Both times before, a single taste had caused instinct to propel Noelle over a ledge she couldn’t see until too late. He was a drug to her, able to destroy any barrier, addicting her quickly, heating her inexorably, spinning her closer and closer to the bottom of what would either prove to be a deep, dark cavern of loneliness, or a bright, consuming bed of passion.

Hell, this time she hadn’t even needed a taste. She’d fallen the moment he had approached her, and there had been no stopping her spiral to splat. Every cell she possessed had yearned to have his hands exploring her, his body pounding into hers.

Damn him and his irresistibility. Now she wanted more of him, more from him, and would have given him more of herself. Would have asked him to go home with her, where she would have given him all, everything.

Maybe. One-night stands weren’t her thing, and never had been.

Maybe he would have wanted more than a one-night stand, though. Maybe he would have wanted to stay the night with her, see her again the next day, and the next. He craved her, after all.

Except he was already distancing himself from her. Regretting?

With Corban, she’d known where they were headed before they ever hit the sheets. He’d wooed and won her, and then stuck around to polish his prize. With Hector, she’d never known, and it had never mattered.

With Hector, she still didn’t know, and it still didn’t matter. Damn him, she thought again.

“Hector,” she began. She wasn’t a coward. She would simply ask him what he expected from her. If he said they could give this thing, whatever it was, a try, she’d give the relationship everything she had. If he said this was the end—rejecting her for the third time in their acquaintance—she’d stab him in the jugular and hide his corpse.

Besides, this was her first murder investigation. Concentration was key. So after she found out where she stood with Hector, her mind would be clear, and then boom, she could solve the case and save the day. Easy as that.

“This was a mistake,” he said before she could utter another word.

Just her luck, they reached their destination a moment later. The car parked in front of a line of police tape. Hector didn’t push from the vehicle, but sat there, waiting for her response.

A mistake? A freaking mistake? Wow, that hurt. While she had luxuriated in what they could have done, could still do, he’d obviously been thinking of how to let her down without bloodshed.

Do not react. You suspected. She would paste a happy smile on her face, as always, and concentrate on the case.

The smile was a bit more difficult than usual to pull off, considering the emotional upheaval of the day. Needing a moment, she gazed outside, and yeah, she was highly aware she was acting like the very coward she’d denied being. The moon was full and golden. Other cars littered the area, official red and blue lights flashing. A wide, open field stretched in every direction, grass growing in patches, crisp leaves dancing in the gentle breeze.

Where was the slain human they were supposed to examine? She increased the periphery of her focus. About fifty yards of dirt had been sectioned off by that tape, but the handful of officers who were standing outside were talking rather than working.

Smile, damn you. “Of course I heard you. I’m sitting right beside you.” She added, “I guess I should have told mother dearest yes. Her old biddie of a friend thinks I’d be perfect for her son the surgeon.”

“No, you wouldn’t,” Hector growled, then caught himself. “But whatever you want to do is fine.”

Smile! “And just so you know, this is gonna be Cherry Picking Barry all over again,” she said before she could stop herself. Cas, keep it cas.

She didn’t recognize any of the officers, none of them had attended the wedding, but that didn’t change the facts. One look at her and Hector in their upscale attire, and it would be assumed they’d been out on a date, with plans to get hot and heavy afterward.

Had Hector wanted to get hot and heavy with her, she would have smirked. Now … she just wanted to hide. “People are going to think you’re a god for possibly nailing me, while calling me all kinds of easy.”

“I’m sorry, it’s just that—Wait. What?” He turned in his seat to at last stare over at her. Those golden eyes were bright with an emotion she couldn’t name. And maybe that was for the best. Just then, she could have removed his balls with the razor she had strapped to her thigh.

Why did no one want her for keeps?

“Who’s Barry?” Hector demanded, and this time she could read the emotion. Fury, lethal in a way only a man on the very edge could be.

On her behalf? Sweet of him, but she wouldn’t soften. “He’s the guy I oh, so generously gave my virginity to.” The rest spilled from her, her resentment no longer a living thing but sharper tonight because of the man beside her. “The next day, he told everyone what we’d done. All the guys slapped him on the back in a job well done, then tried to get into my pants as if they had a right to plant their flag, too, and all the girls but Ava treated me as if I had the plague. As if I would steal their boyfriends with my whoring ways.”

“Me? No.” A true grin kicked at the corners of her mouth. “But Ava wrecked his car. Slammed his pride and joy right into his parents’ house.” Now that was friendship.

A tense pause. Then, “I would have killed him for you,” Hector said in a low, quiet voice that left no room for doubt. “I would have burned him and dumped the ashes in a pile of animal shit.”

“Really?” Damn it. She was softening. He doesn’t want to continue seeing you, remember?

His nostrils flared as if he could already smell the burning flesh. “Yeah, really.”

“Well, you still can. He lives in the Lakeshore Apartments on Lake Shore Drive. Number eighteen B.”

One of Hector’s brows arched, the gold in his eyes frosting over in that way of his. He wasn’t just on the edge of lethal—he’d already leapt and was falling. “You actually kept track of him. Why? Did you want to see him again?”

“Are you kidding? Hell, no, I don’t want to see him again, but someone has to send his wife pictures of his illicit activities, and that someone is me. Yeah, I’m a giver like that.”

A quicksilver blaze of amusement, gone before she could wonder at its source.

She waited, but Hector remained quiet and his expression never reverted back to … whatever. “I know what you’re thinking,” she said anyway. “Why’d I let him off with such a minor, lifelong punishment? Well, let me tell you a little something about me.” Something you might learn intimately, bubby. “If anyone so much as drops a beer can on my lawn I pay for DNA testing. The very day the results come in, I have two tons of trash dumped in their yard. I don’t get revenge, I teach valuable lessons. Barry’s still learning his.”

