Yeah, uh, she really had to stop (not) thinking about him.

This attraction … she didn’t understand it, didn’t understand why his intensity fascinated her. Or why she’d missed him so damn badly. Or how he’d pepped her up while he was here. How he’d pushed and pushed and pushed, yet hadn’t sent her into a frenzy of self-destruction.

Maybe because he didn’t do it to malign her character. He did it to make her a better agent, someone who saved lives and protected those who couldn’t protect themselves. He’d actually distracted her from her loneliness, making her forget all about that ever-gnawing void inside her. He’d given her purpose.

Or maybe the lack of sting was because he looked at her, really looked at her, as if she were a person worthy of his time and attention. And even though he’d shouted, he hadn’t called her names.

For that reason, she’d abandoned her revenge plans for him. So he’d kissed her and rejected her. Wasn’t a punch to that gorgeous mouth enough?

But again … why did she feel this way about him?

Sure, he was like no one she’d ever met before and he didn’t care about making nice. He treated everyone with the same sense of cold detachment—except Noelle. With her, he barked orders and assumed she’d just comply. When he didn’t get it, he physically forced the issue.

Sometimes he joked around with the other agents, and he was relaxed, casual. Yet still he radiated all kinds of ferocity, as if he couldn’t quite lower his guard all the way. With anyone.

What would it take to relax him absolutely? What would he be like that way?

She’d never know, she was sure. Because … oh, God … she was going to talk to him and at last douse the chemistry sparking between them. Or at least, on her end. One conversation, and she could finally stop (not) thinking about him. She just knew it. He’d snarl, of course, and she’d remember how grumpy he was. He’d tell her he wasn’t interested, and she’d remember she wasn’t into proving herself.

She tiptoed to Ava’s bunk and sat at the edge of the mattress. “Ava,” she whispered. No lights were shining over the bunk, no moonlight washing over the bed, but Noelle had been awake for the past hour and her eyes had long since adjusted to the darkness. “You up?”

“Oh, good. Quick question. Let’s say, hypothetically, that I snuck out.” Walking over to the instructors’ cabin wasn’t a crime. For all they knew, she’d spotted something suspicious. But a girl never knew what the agents would decide to complain about.

Can’t get a third strike. She did, and she doubted she’d be allowed to stay.

And now … now she really wanted to stay.

She finally understood what all the fuss was about. She was good at this.

Challenged. Intrigued. She thrived where others failed. And, if given a chance, she could make a difference in the world; she could save lives, destroy killers.

Having a goal was nice, and something she hadn’t known she’d needed. But every day she felt a little more centered, a little more driven.

“Would you cover for me?” she asked, already knowing the answer. “I don’t want any of the other trainees to know what I’m doing.”

A big yawn, a total body stretch. “Did you get slapped upside the head today? Of course I’ll cover for you.”

“Nope.” She had to do this on her own. She eased to a stand, the stupid mattress creaking.

Ava sat up, satin curls falling all around her face. “So where are you going?”

She couldn’t lie to her friend. She wouldn’t. “To see Hector Dean. He just arrived. I want to … talk to him.” And a whole lot more, but she wouldn’t do more, even if he begged. Definitely.

Noelle had only been with two men. The first, a mistake in high school. The next day, the slimy bastard had told everyone at school how he’d popped her cherry. Within hours, she’d become a raging slut.

Of course, Ava had then popped his cherry red sports car into his parents’ living room wall. Noelle still got all weepy when she remembered. Such a heroic gesture. A gesture that had marked Ava’s very first arrest.

They’d celebrated by stealing very expensive champagne, and that had marked Noelle’s.

The second guy, Corban, she’d chosen more carefully. Or so she’d thought. Even though he was an otherworlder, he’d come from a wealthy background. And even though he’d come from a wealthy background, he’d proven himself to be a warrior at heart. He hadn’t chosen law enforcement or anything like that, but professional football.

They’d met at a cocktail party, and he’d come on strong. At first, he’d made her feel pretty. Special and accepted. When they began dating officially, however, that’s when the criticism had started.

A girlfriend of his would never.… fill in the blank.

A girlfriend of his had to … fill in the blank.

Men were complications. Men were hassles. And though Noelle wanted to open herself up and take a chance—in theory—she hadn’t yet.

Since the break-up, she had dated other guys. A lot of other guys. Always within the first hour, she found a thousand things wrong, and declined all invitations to go for a second round.

Strangely, she’d found a thousand things wrong with Hector, but she still wanted to see him. Again and again. Preferably naked.

“Noelle, you little hussy,” Ava whispered. “Are you still with me?”

She shook herself back into the present. “Now I am, my darling—wait, do you prefer little person, vertically challenged, or pocket rocket?”

A grinning Ava reached up and patted her cheek with a bit too much force.

“Oops, sorry. Sometimes I don’t know my own strength. Now as I was saying. After the way Hector stared at your twins that day, I’m gonna pretend I never uttered the word dibs, but only for tonight. ’Cause you know, the first taste is free.”

“So you’ve told me. This will be the second taste.” If anything happened. Which it wouldn’t.

Ava didn’t miss a beat. “The first and second tastes are free. You want a third, you’ll have to pay.”

“I never doubted it.” Noelle nibbled on her bottom lip. “If I’m not back by morning, send robo-cadaver dogs after my body. Hector’s killed me.”

I wish. No, no, she didn’t wish. They were going to chat, nothing more. “No, with a vengeance stick.”

She had to smother her laughter with both hands.

“By the way,” Ava said, “I’m rooting for you. Oh, and I have this strange feeling that you should check your phone for messages. See ya.” She lay back down, but Noelle knew the girl wouldn’t sleep. She’d listen and she’d wait, and if anyone woke up or came inside and noticed Noelle was missing, she’d take care of it.

