Could the bubblehead thing be an act, then? If so, what was her purpose? And why hadn’t Jaxon, her blood kin, recognized the difference?

That last question had Hector shaking his head, dismissing his suspicions. Jaxon was sharp, one of the best and most observant agents out there, and he would know his own cousin better than a friend/servant would.

Dallas cleared his throat, the universal sign for make-the-damn-introductions-already.

Jaw clenched, Jaxon made them. Dallas first, then Hector. No one tried to shake anyone’s hand, thank God, but at least Ava met his gaze. Noelle peered somewhere over his shoulder. After pinching Dallas’s cheek as if he were the sweetest toddler she’d ever seen.

Stupid shit enjoyed the fondling, giving her a high-wattage grin of encouragement.

“You both know I can’t show you preferential treatment while you’re here,” Jaxon said, uneasy. His scarred face paled in the sunlight, becoming almost waxen. “Right?”

“Of course we do.” Finally removing her attention from Dallas, Noelle patted the top of Jaxon’s head with the sugary tolerance usually reserved for the brain damaged. “But that’s okay, because everyone else will.”

Uh, that would be another are-you-kidding-no. No one got preferential treatment in this shit box.

Hector was kicking things off this first week, and would then hand the reins of control over to Dallas, who would run things for a week before handing the reins to Jaxon for his week. Jaxon would then hand the reins to Ghost, as well as a female agent named Phoenix for their hell week. Then, Ghost and Phoenix would return the reins to Hector, and he’d have to endure another seven days.

He’d make damn sure Ghost and Phoenix knew these two were to be ridden harder than everyone else.

Damn. Now he was Freuding himself. Arm-wise, that was the first sign of trouble.

Dallas he didn’t have to worry about. Boy would know what to do. It was the principle of the thing and all.

“I can guarantee you’ll get the gold star treatment from me,” Dallas said, bombing Hector’s expectations into oblivion. “After you answer a question for me. Do you like pretzels?”

Ava rolled her eyes and muttered something unintelligible under her breath.

“Oh my God, yes!” Noelle’s grin was all white teeth and that damn innocence. “I love pretzels! They’re just so yummalicious.”

“I’m so glad you said that,” Dallas began. “Because—”

Jaxon reached around Hector and slugged Dallas in the jaw.

“Ow! What was that for?” the agent grumbled, rubbing the already swelling area.

“Just be happy I don’t have a spoon.” The scowl wiped from Jaxon’s face as he gave Noelle his full concentration. “Don’t pay him any attention. Just … go get settled, honey. Orientation starts in an hour.” He gave her a gentle push in the direction she was supposed to go.

Noelle stopped at Ava’s side and slung her arm over the girl’s shoulders. “All right. We’ll go. We know you guys have important stuff to do. I just want to say thank you. You’ve done your best to make us feel welcome, and we’re just so grateful.”

Were those tears in her eyes? Shit. They were. Deep down, he’d known she was a crier. How pathetic. And even disappointing.

“Take your bag already,” Ava snipped at her. “It’s, like, two hundred pounds heavier than mine.”

“Impossible. I merely brought the essentials. Clothes, my favorite boots, face cream, makeup, a few books to read, a couple cans of caviar, lingerie, and my coffeepot. Plus a few other things a girl like me just can’t live without but can’t mention in mixed company because it would be indelicate. You know, because they’re sexual.” There at the end, she whispered, the hints of smoke blending with echoes of midnight.

Worse, at “lingerie,” Hector and Dallas had stood a little straighter. At “sexual,” they’d moaned. Jaxon punched them both in the back of the head.

Hector always ignored his attractions, yeah, but come on. Now images of the elegant Noelle wearing a trashy, barely-there scrap of lace and a take-a-bite-out-of-me grin were seared into his brain.

And wouldn’t you know it? His arms began to burn, his hands to itch. The second and third signs of trouble.

