TWO MEN STOOD IN the middle of a shadowed, barren field. Both were human. One was tall, muscled, with dark hair and a busted-up face. His syn-cotton shirt was torn, his jeans dirty, and his boots scuffed. There were telltale weapon bulges under his arms, at his wrists, and at his ankles.
Clearly, he was the bodyguard.
The other wore a perfectly tailored silk business suit, his Italian loafers freshly polished. His sun-kissed hair was expensively coiffed, and the only bulge he sported was the one in his pocket, where he kept his wallet.
Clearly, he was the money.
Acrid wind shrieked as if someone had cranked a hard rock song on a radio, dancing thick dirt granules in every direction, Money radiated impatience mixed with glee—until two other men materialized a few feet away, and the impatience vanished.
The newcomers had appeared in a blink, without walking a single step: a white-haired Arcadian—an otherworlder with the ability to teleport, among other things—and another human, this one wearing a suit as well, only his was ill-fitting and made from a cheap synthetic fiber.
The human’s arms were cuffed behind his back. He smelled of pungent fear and urine. Poor bastard must have pissed himself.
Without a word, the Arcadian pushed the trembling male to his knees.
Night’s about to get interesting.
The rust-colored sky appeared swollen, the storm-drenched clouds ready to burst. In the center, the sun was a hemorrhaging hook of gold, offering only a fraction of light. That hardly mattered to the witness. From high in the gnarled trees surrounding the field, his gaze cut through the gloom as easily as a knife through flesh.
“You think you can encroach on my territory?” Money snarled down at the kneeler. Another gust of wind created that perfect background music.
“N—no. I just … I … I’m so sorry. I never meant …”
“You never meant to offer New Chicago’s elite prettier girls? Better prices?”
“No. No. You have to believe me. I only thought … hoped …”
“You thought … hoped …” Money sneered. No question, he was a man used to getting what he wanted, when he wanted it. He held out his hand, and Bodyguard smacked the butt of a pyre-gun onto his palm. “Well, your thoughts and hopes just got you killed.”
“No!” Kneeler sobbed like a baby. “Please! Don’t do this. I’ll leave New Chicago. I won’t ever come back. I swear!”
Money nodded to the Arcadian, who jerked his T-shirt over his head and stuffed the material in Kneeler’s mouth. Kneeler shook his head, perhaps to dislodge the cloth, perhaps to attempt another plea for mercy.
Either way, he failed.
“You were right, you know,” Money said, smug now. “You won’t ever come back.” A blaze of yellow light erupted from the barrel of the gun, arrowing out and nailing Kneeler in his chest.
A muffled scream of agony pierced the air. As Kneeler toppled to the ground, twitching, dying as his organs fried to a crisp, Money returned the gun to Bodyguard and wiped his hands in a job well done.
Alien Investigation and Removal Training Camp Day One
TRAINEE AFTER TRAINEE EMERGED from the auto-bus. Some were in their late teens and had just graduated from AIR High, but most were in their early twenties, male, and obviously overwhelmed by the line of instructors watching unabashedly as they carried their bags to their new digs: a rundown, luxuries-are-a-thing-of-the-past bunkhouse in the middle of an isolated valley.
Isolated, and ugly. There was dirt, dirt, and more dirt, with the occasional knotted, naked tree to spice things up. Only thing that wasn’t a complete eyesore was the obstacle course woven throughout the entire mile-long stretch, with its tall but thin brick walls, elevated beams, and manmade holes and pools, but by the end of the day, everyone here would hate the course so much they’d want to burn it down and dance on the ashes rather than look at it.
The few females to disembark, well, they were in their early twenties, too, and just as overwhelmed. Except for the last two. They just appeared eager.
Poor, dumb kids. They’d learn.
Thirteen years ago, Agent Hector Dean had ridden in that bus himself. Everyone on it had been yelled at, demoralized, and slapped around, all in an effort to weed out the pussies. What those two girls didn’t know but should? The yelling, the demoralizing, and the slapping were just precursors for what was to come.
Poor, dumb, about-to-be-traumatized kids.
