She had to break away from the hold of the fog slowly trying to envelop her once more. She had to protect Cammie. She’d do it. Whatever Walt wanted. If he’d only promise to let Cammie go.
She let out a moan of anguish and she licked her lips, trying to speak, puzzled over the raspy sound that came out in its stead.
“I’ll do it,” she finally managed to get out. “I’ll do whatever you want. I’ll do it. But you have to promise to give Cammie back. I’ll be whatever you want.”
Tears choked her words and she realized they were sliding endlessly down her cheeks. Everything she had done had been for nothing. All the running, the endless worry, the sacrifices she’d made and been prepared to make. It didn’t matter because in the end Walt had won after all.
And then to her utter shock, Donovan appeared, his face just over hers, and even more bewildering were the tears sliding down his cheeks, grief and sorrow swamping his eyes.
He touched her face, trying to wipe the tears that ran in a never-ending river. She had no control over them. She’d lost everything that mattered. But how? Why was he here? Where was she?
“Darling Eve,” he choked out. “My God, Eve. Honey, you’re safe. Cammie is safe. Travis is safe. They’re both here and very anxious to see you. Would you like that? They’ve been very worried about you. I’ve been worried about you.”
She nodded eagerly, her ability to speak around the flood of tears knotting her throat utterly gone.
Cammie crawled cautiously onto the bed and then Travis pushed past Donovan, who stood back to allow Travis access to her. She stared up at her brother and sister and she wept.
Cammie hugged her on one side and Travis hugged her on the other. Her arms felt encased in lead, but she managed to lift them and wrap them solidly around her siblings, reveling in the feel of them so warm and alive. Safe. Donovan had said they were safe. They were all safe.
“Don’t cry, Evie,” Travis said in a tortured voice that betrayed his own tears. “Everything is okay now. You’re back. You’re going to be all right. Please don’t cry. We’re okay. All of us. Walt is dead. He can’t hurt us anymore. He can’t hurt you anymore.”
She clung desperately to her brother and sister, not wanting to let go in case this was a product of the drugs that had been forced on her. Was it all just a bizarre manifestation of her heart’s desire? Had she conjured them up and it was all just a hallucination? A trick of the medication?
“You’re real,” she choked out. “You’re here. Oh my God, I was so worried. I thought . . . I thought he had you,” she said tearfully.
Cammie patted her cheek and then wiped away more of the tears that Eve couldn’t manage to stop.
“Don’t cry, Evie,” Cammie said, echoing Travis’s plea. “We can be a family now. A real family. Van said so. Though he said I can call him Daddy and I want to. Can I, Evie? Can I call him Daddy and you Mama?”
“Oh, darling,” Eve whispered. “I love you so very much. But . . .”
She closed her eyes unable to voice what was uppermost on her mind. She couldn’t destroy Cammie’s illusions. It would be cruel.
“Cammie, Travis, can you give me a moment with Eve? There’s a lot I need to explain to her. Go into the living room with Rachel and Sophie. You can come back in just a bit. I promise.”
Cammie kissed Eve’s cheek and then smiled her sweet smile. “Van will make it all better. He promised.”
And then she bounced off the bed and Travis took her hand to lead her out of what Eve now realized was Donovan’s bedroom. They were in his home. In Tennessee. Miles away from where she’d been . . . She didn’t even realize how long she’d been there, or how long she’d been here, for that matter.
Donovan eased onto the bed, enfolding her hand in his. He was shaking, she realized. He looked utterly undone, nothing like the calm, composed man he’d always presented. His eyes were haunted and he looked grief-stricken.
As more of the haze cleared, she took a better look at him and winced at what she saw. He looked haggard. Like he hadn’t slept in days. He was unshaven, his clothing rumpled. He looked like he was hungover after going on one hell of a bender.
“I don’t understand what happened,” she said helplessly. “How did I get here? Why am I here? Travis said Walt was dead. How?”
Donovan stroked her cheek, almost as if reassuring himself that she was here and awake and seemingly well. For a man who professed not to care about her, he looked weak with relief to see her.
“There is so much I need to say to you,” he choked out. “But I don’t want to overburden you. You’ve been out of it for three days. Three of the longest days of my life. And if you aren’t feeling up to this, if you want to rest, then it’ll wait. But Eve, I cannot let you suffer the misapprehension you’re under for a minute longer.”
Her brow furrowed as she struggled to make sense of his impassioned words. She tried to sit up but found she lacked the strength to do so. She looked down in confusion, almost expecting to still be in restraints. But no, her arms had been free. She’d held her brother and sister in her arms, though the effort had cost her considerably.
She did want to drift back into the void. She wanted to float in the sea of nothingness where reality didn’t intrude. And now that she knew Cammie and Travis were safe, that Walt was no longer a threat, she merely wanted to be away from the truth.
But wait. He’d said he didn’t want her to suffer the misapprehension she was under. What did it mean?
“What is it you want, Eve?” Donovan asked, concern burning in his eyes.
“Can you help me sit up?” she asked, shamed that she couldn’t even perform this one small task.
“Of course. But be careful. I don’t want you to overdo it.”
He gently lifted her forward with one arm and then stuffed several pillows behind her back so she was propped up and comfortable. Then he eased her back and she nearly sighed in relief at the comfort of the feather pillows surrounding her like the softest cloud.
“I don’t understand any of this,” she said, still feeling as though she were in some bizarre alternate reality. “You said . . .” She broke off, tears welling again as grief hit her square in the chest.