Hector massaged the back of his neck. “I’ll remember that.” His voice had dropped another octave, reminding her of when he’d pressed his erection between her legs. She shivered like the stupid girl she was. “Well, uh. Huh.” He cleared his throat. “As I was saying. This was a mistake. Us messing around, not us showing up together.”

Smile—check. “I know that, too. No need to drive home the point.” Or rather, the dagger in her chest. “We’re not going to see each other romantically. No big deal.” Except, it was a big fucking deal!

His hand dropped from his nape to rest on the seat, his fingers digging into the upholstery with enough force to leave cracks. “It’s not because I don’t like you. It’s that I’m dangerous, Noelle. Really, really dangerous.”

“This is the AIR version of it’s not you it’s me, right?” she asked dryly. “If only you’d used it before, I would have known to use it on Dallas tonight.”

“No, damn it!” Back up the hand went, scrubbing down his face, leaving red marks. “Well, yes, it is a version of that, but it really is me. I want you, so damn badly I ache all the damn time, but I can’t do relationships. I just can’t. Damn it!” So many damns.

Something in his tormented expression thrust its way past her defenses and clanged a warning. He wasn’t just spouting nonsense to get rid of her. He believed what he said wholeheartedly. He wanted her—craved her, ached for her—but he couldn’t let himself have her.

“Why can’t you try with me? I wasn’t picking out china patterns or anything.” He’d like something bold. Scarlet, maybe, with ebony flecks and asymmetrical edges. “I save that for date two.” She’d tried for a witty tone. She’d failed. She just sounded needy.

“You deserve something better,” he said miserably. “I’m not just really dangerous, I’m too dangerous.”

Dangerous. How many times had he tossed that word at her? As many times as he’d tossed out damn, she was sure. “Uh, have you met me, Agent Mean? I’m kinda dangerous, too.” God. She was practically begging him to date her. How pathetic she was. She should stop, leave now while she still had a little dignity. He might want her, but if he wasn’t willing to try, she couldn’t force him.

“You’re dangerous, yeah, there’s no denying that. I saw you tackle a perp, then stab him in the leg when he ran away. But I’m on a whole different playing field, sweetheart.”

This was the second time he’d called her sweetheart, and her heart skipped a treacherous beat. When other guys used cute little nicknames with her, she wanted to strangle them with their own intestines. When Hector did it, she wanted to swoon like a Victorian maiden. Weird. “Let’s pretend I believe that.” She. Should. Stop. She should shut up. But then she recalled the handprints he’d left in that wall, the night he’d warned her away, and the way he always tugged on those gloves, time and time again, and some of her hurt vanished, leaving a hollow curiosity. “How? Make me understand.”

A heavy pause. She thought he meant to deny her.

Then, “I can … I hurt … People die when I touch …” He banged a fist into the dashboard, the skin boasting a slight glow—even though he still wore the gloves. There were several holes in the material. Tendrils of smoke wafted, curling up.

When he noticed, he trembled with abject fear, removed them, and fumbled for a new pair in his pocket. As he pulled those on, he said, “Look, it doesn’t matter. I shouldn’t have approached you. Shouldn’t have promised you anything more. Nothing can ever happen.” He turned away from her, facing his window, but hesitated. “All right? Okay?”

I can—kill? I hurt—women he touched? People die—because of his sometimes-radiant arms that could singe asbestos, or whatever material he wore, and burn through metal? Probably. He was so agitated, tension layered with more of that self-disgust vibrating off him.

So … say she was right. Say his hands really were hazardous, like weapons. Weapons he couldn’t control. Say he normally avoided women to prevent himself from burning them like he’d done the metal wall. Yet still he had kissed Noelle—three times. Still he had almost given her more. Because he hadn’t been able to help himself. That meant he craved her, just as he’d claimed. As desperately as she craved him. Desire ruled him whenever he neared her. If only for a little while.

Could be wishful thinking on her part. Or she could be dead-on right. She needed to think, to figure out what she was willing to risk—like, say, her pride—to have this man in her life. Or if she was willing to risk anything at all. Right now everything she felt could stem from the lingering heat of his kiss, the fear of losing Ava, and the thrill of her first murder investigation.

“All right,” she finally said. “I won’t jump you.” Not tonight, at least. “Now let’s go solve this mystery so I can go home and call Ava.”

Hector turned so quickly he would surely suffer from whiplash, his gaze narrowed and zeroed in on her, his lips pulled back in a scowl, his teeth a flash of white in the surrounding darkness. “What the hell, Noelle?”

Noelle glanced left, right, trying to figure out what had just pissed him off so badly. Nothing had changed, no one had approached the car. “What?”

“Why are you going to call her?”

“That’s what twisted your panties? Jeez. This is the first night of her honeymoon, and I want to know how McKell performed.”

A muscle ticked in Hector’s jaw. “That’s it? That’s the only reason?”

“Yes. Why—” Finally, understanding dawned and she scowled. “What, you thought I planned to tell her about you and your speech?” She forced a chuckle. “Darling, if I told her about every man I came close to screwing, we’d never be able to discuss anything else.” A lie, but he would never know that.

His eyes slitted further, but in the end, he emerged from the car without uttering another word.

SMILE IN PLACE, NOELLE exited her side of the vehicle, the length of her gown swishing down her legs and brushing the ground. The officers gave her a thorough once-over; some leered, the obviously blind ones shrugged and looked away, as if she were nothing special. Someone whistled, and someone else cackled out a, “Who’s that? Red Carpet Barbie?”

“Nah, ’cause then we’d get to strip her and bend her however we wanted.”

Had Ava been here, the man would already be on his knees, begging for forgiveness. Noelle would have cheered her on, content in the knowledge that she was loved unconditionally and protected fiercely.