Another round of congratulations went up and more mad hugging ensued. Rusty glanced at Donovan, unease present in her eyes. He knew exactly what she was thinking. That she shouldn’t say anything to ruin the moment. But he shook his head and looked pointedly at her. His father needed to know. His family needed to know. Then they could brainstorm the situation after they knew everything there was to know. And Donovan could make it clear where he stood. That he planned to do whatever necessary to help Eve and her siblings.
The Kelly family as a united front was a daunting, overwhelming force of nature. One that Eve had no hope of resisting. They’d cover her up with so much love and understanding and support that she’d never have to worry about going hungry again. And in time, she’d know without a doubt that whatever it was she feared, that she didn’t have to fear it any longer. The Kellys—Donovan—would protect her. No matter what.
“This is better than Christmas,” Joe said with a grin. “Don’t think I’ve seen the family together and this happy since the first Christmas Rachel was back home with us.”
There were many responses to his proclamation. Ethan’s gaze, though happy, was momentarily shadowed by the re-minder of all he’d lost—and miraculously regained. Just a brief shadow, one that had been finally erased with time—and the knowledge that Rachel was back and that he wouldn’t lose her again.
“This family has been through a lot,” Frank said gravely. “But we’re Kellys, and above all Kellys prevail. We overcome. Nothing will ever get us down as long as we remain a strong, family unit.”
“Hooyah,” Ethan murmured, which immediately precipitated groans and good-natured ribbing from his non-Navy brothers.
“I hate to be the damper on so much good news,” Rusty began hesitantly.
The moment she spoke, every head turned her way. Marlene immediately glanced between Donovan and Rusty as if remembering that they’d arrived late, together. And that Donovan had told her they’d let her know what was going on later.
Donovan reached over to squeeze Rusty’s hand under the table. Just a reminder that he was here and that he had her back.
She glanced gratefully at him but continued on. She didn’t put it off on him. Didn’t say that she and Donovan had something to say. She put it out there herself. Took full responsibility. Donovan respected her for that. He was damn proud of her.
“I hired someone part time at the hardware store.”
There were raised eyebrows all around, and Frank immediately looked confused. But Donovan had to give his brothers credit. They didn’t immediately launch into a thousand questions, nor did they interrogate Rusty or ask her what the hell she’d been thinking.
“When did this happen?” Frank asked in a puzzled tone.
Rusty swallowed and glanced back at Donovan, asking for silent support. He nodded and encouraged her to continue on. He’d step in when the time was right. For now she needed to give the details.
“He’s a kid,” she said quietly. “Fifteen years old. He’s in . . . trouble.”
When the table erupted in questions and scowls—the usual Kelly response to anyone in need—she held up her hand, and they quieted.
She took a deep breath. “He’s hungry. I know how that feels. As I told Van, he could be me—he is me—at that age. Desperate. He’s a good kid, though. I know y’all will think I’m crazy. Or naïve. But I know he’s a good kid. He’s quiet. He’s a hard worker. He has two sisters he’s trying to support and feed. And oh my God, y’all. What they’re living in. It makes me want to cry for them.”
Marlene’s expression was immediately fierce. “How old are his sisters? Where are his parents? Why didn’t you come to us immediately? You have to know we’d be willing to help them.”
Rusty nodded. “I do know. I do. It just happened yesterday. He came in and asked if we needed any help. And I know I shouldn’t have done it without asking, but I was afraid he’d walk out and never be back if I told him I’d have to see. So I made the decision and put him to work. I paid him in cash out of my own money.”
Donovan’s brothers scowled. Not in disapproval over Rusty. They’d gotten past that stage. But there was worry in their eyes. Not only of the kid Rusty had helped but over Rusty and the fear that she could be harmed.
“I went by today,” Donovan said, speaking up for the first time.
Rusty sent him a grateful look for taking over. The entire table went quiet as they waited for Donovan to continue.
“It’s why Rusty and I were late. I drove by the hardware store and saw Rusty’s Jeep outside. I knew it was Sunday and so I went in to check and see what she was doing there. The kid was working and Rusty said he was hungry and she wanted to follow him home and check out his situation. See if he was in trouble at home and what kind of living conditions he had.”
There was an instant round of objections as his brothers voiced their disapproval over Rusty going into a blind situation. One where she could easily be hurt or killed.
Donovan held up his hand. “I went with her. We followed the kid home. It’s bad,” he said after a pause. He knew he couldn’t keep his emotions from the others. Couldn’t keep his expression blank. They saw his reaction and they went silent and thoughtful, frowns creasing their brows.
“He has an older sister. Looks to be early to midtwenties. And a much younger sister. Charlotte’s age. They’re living hand to mouth in complete squalor. It’s awful. I couldn’t stomach it. I hated to leave them there.”
“Why did you?” Garrett asked curiously.
The same question was in all of his brothers’ eyes. They well knew his propensity for going in and doing what needed to be done. His softness for women and children in need. It likely did puzzle them as to why he would have walked away.
“Because they’re in trouble,” Donovan said quietly. “The bad kind of trouble that has nothing to do with being dirt-poor and having nothing to eat. They’re running from something and running hard. They’re scared to death, living every moment in fear of discovery.”
“Fuck,” Sam muttered, earning an instant glare of reprimand from his mother over his language at the dinner table.
“What are you going to do?” Garrett asked quietly.
Because it was a foregone conclusion in his brother’s eyes that Donovan would act. He wouldn’t just stand back and allow a situation like this to go unchecked.