If this kept up, his arms would begin to glow and the tattoos etched from his shoulders to his fingertips would crackle. The final oh, shit signs that meant he was nearly too late to stop the ensuing carnage, that his skin, muscle, and bone were about to mutate into fiery mist and melt everything he touched. A transition that would last several hours, until the heat finally lost steam and died down.

Problem was, he couldn’t masturbate his sexual desires away because he’d fry off his cock. And he couldn’t take pills because they scrambled his cognitive process, preventing him from solving his cases.

So, when sexual frustration became too much for him and his arms, he called a hooker for a blow job. That way, the girl stayed on her knees, mostly out of reach, and he got off without having to worry about torching an entire town.

Another problem made itself known. He couldn’t—wouldn’t—call Happy Endings while he was here. That would mix the secret, seedier side of his personal life with the crucial business side, and he would never do that. AIR was the one pure thing in his life; he refused to taint it. For any reason.

“I think I just heard someone groan from inside the bag.” Ava shouted the words as she fumbled with the zipper. “You have a body in here, don’t you? Well, you’re not framing me again, and that’s that.”

Noelle stepped away from her, palms up and out. “Darling, just carry the thing already. You’ve been whining about needing to step up your exercise program for a long time, and I’ve decided to help you. You’re welcome, by the way.”

“I never asked—oh!” Ava stomped a foot. “I’m going to murder you in your sleep.”

Noelle gasped, intense waves of hurt wafting from her. “I can’t believe you just threatened me like that. I … need a moment to collect myself. Excuse me, everyone.” Sniffling, she walked away. Without taking her bag.

Frowning, Hector rubbed at the abrupt ache in his chest. What the hell? He actually cared that she’d been threatened?

Ava followed after her friend, dragging both bags and mumbling under her breath about taking douchieness too far.

The three agents watched them go. Each for a different reason, Hector was sure. Jaxon, to make sure they entered the bunkhouse without any trouble. Dallas, to see his pretzel’s perfect ass sway, and Hector because he just couldn’t seem to stop himself.

“Girls’ bunk is upstairs, honey,” Jaxon called. “There’s an entrance to the right, so you won’t have to go through the guys’ area.”

“Oh, thanks,” Noelle returned without looking back—and without moving to the right.

Funny, there hadn’t been a trace of hurt remaining in her tone.

Ava finally managed to unload Noelle’s stuff—by drop-kicking it into the girl’s path and causing her to stumble. Laughing, now free of her burden, Ava darted ahead of her. When Noelle righted herself, she swept up the nylon and raced forward, too, chuckling all the way. No more baby giggles for her, but a grown woman’s amusement.

The change was startling, but understandable. She must have been nervous around them.

At the last moment, she shoved past Ava and reached the door to their new home first. The two disappeared from view.

O-kay, then. His final impression? Take the “yummalicious” then add the giggles, multiply the cluelessness and the split-second change of emotion, subtract the chuckling and the wink, and you most likely had a recipe for dumb as a box of rocks. Pretty as a cameo, yeah, that hadn’t changed, but she was still dumb as a box of rocks.

No doubt about it now. Her record was exaggerated. Kinda like when the scrawny kid in class paid the bully to protect him. At the moment, Hector wasn’t even sure Noelle Tremain could fight off a piece of lint.

“How many strings did you have to pull to get her here?” he asked Jaxon.

The guy sighed, all kinds of weariness bubbling in the undertone. “Too many.”

Thought so. “And why does someone like her want to do this?” AIR agents worked long hours, made gruesome discoveries, and constantly waded through the darkest dredges of humanity. All of which had been lifesaving for Hector, but rich, pampered Noelle didn’t need any saving.

“She said something about putting her kung fu skills to good use.” Jaxon shook his head at the ridiculousness of his words. “I laughed, so she finally admitted the truth. That she wants a chance to carry a badge and tell people what to do, then shoot them if they disobey her.”

That, Hector believed. “You are such a sucker.”

Good news was, there weren’t enough strings anyone could pull if she screwed up. And she would. Probably before orientation ended.