Donovan scooted closer to her until their bodies were touching, and he gathered her hands in his, leaning forward until their foreheads touched in an intimate manner.
“I never betrayed you, Eve. You have to know that before you know anything else. I love you. I love you with every part of me. There isn’t a single part of me that isn’t solidly, madly in love with you. And I will live with regret for what you suffered as a result of you overhearing an out-of-context snippet of conversation for the rest of my life.”
She looked at him in puzzlement, hope unfurling despite her efforts to pull it back.
“It was a setup,” he explained. “A plan to draw your stepfather out. I was so arrogant. Thought I had it all planned out and he’d just fall into my lap and I’d take him down and you and I would live happily ever after with Travis and Cammie.”
“But I heard you say that I was mentally unstable, that I was a danger to Travis and Cammie and that you were offering me in exchange for Travis and Cammie, that Walt wanted revenge and that he’d have it if you turned me over to him.”
She could barely get the words out as pain, fresh and vivid, flashed in her mind. More and more came back to her as the fog lifted, forcing her to face reality.
He closed his eyes, his forehead still pressed to hers. She felt his sigh, the soft expulsion of breath over her mouth. It was a sound laden with sadness and regret. Had she been wrong? Had she horribly misjudged him? Had she been too quick to convict him? Should she have confronted him?
There were so many what ifs that it made her head spin.
“It was part of the plan. I was working out the details,” Donovan said in an aching voice. “It was what I planned to tell Walt. To sell him on the fact that you didn’t matter to me. That my only concern was for the children. I told him that I was concerned that you needed psychiatric help and would benefit from being under a doctor’s care. I acted as though I didn’t know what an asshole he was, and I was playing the part of a concerned citizen by turning you over to him so you’d receive the help you needed. And I told him that once I was assured that you were no longer a threat to them that I would be willing to send Travis and Cammie back to him. I had hoped that he’d incriminate himself. That he would be enraged that I was holding his children hostage for all practical purposes. But he got to you first and then met with me and agreed to every single one of my stipulations, and I knew then that something was wrong. He was too smug. Too self-assured. And completely unbothered by the fact that I was keeping his children from him. And it turns out I was right because he already had you, and he left straight from our meeting and took you away from me and straight into hell.”
He went silent, and she realized he was valiantly trying to regain his composure. The words had been torn from him, choked, shaky, so filled with emotion that she couldn’t possibly doubt his sincerity.
“I’ll never forgive myself for that,” Donovan whispered. “For what you endured. For making you doubt me even for a moment. I should have told you I loved you. I should have told you I wanted forever with you instead of being vague and talking about being a family. It’s little wonder you were so willing to believe the worst because I didn’t give you reason to expect anything else from me. But Eve, you’re my life. My world. Yes, I love Travis and Cammie, and yes, I want us to be a family. But not without you. You are the heart and soul of this family—our family. Without you, none of us are whole. Not me, not Travis and not Cammie. I want those kids, Eve. Don’t ever doubt it. But I want you. Heart and soul. Body and mind. I want to have children with you. To provide brothers and sisters for Travis and Cammie. I want us to be a family.”
“Oh Donovan,” she whispered, so overcome that his name was all she could say.
His mouth found hers in the most tender of kisses. So gentle and reverent. And so very loving. How could she have doubted him? How could she not have known? Had she been so insecure that she’d been just waiting for the cards to fall and for the bottom to fall out? Had she been so unwilling to believe that such goodness and love existed that she’d just bided her time, believing all the while that it couldn’t possibly be real?
The answer to all of those questions was yes.
“I’m so sorry,” she choked out.
He lifted his head to frame her face in his palms. His eyes were fierce, blazing with intensity.
“You will never apologize to me, Eve. Never. I won’t have it. I should be on my knees begging you for forgiveness, and if you’ll give me the chance, I’ll spend the rest of my life proving to you that no one will ever love you more than I do. No one will ever cherish you more than I. And I will never give you cause to regret placing your trust in me.”
She couldn’t even form a coherent response. There was so much she wanted to say but knew she didn’t have a prayer of getting it all out. Tears coursed down her cheeks, colliding with his hands.
“Please tell me those are tears of joy or even relief,” Donovan begged. “Anything but sadness, Eve. You’ve had far too much sadness in your life and I only want you to be happy from now on. And I want to be the person who makes you happy. I’ll do whatever it takes to make you smile again.”
She smiled back at him, shaky, but she poured every ounce of the joy welling in her soul into her smile so he would know, so he would have no doubt.
He caressed her face with both hands, back and forth, wiping away the tears as his expression grew even more serious.
“Can you ever love me, Eve? Do I have a chance at making you love me even half as much as I love you?”
“Oh God, Donovan,” she said raggedly. “I do love you. So very much. I have loved you. Almost from the start. I knew the night we made love, that very first time, but I was so very afraid to hope. I worried that it was too soon, that I was too caught up in the moment and I was afraid to tell you because I wasn’t sure of your feelings. And then when I heard . . .”
“Shhh,” he said, warmth and answering joy lighting his eyes. “We’ve already covered what you heard and I want you to forget it. I realize you won’t just forget it and that it will still hurt you when you think about it, but when you do I want you to remember one thing. That I love you and that I want us to have a long life together filled with love, laughter and happiness. And that I want Travis and Cammie to be a part of that and any other children you and I have down the road. But for now, I’m perfectly content with the family we have. More children can wait until both Travis and Cammie are secure enough in our love for them and each other.”