Hector didn’t have to check the roster to learn the identities of his eager beavers. He’d memorized the stats of all twenty-nine recruits, and recognized the pair from their photos. Ava Sans and Noelle Tremain.
Ava, a twenty-three-year-old fluff of femininity who was barely five nothing in a pair of heels. She had curly brown hair and chocolate brown eyes. Cute in a Sunday school teacher kind of way. Which was ironic. She had a rap sheet with more pages than the Bible.
She’d grown up in Whore’s Corner, the poorest part of New Chicago, with a drugged-out mother and more stepfathers than fingers. Hector could relate. Not about the multiple dads, he’d just had the one, and a fucking terrible one who’d enjoyed watching his young sons prize-fight, but about the drugged-out mom living in Whore’s Corner.
The WC was where Hector had been born, chewed up, spit out, and reformed into the man—or weapon—he was today.
Noelle, also twenty-three years old, though she was a tall, reed-slender slice of elegance, with lighter brown hair that was straight as a board, and eyes of the lightest gray. The product of old money, she’d grown up in the wealthiest part of town, in a giant-ass mansion, with doting servants to attend her every whim.
Hector could not relate.
She was as lovely as a cameo, and appeared to be as untouchable as a goddess. Which was also ironic. She might have a shorter rap sheet than Ava—most likely because her money had bought her a cleaner file—but every one of her arrests had stemmed from touching someone. Violently.
He didn’t mind admitting he’d been somewhat impressed with her before he’d seen her. A former delinquent himself, he knew the gals and guys who’d get down and dirty when necessary, uncaring whether they were hurt—or worse—always made the best agents.
Now he had to reevaluate. She looked like a tasty after-dinner treat ready to throw a tantrum over everything, not a potential badass.
He watched as she stretched her shoulders, her white T-shirt pulling tight over the plump rise of her breasts, the golden sun lancing down and worshipping flawless skin that somehow boasted a post-orgasmic flush. Hector stopped caring about relating and realized he wanted to do a little touching of his own.
Oh, hell, no. Attraction wasn’t something he allowed himself to feel, even in the smallest degree. Touching wasn’t something he allowed himself to do, ever. The one and only girlfriend he’d had, he’d accidentally killed.Goddamn mutant arms, he thought with a snarl. Strong emotion literally fired them up, atomizing both into some kind of hot, molten steel that burned through bodies, ripped out organs, and hell, destroyed anything. Even a woman he only wanted to pleasure. So, lesson learned. He and females were not a good mix.Friend and fellow agent Dallas Gutierrez stood on Hector’s right and moaned as if in pain. “Sweet damn, but those legs are long enough to wrap around me like a pretzel. And God, I love pretzels. Anyone know when we break for lunch?”“That’s my cousin, dickwad,” Agent Jaxon Tremain said from Hector’s left. Had Whacky Jacky been next to Dallas, he would have drilled his knuckles into the guy’s bicep. “Watch your mouth.”“By watch my mouth do you mean I should invite your cuz back to my place for a game of Hide the Magic Wand, or my new personal fave, Puff on the Magic Dragon?” Dallas asked conversationally. “And I know what you’re thinking. I’m really into wizardry these days. Well, you’re right.”Hector gave a rusty bark of laughter. He hadn’t observed Dallas in this good a mood in a long time.A low growl escaped Jaxon. “I meant I’d scoop out your liver with a spoon, you idiot!”“Sterling silver or plastic?” Hector asked. In their line of work, details were important. Besides, he liked being part of their banter. Considering the fact that his work friends were his only friends, and he rarely socialized after hours, this kind of thing made him feel connected, like a part of the team.Team. Something he’d never thought to be a part of, as dangerous as he was, but collaboration was a very important part of AIR. Sometimes the only thing that saved your neck was the man guarding your back.Dallas groused, “I remember the days when you were actually nice.”So did Hector. Once upon a time, Jaxon had been so by-the-book he could have been the book. Then he’d met his wife, Mishka, and the pretty little assassin had somehow infected him with asshole-itis.Jaxon liked to say she’d helped him accept his “true self.” And he actually said it with pride and affection, rather than revulsion, as if being yanked out of the shithead closet was a good thing.No one was pulling Hector out, and that was that. He was the way he was for a valid, life-saving reason, and that reason wasn’t ever going to change. Therefore, neither was he.