TWENTY-SIX

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Mark froze, shock stiffening his spine. His gut told him to keep moving, but he turned back to face Paul instead.

"That's right. It took me awhile to figure it out," Paul said, stepping down to the porch. He was in civilian clothes for a change, jeans and a grey T-shirt. Muscles flexed as he shifted his arms. He was clearly on edge, itching for a fight. "When I saw one of your buddies at the courthouse a few days ago, I started getting this weird vibe. I knew I recognized him from somewhere, and then it dawned on me—Steve Morgan. I met him at Quantico, years ago. We attended a summer OCS together."

Goddamn it! Mark stood still and silent, waiting for Paul to make his point.

"He was quite the rising star from what I remember. The Corps had big plans for him. Last I heard, he had invented some new water purification system for the bases in Afghanistan. After that he disappeared, assigned somewhere else. I never heard much more about him." Paul spread his arms wide. "But, ta-da, here he is. Your glorified bodyguard."

"Yeah, so what? Ex-Marines make great security guards."

Ignoring him, Paul started walking, circling Mark where he stood. "So, I asked around a little. Man, let me tell you, you are in deep. Just asking about you two got everyone in a panic." He laughed as his fingers played out mid-air quotations. "Mucho restricted." He shrugged. "I've heard stories about undercover infiltrations into civilian organized crime, but I always assumed they were urban legends."

Paul came to a stop and leaned back against the railing, crossing his arms at his chest. "Being a judge advocate gives me certain advantages. It is quite the file they have on you. Recruited at a young age, finding solace in the mentoring program after a somewhat traumatic childhood, you climbed through the ranks quicker than most, becoming a favorite with the top brass. No family to hold you back except for, of course, your sister and nephew, who only opened the door to Augustus Chilvati. All you had to do was walk through it."

A smug smile eased onto Paul's face, giving Mark a pretty good indication of what his own must look like.

"Oh, yes, I know that little fun fact too," he drawled.

I'll wipe that stupid-ass grin off his face, Mark promised himself.

Paul went on, as if reading his thoughts and knowing he was getting close to that rematch he wanted. "As for your other men, I've checked their files too. Each has their own special abilities: Bruce Morgan, electronics expert; Adam Wise and Ben Moyer, reconnaissance men. All previously part of an elite unit under your command nicknamed 'The Silent Ones' "—he waved a hand in the air—"mainly because of that whole affinity for knives thing you've all got going on."

Pushing himself from the railing, Paul straightened and cocked his head. "Any of this sounding familiar?"

"You done?" Mark ground out.

"For now."

"I hope you didn't tell your sister any of your ridiculous theories."

"I'll make you a deal. Stay away from her and she'll never have to know. She doesn't need all your convoluted shit." Green eyes drilled into his.

Her green eyes, Mark thought.

They stayed like that, fixed in a non-verbal, non-physical combat, until Mark's focus turned back to Virginia. She was the priority right now. Stay away from her? That was not going to happen unless she asked him to, but he would have to deal with Paul later.

Mark nodded and stepped back, putting some distance between them. "Captain," he said with a commanding intonation he hadn't used in years.

Paul's reaction was a habitual one, pulling his feet together to stand stiff and straight before responding, "Colonel."

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