved. Oh, not that any of his brothers truly bitched about their wives. They were completely over-the-moon, head-over-ass, stick-a-fork-in-them done. They’d met their other halves. The women who completed them. He envied them with every breath in his body, even as he shrugged off the teasing that he and Joe were the only ones not hooked and reeled in yet.
He’d perfected the laid-back, easygoing, laissez-faire attitude. To everyone else, he was content with his life. Not actively looking to change it. But his gut tightened every time he saw his brothers with their wives. Their children. His sisters-in-law and his niece and nephews.
One day . . . One day, he kept saying. It would all be his. Just what his brothers had. But that day hadn’t come, and years kept passing. Fading into yet another. Children getting older. More children on the way. His family was growing around him in leaps and bounds and he was standing still, the only one unchanged.
Christ, he was well into his thirties. Sam was forty! Donovan wasn’t that far behind!
He shook his head, forcing his thoughts back to the present. The utter gravity of the situation before him. Because he had to do something. There was no way in hell he’d stand by and allow this to go unaddressed.
Once again, Rusty saved the awkward silence that had fallen over the tiny room.
“Well, he’s welcome to work as long as he’d like. He’s good help, and that’s hard to find,” Rusty said enthusiastically.
But as she said the words, caution and reserve fixed Eve’s eyes into an impenetrable shield. She was already withdrawing, backing away like she wanted Rusty and Donovan both gone this very minute.
Rusty powered on relentlessly as if she took no notice of Eve’s silent refusal or the tightening of Travis’s lips.
“Just plan to come in tomorrow like usual. We’ll just play the rest by ear,” Rusty said. “And if there’s anything else we can do to help, please let us know. We’d be glad to do whatever you need.”
There was warmth in Rusty’s voice, and Donovan had to hand it to her. Her seeming oblivion to the tension in the room and the warmness in her voice relaxed Travis and even Eve. To an extent.
Donovan doubted the woman ever fully let her guard down. It was evident she’d had far too much practice perfecting that shield. Which only made him more determined to break through. He wanted to know her secrets. What made her afraid. And he also wanted to know . . . her. On a more intimate level.
That shocked the holy hell out of him. He nearly rocked back on his heels over that revelation.
Women in distress were nothing new to Donovan. There had never been one whose circumstances hadn’t enraged him. He felt empathy toward each and every victim KGI had rescued or helped in some fashion.
But he’d never felt . . . this. Whatever the hell this was. His emotions had always been involved. His brothers well knew that. They knew women and children were his Kryptonite. No secret there. But this? This was something else entirely that had nothing to do with Eve being a woman on the run. This was something deeper and he suddenly knew he was in some deep shit.
Because this was not a woman he could simply ask out on a date. Exchange good conversation, good food, maybe a goodnight kiss with the hope of a second date and maybe more in the kissing department. Not a woman to be slowly wooed and courted until the moment he took her to bed and made love to her all damn night and woke up to the next morning knowing that he held something special in his arms.
There wasn’t another word that more aptly described this entire situation. It was fucked and so was he.
“I wouldn’t want to impose,” Eve said in a husky voice that sent a jolt down Donovan’s spine. “I appreciate your offer. You’ve been very kind to Travis—to all of us. But we have what we need.”
She hadn’t said all we need. There was a huge distinction between having what she needed and all she needed.
Rusty grimaced and Donovan saw the realization that they couldn’t push more. Not yet. But Donovan wasn’t giving up. He was on a mission now, and when he set his focus on a goal, he never backed down. Eve didn’t realize it yet, but whether she wanted it or not, he was going to help. He just had to decide how the hell to go about it.
EVE breathed a huge sigh of relief as she watched through the window as Rusty and Donovan pulled away. Then she turned back to Travis, who stood in front of the sofa where Cammie sat, her eyes muddled with confusion—and fear.
God, but Eve hated that fear. It gutted her that her baby sister at such a tender age had learned that the very person she should be able to trust most had proved to be a monster. No child should learn fear at such a young age. It made Eve want to weep, but she couldn’t give in to her despair. At least not in front of Cammie and Travis. They depended on her. They needed her. They needed her to be strong. To show no fear or uncertainty. If it killed her, she’d swallow it all back and put up a brave front for her siblings.
“How did they know where we lived?” Eve asked Travis softly.
Guilt surged into Travis’s eyes and she hurried forward, touching his shoulder, having to reach up to his greater height. So tall and strong. A man long before his time. Like Cammie, he should still be a child, with a child’s innocence, and without the knowledge they now held like poison.
“Trav, it’s okay,” she reassured.
He shook his head. “No, Evie, it’s not. I wasn’t careful enough. They must have followed me from the hardware store. I saw a truck following me but I didn’t want to draw attention by running. I had . . . I had hoped it was just a local going in the same direction and when I turned down our road, I paused to look back, but they drove on. They must have doubled back. I’m sorry.”
She pulled him into a hug. “They seem nice. They came all this way to pay you what she owed you and to work out hours you could go in. I’m sure they mean no harm.”
The lie passed easily from her lips. Yes, they seemed nice. Normal. But appearances could be deceiving, as she well knew. Her stepfather was the picture of normal, wholesome. Wealthy. Well connected. A philanthropist. Involved in local politics. Nothing to hint at what lay underneath the smooth, polished exterior. It sickened her.
“Do you want me to quit?” he asked anxiously. “Maybe I should try somewhere else. It just seemed too good to be true. She pays cash. Hasn’t asked any questions. She’s been really nice and I let my guard down.”
“No. I think it would be even more suspicious if you suddenly didn’t show up, especially since they came out and were so nice. They’d wonder why you quit. And another employer wouldn’t be as accommodating. You got lucky. Most wouldn’t pay under the table. And it’s only temporary. Just a few more days until Cammie is well enough to stay with you so I can work.”
“I don’t mind,” he said fiercely. “You’ve done so much for us. This is the least I can do. I won’t let you work yourself to death like you’ve been doing. It’s not fair. You’re supposed to have a life, Evie. You’re young and beautiful and now you’re saddled with two kids to take care of when you should have a family of your own.”
“You are my family,” she said just as fiercely. “I love you and Cammie. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I hate what we had to do. I hate that we have to hide and move. You and Cammie should have a childhood and not be forced to grow up. You’re a teenager, Trav. You should be in school with other kids your age. Playing sports. Having fun. This isn’t fair!”
Cammie’s soft whisper had her and Travis both turning, and Eve instantly regretted having this conversation in front of her.
“We’ll be okay, won’t we?”
Eve rushed to the couch and sat, pulling Cammie into her arms and hugging her tight. She stroked her blond curls and pressed a kiss to her sweet head.
“Of course we will, darling. I don’t want you to worry. Promise me.”