“I’ll do a sweep for prints,” Noelle said. The moment he’d explained what was going on, she’d gathered up a shirt, jeans, and boots in record time—and dressed in the car. He’d gotten peek after peek at skin he’d only just licked, breasts he’d sucked on, and a portal to paradise that had welcomed him with wet, greedy heat.

Mine. And he was hers. She’d said so.

“Thanks,” he said. They only needed one print, even a partial, and they’d have the guy’s identity. If he was human. Some alien races—like the Arcadians—did not have fingerprints.

Hector dialed the number Margarete had used to call him. He’d wanted her to stay on the line the entire time, but she’d hung up on him when he’d first entered the house, as if she didn’t want to hear any fight that broke out. She picked up after the third ring. “Whoever broke in is long gone. I’ve checked the entire house. Will you come out for me? You’re safe now, I promise.”

A minute passed, then another. Finally she rounded the far corner. Her golden skin was pallid, and there was a bruise on her cheek. The pink dress she wore was torn at the collar and thigh. Tremors rocked her slight frame, and she clutched a black glove to her chest.

Shouldn’t have left her here, he thought, pissed at himself. “Let’s get your injuries checked.”

“All right,” she said again.

“Sit here.” Noelle righted the couch, and clapped her hands in a job well done. “I’ll get one of the medics in here.” They were waiting outside, unable to enter without permission. Off she went. And she knew to threaten whoever she picked with bodily harm if they mentioned the Rakan.

Margarete padded over and eased down at the far corner. After everything she’d been through, Hector didn’t want to intimidate her, so he claimed the cushion at the other end.

“Can you tell me what your attacker looked like?” he asked.

She gulped, glittery tears cascading down her cheeks. “He was human. Tall with a body like yours. A crooked nose. Dark hair, dark eyes.”

Well, well. She’d just described Bruiser, the guy from the sketch. So the Arcadian hadn’t come. Which most likely meant he couldn’t teleport here. So close. We’re getting there. Going to solve this.

“Did he say anything to you?”

Before she could reply, Noelle walked in with a twenty-something medic following her. He was on the short and pudgy side, yet still possessed a brisk, confident stride.

“We’ll pick up where we left off when you’re done with medical,” he said.

The medic crouched in front of Margarete, looked her over, and pulled what he needed from his bag. “This might sting a bit.”

When he dabbed antiseptic on the cut on her hand, she flinched. That was the only reaction she gave, remaining stoic and silent as he bandaged her up and took her vitals. Entire process only took about twenty minutes, but because Hector wouldn’t discuss case details with someone other than an agent, even a medic, the wait was torturous.

Finally, though, he, Noelle, and Margarete were alone.

“Did your attacker say anything?” he asked again.

“He said… he said I belonged to his boss. He tried to inject me with something, like you did, but I kicked him just like Bobby taught me and got away. He… wore gloves. I—I managed to rip one off.”

“Where is the glove now?” he asked, even though he knew it was the one she’d placed in her lap.

Her arms shook as she extended the material in his direction. Hector motioned to Noelle, who had stayed close. She wore gloves of her own, and confiscated the evidence.

She’d scrape skin cells from inside and have an identity within the next five minutes, no print necessary now. Urgency rushed through him. So damn close.

“He came here before,” Margarete admitted softly. “Before you. That time, I hid before he spotted me, though, and he left.”

“Will you tell me now how you and Bobby met?” he asked. “The truth this time.”

Her lips rolled in, and she gulped. “He… bought me. The man who came today, he was the one who brought me here.”

Unnecessary verification, but damn, it felt good. “Why did you lie before?”

She looked down, ashamed. “Because Bobby told me never to tell. He said he would be killed and I would be sent away and given to someone else.” Her chin trembled. “I don’t want to be given to anyone else.”

“You won’t.” A vow. “Never again. I’ll make sure of it.”

“Don’t mean to interrupt,” Noelle said, glee bubbling in her tone, “but we’ve got him. Ruppert Gordman. Thirty-three, human. Picked up a few times for violence. No known address. If he’s got an appointment anywhere and it’s been logged into a computer, I’ll find it.”

The sense of urgency amplified. “Does that name mean anything to you?” he asked Margarete.

A moment of thought, then she shook her head.

The fine hairs on the back of his neck rose. His brow furrowed as he visually searched a room he’d already physically searched. He felt as if someone were watching him. He found nothing out of place, though. No eyes staring from portraits, no cameras. “I want you to stay at AIR,” Hector said.

When she gave another shake of her head and opened her mouth to issue a denial, he held up a hand to silence her. “There are two other women there, and they’ve gone through the same thing you have. They were picked up by the guys who abducted you, and drugged. They were going to be sold.”

“I—no.” The glittery tears sprang forth anew, tracking down her cheeks. “I want to stay here.”

“You can’t,” he said, using a tougher voice. “Bobby didn’t change his will. Which means you aren’t in it. Sometime this week, his mother is going to take over the deed, and she’s going to kick you out. You’ll have no place to go. No protection. This way, you’ll be able to take what you want with you, and we can help you find a place when the one who wants to sell you is locked away.”

“You won’t have to worry about anything,” Noelle added gently. “I know a girl, who knows a girl, yada yada, and you’d be doing her a favor, watching over her house while she’s off planet. It’s a very safe place. I’ve been there myself.”

He seriously doubted she knew a girl who knew a girl off planet. Ava was her closest—and perhaps only—friend. Which meant Noelle was planning to pay for everything herself.

Sweet of her, and for most people, probably bewildering. Nearly everyone at AIR had called her spoiled at some point. Even when she was merely a trainee, she’d had food delivered to her desk—and she had only shared with Ava, no matter how much bitching people did. She went through cars like some men went through condoms. She drank champagne and ate expensive chocolate treats and sometimes left the office in a formal gown.

