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The Skull Ruler (Skull 3) Penelope Sky 2022/8/5 16:55:00

He walked over to the counter and grabbed it himself. He examined it then checked the barrel to see if it was loaded. “That’s a good gun. Where did you get it?”

“They’re around the apartment. Don’t expect me to tell you where.”

He smiled again. “Good answer.”

I leaned against the counter and stared at him, waiting for an explanation for his unwelcome appearance. “Are you going to tell me why you’re here?” He was much calmer than he was last time, but his reaction would have been much different if Alessandro were there. He would have lost his temper all over again.

He stepped closer to me, his eyes looking into mine with razor-sharp focus. He was the calm and self-assured man I remembered, someone in control of a situation even though he had no control over the people involved. “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking.”

I’d never expected to see Balto again, but he was in my apartment at eight in the evening, looking at me the way he used to. Like I was his. I kept my arms tight over my chest, letting them rest on my distended stomach.

“I don’t want you to be alone. The idea of you doing this on your own terrifies me.”

I’d expected him to say something completely different, and when I didn’t get the answer I anticipated, the air left my lungs.

“I want to protect you. I want to keep you safe—both of you. Living in an apartment by yourselves is too dangerous. Criminals pick on the weak and exploit them.”

“What makes you think I’m so weak?” I asked, my nostrils flaring. “I had a gun loaded and ready when you walked in that door. I disarmed a bomb based on knowledge Lucian shared with me years ago. I kicked your brother’s ass when he was the one with a gun. Give me more credit than that, Balto.”

His eyes narrowed. “What happens when there are several men? What happened when Lucian’s men attacked us in that restaurant? You ran as hard as you could, but there was no escape. I was the only thing standing in Lucian’s way. We both know I’m the only man in this world who will die for you, who will keep you safe from everyone and everything. Don’t you want that protection for your child?”

Our child. “No. I’m not looking for a man for protection. I’m looking for a man for love. If I wanted protection, I could move in with Case again.”

“But a man needs to provide both—love and security. I can do that.”

“Really? Because you haven’t mentioned love once.” I cocked my head to the side.

He stared at me, his gaze cold.

“I’m not interested, Balto. I’m seeing Alessandro again on Saturday, and I’m looking forward to it.”

The light slowly faded from his eyes, his disappointment vibrant like the colors of a painting. “I want to be with you.”

“No, you don’t. Not in the way I want to be with you.”

“If you love me, why are you seeing him?”

“Because I like him. He’s not afraid to say how he feels. You think I want to be with a man who pities me? News flash, Balto. I’m perfectly fine on my own. I can raise my baby just fine. Lucian is gone, and there’s no one out there who wishes me harm. I don’t need you—at least not for that.”

His nostrils flared as he listened to my rejection. It took him a minute to calm down, to organize his thoughts before he could phrase his next words. “I want to be with you, baby. I’m here because I’m miserable without you. I’m here because the idea of you and Chicken Boy drives me insane. I’m here because I don’t give a damn if that baby isn’t mine—I want to be there for you.”

Finally, he said something actually meaningful. He was a man unafraid of anything, but when it came to his own feelings, he was completely crippled. “Why didn’t you start with that?”

He stepped closer to me.

“Because it’s impossible for you to confess how you feel—even to me. After everything we’ve been through together, it should be the easiest thing in the world.”

“You want to know why it’s so hard?” His voice turned quiet, full of menace. “Let me tell you about the day my mother died. I was pissed at her, over something so stupid I can’t even remember what it was, and she told me she loved me, and instead of saying it back, I hung up on her.”

My eyes softened as the pain pierced through every nerve.

“So yeah, it’s pretty fucking hard for me.”

He’d been carrying that guilt for the last ten years, and it still haunted him to this day. “Then you should want to say it now—because you might lose your chance.”