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    She broke off, and Jonas had to blink back the burn in his eyes, swallow past the thickness of his throat. Ely was such a proud little creature. With her velvet dark eyes and her pointed little chin that held such stubbornness. Even her sometimes contrary nature was little more than a woman's pride as she fought to make decisions too heavy for her fragile shoulders.

    "But it could have easily been me," he told her. "Or Callan. Or even Kane or Tanner. Would you have blamed them, Ely? Would you have turned your back on them and ever blamed them for something that you realized you shared the blame in? We were arrogant believing the labs so safe and our greatest treasure invincible. It was our fault you were touched by that evil, not yours. Your job is to protect us when we're brought to you. Ours is to make certain evil never invades your domain. The failure was ours, little cat, not yours."

    She sniffed and shook her head.

    Ely hadn't known the horrors of the labs. From birth, she had been the star child of the scientists who created her. The finest, most intelligent genetics had gone into her creation, and she had been treated with the utmost care to ensure she was never damaged.

    She had seen the horrors. She had been horrified by them and fought to protect the Breeds she had been created to torture. But she had never experienced that pain herself. It had never been hers before now.

    "You can't look me in the eye and allow me to apologize, yet you so easily punched me in the face and called me a ‘fucking girl pu**y,' " he chided her. "Really, Ely. Where's the fairness in that?"

    A tearful laugh escaped her lips.

    "And I'll never, as long as I live, forget the look on Jackal's face when you grabbed his crotch. You know, Ely, that man has seen everything, done everything, but I do believe you nearly brought him to his knees."

    She moaned and covered her head with her hands. And perhaps others would call him cruel for reminding her of what he knew mortified her. But Ely was made of sterner stuff than that, he assured himself. Besides, others would never allow her to forget it, and preparing her now was for the best.

    "Bastard," she whispered tearfully.

    He sighed. "FGP," he told her. "Fucking girl pu**y. You are aware that title is now being whispered behind my back, aren't you, Ely? You really need to drag your ass off that mattress and get back to work so I can get a little strip of your hide in return."

    She almost laughed; he felt it.

    "Ely." He said her name softly. "Look at me, just for a moment."

    He waited patiently. Finally she pushed her hair back and lifted herself enough to turn and look at him. And he opened his arms to her. "Please, Ely. The guilt is killing me. I didn't protect my favorite girl. Forgive me. Please."

    And her tears came now. From eyes bruised with fatigue and pain, as dry lips parted and the cries came. She burrowed into his arms, against his chest. She pulled her legs tight against him, and he wrapped her in his arms and fought his own tears.

    Sweet Ely. How could he ever look himself in the mirror after what he had allowed to happen to her? If he couldn't protect her, how could he ever protect anyone else?

    He rocked her; he crooned to her, kissed her forehead gently.

    "Never again, little cat," he promised her tenderly. "Never again. I swear it."

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