Cammie pulled away and offered a tentative smile and then glanced over at Travis. “We’ll be together always, won’t we?”
Travis sat on Cammie’s other side and wrapped his arms around both Eve and Cammie.
“You betcha, little sis. We’re family. Just like Evie said. We’re going to be fine. He’ll never find us. No one will ever hurt us again.”
Eve’s heart ached at the tenderness and determination in Travis’s voice. She swallowed back the knot of emotion and blinked at the sudden sting of tears. And savored the feel of her siblings in her arms. As if she could protect them from the world. Damn if she wouldn’t do whatever was in her power to ensure their well-being. Whatever she had to do. There were no limits to her love or the sacrifices she’d make to keep them safe.
She turned her face up toward Travis. “Just this week, okay? If you can work this week, then Cammie will be better and I’ll find work. Something during the day so I won’t be gone in the evenings. We can have dinner together. Just like family.”
“I’m feeling better, Evie,” Cammie said in a solemn voice.
Eve stroked her hand through Cammie’s hair and then kissed her temple, leaving her lips there for a long moment. Against flesh that was still warm with fever.
“I know you are, darling. But you need to rest a few more days. No reason to rush now, is it? Tomorrow I’ll do some grocery shopping and I’ll be sure and buy you a special treat.”
Cammie’s eyes lit up. “A treat? I love treats!”
Eve smiled. What little girl didn’t? There was a thrift shop not far from the hardware store where Travis worked. She’d go early, before Travis was due in to work, and see what she could find. Cammie needed a few more shirts and shorts. Something cool since they didn’t have air conditioning and the temperatures were already quite warm despite the earliness of summer.
“It will give you something to look forward to,” Eve said, squeezing Cammie to her once more.
They’d had little to look forward to in the last few months. At times it seemed they’d been running for years. That this was their life, had always been their life. It was hard for Eve to remember what normal was. When she didn’t have the weight of the world on her shoulders and taste fear with every breath.
“I’m sleepy, Evie,” Cammie mumbled, stifling a yawn with a still-messy hand from the burger she’d devoured.
Travis smiled. “Come on. I’ll carry you to bed and tuck you in. That sound good to you?”
In response, Cammie disentangled herself from Eve’s grasp and reached up both arms for Travis to pick her up. He swung her easily into his arms and carried her to the only bedroom, one Cammie and Eve shared, with Travis sleeping on the couch.
When they left the living room, Eve buried her face in her hands, briefly giving in to the crushing despair that hovered over her like the blackest thundercloud.
Oh God, what were they going to do? They couldn’t run forever. They couldn’t escape the past. And not knowing when or how long was eating a hole in her stomach. She had to stay healthy for Cammie and Travis. They depended on her. She was the sole constant in their lives that had been turned completely upside down.
Bitterness assailed her. Hatred. She would have never thought herself capable of such intense hatred. But it was there. Alive and insidious. She’d never even contemplated crime. But she knew she could absolutely kill Walt without remorse. She’d happily spend the rest of her life in jail if it meant that Cammie and Travis would be safe and have a life.
But for now they needed her. She couldn’t leave them. Whatever she had to do to ensure their well-being, she would do. Even if it meant spending the rest of her life running and forever looking over her shoulder.
DONOVAN drove Rusty back to the hardware store so she could pick up her Jeep. As she got out, he called out to her.
“You heading to Mom’s?”
Rusty rolled her eyes. “Of course. Sundays are family dinner days at Mama Kelly’s house, but she made this one sound important. I mean more important than usual. She made it very clear that everyone was to be present, no excuses allowed.”
Donovan chuckled. “Yeah, no doubt she has something up her sleeve. As to what, who knows. I’ll follow you over and we’ll arrive together. I’m sure everyone else will already be there.”
“I’m going to tell them,” Rusty said softly. “I never intended to keep this from them. I hope you know that.”
“I know, honey. And don’t worry. I’ve got your back on this one.”
Warmth flashed in her eyes and her smile widened, making her pretty features even more gorgeous. She really had turned into a very beautiful young lady. Donovan was proud of her, and he lamented the fact that neither he nor his brothers told her that often enough. Mom and Dad, however, made their pride known on a regular basis.
“I’m proud of you, Rusty. I know I don’t tell you as often as I should. But you have a good head on your shoulders. Don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise. And more than that, you have a good heart. You’re going to be irresistible to the male population, which sucks because it means me and my brothers will have to kick a lot of asses.”
Rusty laughed, but her joy was broadcast all over her face.
“It will suck for me a lot more than it will for you! One badass brother is enough. But six badass brothers breathing down some poor guy’s neck? It’ll be a miracle if I ever get one to stick around and suffer the scrutiny.”
Donovan chuckled. “As if that’s going to stop you. I hear about your boyfriends.”
She raised her eyebrows in mock horror. “What boyfriends?”
Donovan snorted. “You know damn well Mom regales us all with stories about your dates. Hell, I’m just surprised she hasn’t asked us to do background checks on the guys you date at college.”
Rusty rolled her eyes. “Oh God, don’t plant that suggestion in her head. She’d totally do it!”
“It’s not a bad idea. It pays to be careful, Rusty. You’re several hours away from your family. A young girl at a big university can’t be too careful, you know.”