Outside, Noelle jumped down the fire escape, landed in the dirt, the moonlit air cool as she pressed her back against the dilapidated bunkhouse wall. When no one sounded an alarm, she whipped out her phone. The new message? A photo of Noelle with her face scrunched up, about to sneeze.

Little witch, she thought with an inward laugh.

Storing her phone in her back pocket, she considered her options. The path from bunkhouse hell to instructor’s paradise would take fifteen seconds, give or take a few depending on her hustle, and was completely illuminated. No one was outside, but if an agent were to walk past one of the many windows, she’d be spotted instantly.

No reason to worry about the trainees. Ava would tackle whoever wanted outside and perform a total knockout. Besides, after this morning’s torture session, everyone was mentally and physically exhausted and more likely to die in their beds than get up to so much as pee.

Apparently the only way to learn how to interrogate your targets was to be interrogated. Also apparent, interrogation sometimes involved getting beaten to a pulp. Noelle’s ribs had stopped her instructor’s fist from slamming into the back of her chair, oh, about thirty times, and they were now probably cracked as hell.

Thanks to the nerve-frying procedure, those cracks hadn’t and wouldn’t bother her. Noelle wouldn’t even know if she were dying. In fact, the only time she ever knew something was wrong was by the bruising—she had that in spades right now—or if she passed out from blood loss.

Her father had thought he was doing her a favor, and yeah, maybe he had, but the process had inadvertently destroyed some of her pleasure receptors, too. Now a guy had to really work to give her an orgasm.

Would Hector be able to give her an orgasm?

She didn’t have to think about the answer. After that combustible kiss they’d shared, yeah. He would be able to give her one without trying.

Don’t think about that right now. The mission was more important. Okay, so. She could either walk with purpose and risk enemy—aka instructor—capture and have to explain her presence, or crawl and risk damaging her ribs further, possibly cutting into her lungs and not knowing it until she woke up in a hospital bed. Also, she’d ruin her pretty cotton T-shirt that way.

She’d walk, she decided. The T-shirt was a gift from Ava and read Good Girls Need Spankings Too.

To her relieved surprise, no one spotted her and she reached the cabin without incident. Another surprise, the window closest to her was open, allowing fresh air inside and noise outside. She propped her arms on the pane and leaned in. Sounds, so many sounds. Laughter, cheering, taunting, curses, beer slurping, glasses tinkling together.

No wonder the agents hadn’t paid any attention to possible infiltration. They surrounded a holoscreen and were watching a football game. Otherworlders had only been accepted into the NFL a few drafts ago, and no one had known what to make of that until after the first few games. Violence on the field had intensified, and so had the love of the fans.

Noelle had a profile view of everyone, and wow, Hector had the most wonderfully sloped nose, a little bump in the middle. Probably from being broken so many times. A girl could get ideas about that bump. Like kissing it all better.

“Damn, but Corban Blue is the best quarterback I’ve ever seen,” Dallas said after finishing off his beer and grabbing another from the cooler beside him. “He’s got an arm like a cannon. He throws and the ball just shoots to the receiver like it’s on a string and being tugged.”

Think of the past, and boom, it would fill your present.

Corban. An Arcadian with long white hair, eyes of the most brilliant violet, and the face of God’s favorite angel. Would Dallas (cough Hector cough) be shocked to know Noelle had dated him? That she and Corban had practically lived together once upon a time? Something they’d managed to keep out of the media. An easy trick when you owned a lot of the media outlets in your city.

“We should recruit him,” Hector said, slamming his glass into Dallas’s in some kind of parody of a toast. What long lashes he had, fanning out like a peacock’s tail feathers. “Imagine him tossing a target like that. With his perfect aim, he could have the body in the back of our cars without us ever having to take a step.”

Dallas whistled. “Goddamn, Agent Meanie. I like the way your mind works. Noelle must not have damaged your brain as much as we feared.”

Hector grinned. “Doctor asked me if I’d introed my face to the windshield of a Mack truck.”

A grin. A freaking grin. And there were dimples in his cheeks. Noelle barely stopped a dreamy sigh from leaving her. Mostly relaxed, a lot amused, the tension drained from him, he was beyond gorgeous. His golden eyes were bright, his lips plumped and red rather than thinned with displeasure.

“She was some kind of lucky, getting the drop on you like that,” Dallas said. “And you were some kind of stupid, letting her get the drop on you like that. She’s a cream puff, man.”

The urge to sigh vanished. She gnashed her teeth together. Maybe she shouldn’t have thrown so much fuel on the I’m-so-stupid fire. They’d had weeks to uncover her intelligence, or what she liked to consider intelligence, yet only Hector had questioned his initial impression? Come on!

“Hey,” Jaxon barked from the other side of the couch. “That’s my cousin. Show some respect.”

She noticed he didn’t defend her smarts, the bastard.

“You didn’t hear me say she has the IQ of a peanut, did you? Anyway.” Blue eyes flipped back to Hector, and those strong shoulders lifted in a give-a-guy-a-break shrug.

“So she’s still here?” Hector asked, and he sounded less than thrilled, if resolved.

This kept up, and her pretty white smile would be nothing but powder. Funny that when she came up in conversation, Hector’s mood instantly soured. He’d just rejected her again, yet this time she hadn’t had to say a single word to him.

“Yeah, and dude. Interrogation 101 was today, and you shoulda seen her.” Dallas finished off his second beer and tossed the glass where he’d tossed the first. On the floor.

Hector scrubbed a hand across his scalp. “Who ran the op?” His tattoos. The ink was darker than it’d been before he’d left, and there were more swirling designs on both arms. Odd, but her mouth watered for a taste of them.