“You won’t be remembering anything,” Jaxon said on a rumbling breath, “if you say one more goddamn word about my—”“Jaxy!”The argument must have drawn Noelle’s attention because she clapped her hands and twirled. Then, with a carefree laugh, she tossed her overstuffed duffel at Ava, raced across the distance, and flung herself into Jaxon’s open arms.Clapping? Twirling? Seriously? Maybe her record was exaggerated rather than cleaned, because damn, in that moment, the little-girl innocence radiating off her was astounding.Sadly, that wasn’t the turn-off it should have been. With those lush breasts and right side of dangerous curves, she was still one hundred percent woman.Don’t go there. AIR was his life, saving innocents his only goal. He’d spent a good portion of his childhood locked in a cage, and had been forced to listen as his only brother was beaten to death. He never wanted anyone else to suffer that kind of tragedy. More than that, he never wanted to cause another tragedy.Noelle, no matter how hot, was off limits. During camp, and forever after.“I missed you.” As she pulled back to look Jaxon over, she giggled like they were all at a sleepover and pillow fighting. Giggled, yeah, but there were hints of smoke in her voice. The naughty kind that made him think of sex. “You get handsomer—more handsome? Whatever! You’re prettier every time I see you.”“You, too, honey,” Jaxon said. “You, too.”“Just for that, I’m willing to forgive you for not calling, writing, or letting me crash at your place when I was being chased by the law.”The agent chucked her under the chin. “You’re supposed to be aiding the law, Elle.”Elle. The nickname didn’t fit her. It was too cutesy. Which, he supposed, should have fit the china doll in front of him. Actually, it did fit, except for those hints of smoke.“Oh, I’ll aid the law, all right,” she said with a flare of determination. “Just as soon as I’m given a badge.”Hector did his best to cut off his snort. He failed. As if she would last through a single week of training.Before seeing her live and in person, he would have bet she’d soar to the top of her class. After seeing her live and in person … not just no, but are you fucking kidding me no. Whether she was truly violent or just a poser, no one he knew wanted a partner like her.Those silvery-gray eyes flipped in his direction, narrowed briefly, swept up and down his body, as if seeing past his clothes and memorizing every detail. Then she looked away, dismissing him as if she’d found him to be substandard.All right, then. She didn’t find him attractive. Good. That’s actually what he preferred, because it saved him from having to deal with unwanted advances. In fact, he kept his head shaved to a glossy shine for just that reason. He was a man willing to do anything to discourage feminine attention.Because yeah, females could be vanity hounds and most preferred their dates to have hair. Black, blond, red, it didn’t matter, as long as the locks were thick and lustrous. And here was a news flash for little Miss Giggles: when he allowed his to grow, it was dark brown, nearly jet, with hints of gold and worthy of a fucking lion.Not that he was feeling defensive or anything.Besides, even if he’d had hair, Noelle wouldn’t have wanted him. Most females found him a little too intimidating to speak to, much less someone to consider hooking up with. And soft, pretty girl Noelle had to like soft, pretty boys. That’s just the way the world worked.“Ava,” Jaxon said to the Sunday school cutie who’d just ambled over to their group. Her duffel, as well as Noelle’s, sagged from her arms, weighing her down. “Good to see you again.”“Yeah, you, too.” She returned the nod, curls bobbing around her face.So. Ava and Noelle were friends. And long enough for the shorter girl to have met members of Noelle’s extended family. Interesting. With their vastly different backgrounds, Hector never would have paired them.Then again, Noelle enjoyed treating Ava like a servant. And Ava took it.Huh. Why were they here again?Ava leaned over to Noelle and whispered, “Are you meaning to sound like such a douche?”Noelle winked at her.If Hector hadn’t been so focused on the pair, he would have missed the byplay. Now his attention sharpened. So … there were times Noelle didn’t sound like a douche?