The thought of never looking at that pretty face again caused an ache of … something to smolder in his chest. The same ache he’d experienced when she’d reacted to Ava’s threat.

He ignored that something, whatever it was, with the same determination he usually ignored his lusts.

I’ll have you gone by the end of the day, Tremain. Guaranteed.

NOELLE THREW HER DUFFEL—WHICH was filled only with necessary clothes and shoes—on the squeaky regulation twin rollaway and looked around. Honestly? This sucked sweaty donkey balls.

A hovel, that’s what her new living quarters were. Peeling paint on the walls, a dirty concrete floor. No windows. No desks. No compusoles. Just a row of tiny beds and won’t-hold-anything nightstands, with a layer of dust coating the air. So … borderline-poverty basics, she thought with a grimace.

How would she survive?

There were only three essentials in Noelle’s life. Ava, money, and comfort. In that order. Ava was her rock, her coconspirator, and her biggest supporter. But she couldn’t wrap Ava around her like a mink to ward off the slight chill in the air. Not again. And her truck-loads of money were (supposedly) off limits while she was here. That meant comfort had a big fat “denied” stamp over it.

For the next three months, at least. That’s how long she was required to stay here. But the worst part? When those three torturous months were up, she still wouldn’t be considered an AIR agent. Not until someone within the organization finally deemed her worthy enough to carry a badge.

Yeah, good luck with that. No one besides Ava had ever before deemed Noelle worthy of anything—except therapy. Her parents had claimed to love her and her dad had sought to protect her, but she’d never been … enough. Not for either of them.

Can’t you do anything right? How many times had her father shouted that little gem? In fact, he’d been dead for years, but every so often she would swear he was yelling at her from the grave.

Are you really that stupid, Noelle Jade? Then and now, that was her mother’s favorite phrase. And tossing in her middle name for that extra demoralizing affect? Priceless.

God, Noelle, when are you going to grow up? That delightful query came courtesy of her three older brothers every time a news station blasted a story about something she’d done.

Corban Blue, the first, last, and only real boyfriend/ relationship she’d taken a chance on, had insisted on picking out her clothes, telling her how to wear her hair and what to say. And yet, she’d stayed with him for a little over a year, proving her mother right. How stupid was she?

Only when Corban had demanded she cut Ava from her life had she dumped him. That very day, actually. Hell, that very minute.

The moment the door had closed on his ass, Noelle had realized she had never really loved him, that she’d just hoped someone would … want her, she supposed. Someone who would at last admire and respect her, even in the smallest way, beyond her looks and money. Someone who would fill the void inside her. That hollow, hungry place that had never known a moment of satisfaction.

A void carved from anger, frustration, and bitterness. A wound that never quite healed, sometimes flared up, but always poisoned her sense of self. Her hands fisted at her sides.

Well, not this time. If AIR didn’t want her, she’d start her own agency and offer them a little competition in the bagging and tagging of predatory otherworlders’ business. Wasn’t like she truly wanted to be an agent. But Ava did, she reminded herself, and what Ava wanted, Ava got. So, never mind on the new agency. Noelle was doing this, one way or another.

“Remind me why we’re excited to be here again,” she said to Ava, needing the pep talk after the award-winning performance she’d had to put on for the Three Blind Mice outside.

“The blah blah blah part sounds familiar, but I’m still mostly drawing a blank.”

“Well, do you remember the part about getting to carry a weapon and hurt people legally?”

“Ah. Now it’s coming back to me.” But seriously. Starve her, beat her, sleep deprive her, but don’t take away her feather down comforter. Or her genuine wool rug. Or her servants. God, what she wouldn’t give to have a servant fetching and carrying for her this very second.

“How sweet is this?” Ava spun like a ballerina on crack, her arms splayed. “It’s perfect, just perfect.”

“Are you retarded? This place is a dump,” another agent-in-training said as she folded her shirts and jeans and placed them in the nightstand next to her bed.