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Closing the distance between him and Skull in a way that could not be misinterpreted, he got chest to chest and eye to eye with him.

“Let’s go back to talkin’ about you downin’ my man and targeting my woman, I wanna hear a little more about that,” he said quietly in a way that stated clearly he didn’t actually want to hear about that, he wanted to rip Skull’s head off.

“Uh-oh,” Elvira mumbled.

But it was safe to say I’d had enough. I’d been broken into, firebombed, shot at, abducted and imprisoned, kidnapped, tied up and targeted and almost used as bait by an undercover DEA agent who was obsessed with getting the bad guy. I was not going to let my new boyfriend get arrested for assault and battery.

Enough was e-fucking-nough!

I let go of Elvira’s hand, stood and shouted, “Stop it!”

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Hawk and Skull didn’t separate but both their heads turned to me.

My eyes went to Skull. “I understand and admire your mission but this is America which means I’m free to choose if I wish to participate in your mission. And should I choose to do so I’m entitled to the training I’d need to maybe make it out the other end alive. You didn’t give me that choice which is not cool. But, FYI, I would have chosen no. I wear high heels, drink cosmopolitans and edit books. That’s my life choice. I don’t go undercover. I have no desire to do that. The streets may be flooded with drugs, I’m sorry to hear that, I wish it wasn’t true and I want to express my best of luck to you on seeing that situation altered but I know enough about myself to know I wouldn’t have been able to help much in that situation even if I would have wanted to. I would have messed everything up. But there are people, like you, who would make a different choice, they would have been able to help and, bottom line, you should have found another way.” I sucked in breath and continued. “Now, my sister is tied up in this shit, I knew it was bad but now I, and incidentally my and Ginger’s Mom, know it’s worse so if you wouldn’t mind controlling your testosterone, standing down and regrouping in order to fight another day I’d appreciate it because I’ve had a pretty bad day, Brett and Betsy’s have been worse, and we don’t need anything to make it suck any more than it already does.”

This was received quietly, all the badasses and badass commandos simply staring at me so I went on.

“And baby,” I said, my eyes going to Hawk, “I can appreciate you’re upset about Brett and having to rescue me again but if we find out Brett’s going to be okay, you promised me a night out and I don’t think you meant that night was me visiting the police station to talk to you on a phone through glass. I don’t have a visit your incarcerated boyfriend outfit and,” I leaned in, “I don’t want one.”

“Tell it like it is, hon,” Elvira muttered and I could tell it was through a smile.

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Hawk didn’t move and his expression didn’t alter, the same true for Skull.

“Stand down from the DEA agent, Hawk,” I ordered and he continued to scowl at me so I quieted my voice and urged, “Baby, Betsy needs you now.”

Hawk scowled at me some more then he stepped away from Skull but demanded to me, “Come here.”

He may have stepped away but none of the tenseness left the room and I briefly debated the merits of running for my life rather than approaching Hawk but when his eyebrows went up I decided to take my chances and approach Hawk.

The second I did, his hand hooked around my neck, he yanked me toward him so my head collided with his chest, his arm locked around my shoulders and his other hand wrapped around my wrist. He pulled it up so it and its red welts and bits of broken skin were level with Skull’s eyes.

“This is on you,” he said quietly and released my wrist but his fingers slid down and curled around my hand so he could pull it around his middle and he left it at the side of his waist. “She loses sleep, that’s on you. I lose my man, that’s on you. Either of those last two happen, I’ll make it my mission that you never forget they’re on you. We clear?”

Apparently they weren’t for Skull returned, “My play was allowed to go down, I woulda kept her safe and I would have saved her sister.”

Hawk pulled in his lips and bit them at the same time his arm tightened around me and I knew both of these were efforts at control. What he didn’t do was respond so Skull’s eyes came to me.

“I would have kept you safe,” he repeated.

“And I would have appreciated a choice in whether you had to expend that effort,” I replied.

“Gwen, the work I do saves lives but don’t think you watched this play out and can mistake me for a man who doesn’t understand that those lives I’m savin’ are worth the exchange of a good woman,” Skull returned.

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“Thanks for that but if that’s true, how do you explain Brett?” I shot back and Hawk’s arm got even tighter around my shoulders.

“Because,” Skull said gently, his face had changed, he still looked rough, rock ‘n’ roll, ultra-cool hot guy but the way his face changed and his voice gentled, his hotness quotient, I, unfortunately and automatically due to vast amounts of study on the subject, noted entered the stratosphere, “he works for your man so I know he’s a man who puts on his boots every day understanding what happened to him today is always an eventuality and, knowin’ that, he’ll have planned for it. And I also know, he works for your man, he had that choice you’re pissed I didn’t give you, he wouldn’t have even taken the time to blink before he decided he was willin’ to take his chances to play my play.”

Shit. I was guessing he had a point there.

I decided to stop talking. Skull waited for me to say more and there was something about that, him giving me the time to speak my piece, say what I had to say that I didn’t want to admit, because he was not my favorite person, was nice.

And it was then I realized that the entire time he had me in that filthy apartment, he actually was standing guard protecting me, but in a good way. And the reason he looked so unhappy wasn’t because I scratched his arms. It was because he was a good guy who, for the greater good, was enduring a life pretending to be a bad guy. He’d been involved in an operation where one on his side went down and, for that greater good, he found himself in a circumstance which was much like I suspected many circumstances he’d come up against the last year and a half in order to maintain his cover. He had to make a decision, let it happen and was powerless to do anything about it.

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