Rusty leaned in, her hand on the door. “I am careful, Van. I’ve been around y’all enough to know what kind of assholes inhabit the earth. I know y’all try to be careful not to talk too much about your missions, but I’ve gleaned enough to know what’s out there. I’m careful and you’ve all taught me how to take care of myself. Nathan and Joe took it upon themselves to give me self-defense lessons. Garrett even got involved and wouldn’t let up until I could throw him. I hurt for a week!”
“Glad to know my brothers do have a little sense in their hard noggins,” he said with a grin. “Now let’s get on out of here before we incur the wrath of Mama Kelly. You know how unforgiving she can be when it comes to missing her family meals.”
Rusty checked her watch and then squeaked. “Oh my God, we are so late!”
With that she gave a wave and slammed the door, then dashed to her Jeep and got in. Donovan grinned and pulled away, Rusty close on his bumper.
Yeah, family dinners were the best. But tardiness wasn’t acceptable in Marlene Kelly’s world. She wanted all her chicks present and accounted for, and, well, her chicks toed the line with her.
As Donovan drove toward his parents’ house, his humor dimmed as he went back over Eve and her siblings and the squalor they were living in. His hands tightened on the steering wheel as he contemplated what the hell he could do about it. He needed more information. He even wondered if those were their real names, and if they were, they weren’t doing a very good job of covering their tracks. And that worried him. Because if they were running—and it was obvious that was what they were doing—then at some point, whatever they were running from would catch up.
If that happened, he hoped like hell it was here and not after they’d moved on and disappeared. If whatever was stalking them was going to catch up, then he wanted it to be here where he could protect them.
He shook his head. Not that rage over any woman or child in such a situation was new to him or even a surprise, but his personal reaction to this woman—Eve—well, he wasn’t sure what the hell to make of that.
There’s been something about her. Those eyes. The moment she’d cracked the door of the dilapidated trailer and he’d glimpsed those beautiful, expressive golden eyes, it had been like being sucker-punched in the gut. The more he’d seen, the larger the knot had grown in his stomach. He’d never felt so goddamn helpless in his life, and helplessness was not an emotion he was frequently confronted with.
He was a take-charge guy. He took action. He wasn’t a passive observer to any wrongdoing. Especially when it involved children or women. And yet he’d had to play it cool. To stand there and pretend mild interest. Had to force himself to back off and not come on strong and overwhelm and frighten the hell out of her.
Because he knew. He knew if he’d made any such movement, she would have bolted and he’d never see her again.
The more he pondered the situation, the more he knew he had to gather as much information as he could about her, and he was going to have to be damn discreet about it. And that frustrated him to no end. It wasn’t what he was accustomed to. He solved problems. He took action. It was who he was. It was who KGI was. It was what they stood for.
And now he was going against every instinct deeply in-grained. To walk away. Pretend what he’d seen didn’t matter.
The hell it didn’t.
There was a way. There was always a way. He wasn’t the geek of this organization for nothing. Sure, he had the brawn, but he also had a brain. He could kick ass with the best of them, but his best talent was his intelligence and problem-solving ability. He could work magic with computers and technology. But none of that was going to do him any damn good if he couldn’t get close enough to her to figure her out. And that was going to be the biggest challenge of all.
As he and Rusty had suspected, they were the last of the Kelly clan to roll in. The yard in front of his parents’ house looked like a used-car lot with all the vehicles scattered. By the time Rusty got out, Marlene was already on the porch, a look of exasperation on her face.
“You’re late,” she called out unnecessarily. “I’ve held lunch for half an hour waiting for you two to make your appearance.”
“I know, I know,” Rusty said as she hurried toward the steps. “I’m so sorry.”
Marlene Kelly eyed Donovan, who approached at a slower pace. He had his best puppy-eyed expression in place because it was one his mother couldn’t resist. Judging by the resigned look she gave him, she well knew she was being manipulated.
He dropped a kiss on her cheek after he mounted the steps. “Sorry, Ma. We’ll explain later.”
Her expression immediately became worried and she glanced rapidly between him and Rusty.
“Is anything wrong? Is everything okay?”
“You worry too much, Ma,” Donovan chided. “Everything’s fine. We’ll explain after we have the dinner you’ve already held half an hour. No need to make everyone wait to eat when they’re probably all frothing at the mouth to taste your cooking.”
She glared. “Such a smooth talker you are. You know just how to appeal to my ego to get yourself out of trouble. But all right. Let’s go eat. It’ll wait, but don’t think I’ll forget! We’ll have that conversation before you leave.”
Donovan chuckled. “Of course. Would I hold out on you?”
Rusty laughed and the three entered the house, and Donovan was immediately assailed with the smell of home. Distant conversation. Laughter. A child’s giggle. Coming home never got old. Every time he stepped into his parents’ home, he was immediately at peace. Only today, he wasn’t quite as appeased as he’d usually be because his thoughts were still occupied by Eve, Travis and Cammie, who didn’t have this. Family. That sense of unwavering loyalty and unconditional love.
He was lucky. Damn lucky. And it made his chest tighten to think that only a few miles away was a run-down trailer filled with vulnerable people who were desperately in need.
And indeed, his mother did have something up her sleeve. Something more than the usual family gathering on Sundays, when schedules permitted and none of his brothers were off on missions.
It was evident in the secret smile she threw his dad as they all ate lunch around the huge oak table to which leaves had been added over the years as the family had expanded beyond its original size.
Now with all the wives and grandchildren, the table was massive in length, but his mother had been determined that everyone be able to sit at the table. There was no separation. No kids’ table to the side. Everyone had a seat where she could look down the table and see all her children and grandchildren at a glance.