“The boy—Travis—is fifteen. The little one—Cammie—has been sick. My guess is that Eve has been staying with her while Travis found work just to put food on the table and buy medicine for her.”
“Oh my Lord,” Marlene whispered, her voice aching with pity. “We have to do something, Donovan. We can’t just stand by and let them go hungry and without.”
Donovan smiled at the answering agreement in all his family’s faces.
“No, Ma, I don’t plan to. But Rusty wanted you to know what she’d done and why. And I support her on this. I’ll gladly pay Travis’s salary out of my pocket. She’s going to let him work this week whenever he wants to come in. They desperately need the money. But we have to be careful how we handle this. If we come on too strong, they’ll cut and run. I saw the desperation—and fear—in their eyes. We have to tread very lightly.”
“No need for you to pay for his salary,” Frank said. “I’ll gladly take on the kid. If what Rusty says is true and he’s a good worker, I could use him around the shop. I’d gladly hire him on and pay him in cash like she’s been doing.”
“Just be careful,” Rusty warned. “Don’t question him. I’ve been very careful not to pry. He’s scared and he’ll bolt. I was him once. I know what he’s thinking. He doesn’t trust anyone. He’s been conditioned to expect the worst in people. As Van said, we have to be very careful about anything we do, because they’ll run. Eve said as much when we were at their house. I hesitate to call it a house. It’s a horrible, run-down, leaking, dilapidated trailer.”
“What do you want us to do?” Rachel asked softly.
Donovan’s other sisters-in-law all looked to him and Rusty, the same question burning in their eyes. How could they help? He loved that they all had hearts the size of Texas and that they’d do anything at all to help someone in need.
His brothers might run a kick-ass organization devoted to helping those in danger, but his sisters-in-law were warriors in their own right and as formidable as KGI was any day of the week.
“For now, nothing,” Donovan said. “I need to find out all I can about them and their situation. Try to figure out what they’re running from. Travis will continue to work in the hardware store, and I plan to get out there and bring food and other supplies. Hopefully get to know them more so they’ll trust me. If the entire Kelly clan descends on them, it’ll just overwhelm them, and as Rusty said, they’ll run.”
His mom didn’t look happy with his dictate, but she nodded her agreement.
“They need our help,” Donovan added, his voice grim with resolve. “And I’m going to give it.”
His brothers smiled ruefully in his direction.
“We would expect nothing less,” Sam said.
DONOVAN knew it wouldn’t take long to get cornered by his brothers once the furor of lunch had settled and everyone had gotten up from the table and helped with cleanup. Donovan had purposely slipped out onto the back deck and waited for his brothers to follow. He knew them too well to think they’d just let it go and not question him intensely over Eve and her brother and sister.
He stood on the deck and stared out over the backyard. A place where memories had been built over the decades. He smiled, remembering many a barbecue. Wrestling with his brothers. Rusty’s graduation, when Nathan had seemed to come out of his shell after his horrific imprisonment in the Middle East. It still chilled Donovan’s blood, how close they had come to losing their younger brother.
If not for Shea . . . Donovan shook his head. At Rusty’s barbecue, he and Nathan had wrestled, just like old times, and Donovan had been so relieved that he was seeing the old Nathan and not the shell of his younger brother that had returned, broken and changed. And then Nathan had freaked out. Tucked and ran from his parents’ house like the hounds of hell were nipping at his heels. All because Shea had finally made contact again. She was in trouble, and Nathan had moved heaven and earth to get to her.
And now they were both home where they belonged. Married. Happy. In love. Just like all his older—and two younger—brothers.
He smiled ruefully. Ma had ribbed Joe at the table about settling down, but he knew that he was on her list as well. He was older than Joe and in his mother’s mind, he should be next.
His thoughts drifted once again to Eve. What was her story? How old was she? She had an ageless look to her. She could be anywhere from twenty to thirty. She looked young, and yet when he looked into her eyes, he saw a much older woman. He saw the knowledge gleaned from years of experience. Of lessons learned the hard way. And he saw fear. He hated that the most. That this woman was struggling to keep it together, that she had so much responsibility. Younger siblings to take care of when she couldn’t even take care of herself.
He wanted to barge in and demand answers. He wanted to know everything. What she was running from. And then he wanted to move that same heaven and earth that Nathan had moved in order to help Shea.
He had the house. He had the space for Eve and her brother and sister. He wanted them there. He realized that. As crazy as it sounded, he wanted nothing more than to move them into the compound and under his roof where he knew they would be protected. Where he could gain their trust and hopefully get them to open up about what was scaring them so badly.
And he knew he wouldn’t like their answers—provided they ever gave them. He knew it was bad. The fact that a four-year-old baby girl looked at him with terror—and knowledge of all the bad things in the world, something no four-year-old should ever be acquainted with—told him everything he needed to know.
His fingers curled into tight fists. Helpless. He felt so damn helpless and he hated it. Hated that he knew he couldn’t just go in like this was a mission, act, remove the threat and ensure the safety of Eve and those precious children. He had to be very careful and take it slow, and that ate at him.
“You’re slipping, old man,” Sam said dryly from behind him. “You never even heard us come out.”
Donovan turned to see Sam and Garrett standing there studying him. They knew something was on his mind and that this thing with Eve was bothering him. They could read him like a book. Always had been able to. But then Donovan wasn’t someone who shielded his thoughts or his emotions. He’d never tried.