He thought back, some things about her finally adding up. No one had seemed to notice that when their computers broke down, they were somehow fixed the next day. Or when an agent’s kid got sick, she suddenly didn’t feel well so maybe her doctor should check them both out, make sure the brat hasn’t—and couldn’t—give her anything. The faker, saving everyone’s pride by making herself seem silly.

Bottom line, when something mattered, she took care of it. He realized that now. She just didn’t want anyone to know she’d helped.

Why? he wondered. Because people would expect more from her? Because they would realize she wasn’t… what had she called herself? A flake. Irresponsible.

Yeah, he thought. That was it exactly. She strove so hard to project that kind of image, then hated that people couldn’t see through it. But then, she also held most people at a distance; that way, they couldn’t hurt her if they didn’t like her.

He did the same thing. He kept people at a distance so that they wouldn’t like him. So that he wouldn’t hurt them.

“Gordman has an appointment at Cirque du Culotte tomorrow,” Noelle said, her relish back full force. “Ten in the morning.”

Circus of the Panties? Shit. Hector was ashamed to note he knew the place. Located in the center of Whore’s Corner, the worst the city had to offer. “It’s a… massage parlor that specializes in, uh, happy endings,” he said, having heard the question in her tone.

Her lips curled in disgust. “Okay, that’s just gross.”

He ignored the sudden surge of bile rising up his chest. What would she say if she learned he’d been in that particular shop?

“Margarete?” he said, returning his attention to the Rakan. “What’s it going to be?”

Her golden head bowed. “Yes,” she whispered. “I’ll go to AIR.”

“Good.” No reason to mention he would have had her carted there with or without her consent. He pushed to his feet. “Grab some things, and we’ll escort you there now.” He and Noelle had a thousand things to do—and only until ten tomorrow morning to do them.

HECTOR DIDN’T SPEND THE night with Noelle, but he did pick her up the next morning, as promised. Sweet progress, she thought. I’ll have him bagged and tagged by week’s end.

He hadn’t yet experienced the full measure of a Noelle Tremain seduction. No man had. Too potent. Of course. But Hector was about to be the first. He’d addicted her to the goods, and now he would supply her with more. It was as simple as that.

He’d nearly popped his zipper when he had first spotted her outfit. Another deeply V’d top—why mess with what worked?—paired with a tight black skirt. Both allowed for easy access to her fun zones. Not to mention, the skirt barely covered her underwear when she sat down. And they had a thirty-minute car ride to enjoy.

Which they did. At first. He continued to move his gaze up and down her legs, his lips parted as he struggled to draw in enough oxygen. Until fifteen minutes in, when his entire demeanor changed. He began shifting nervously in his seat, avoiding looking in her direction entirely.

Twenty minutes in, the silence was making her crazy and Hector looked ready to vomit. What the hell was going on with him? This was more than simply trying to keep her at a distance. This was abject terror.

Not knowing what else to do, she studied the area. For a moment, she felt as if someone other than Hector was watching her, her skin prickling with unease, but she didn’t see any signs of a tailing car. The sky was overcast and gray, mist saturating the air so thickly their windshield appeared to be having an allergic reaction; clear little welts bubbled everywhere. The buildings lining both sides of the sidewalk were dilapidated and covered with graffiti. Some had huge front windows with naked otherworlder men and women dancing just beyond the transparent shield armor.

The dancers had to be drugged. Their faces were expressionless, their movements halting. Noelle wasn’t sure how some of them remained on their feet. Not a one of them smiled or waved people inside. And when they brushed against each other sexually, they didn’t seem to enjoy it. They just… tolerated it.

On the sidewalk, bums stumbled into the buildings, prostitutes shouted at drivers, and trash tumbled in every direction.

Last night Noelle had dug up Gordman’s financials. He was paid very well for a job he hadn’t yet listed in his employment file, but he was paid in cash, so there was no paper trail at any bank.

She’d also gone through the parlor’s financials, and wow. Despite its piss-poor location, the place was a money flood. People really liked having their, uh, backs loosened. Most paid in cash, but Gordman’s sessions were always comped.

Made her wonder. Could Gordman’s boss own the panty circus? Or rather, run the corporation that owned it and that’s why Gordman got in and out so easily? More digging to do later.

Finally the car parked itself at the corner of Derelict Drive. Noelle’s name for it, at least. The massage parlor was a building over, on the right. The bricks were streaked with dirt and the singe of acid rain.

“Gordman’s appointment isn’t for another thirty-eight minutes,” she said after checking the clock. “Do we just sit out here and wait, hoping we’re not shanked for our car?”

“Yes.” Nothing more than a snarl.

O-kay. Hector was more pissy than before. “Well, I’m not touching anything outside. This is a Petri dish of STDs, I just know it.”

“Why don’t you toughen up, little girl?” he snapped. “This is where I grew up.”

Ahh. A lightbulb switched on inside her head. He was ashamed, didn’t want her to see his roots, even though he’d told her all about them. Well, news flash. Ava had grown up here, too. This only made Noelle like him more. He’d pulled himself out. Made something of himself.

Not that she’d tell him that right now. In his current mood, he’d rip everything she said to shreds.

Noelle twisted in her seat, facing him. He wore a long-sleeved button-up shirt, white, his jacket tossed to the backseat. The cuffs were undone and rolled to just under his elbows, revealing that beautifully bronzed tattooed skin.

Darker ink today, with a slight azure glow. He was big-time worked up.

“You need gloves.” She dug a pair out of the console and tossed them on his lap.

A scowl marred his face as he jerked them on.

“You also need to come,” she said.

“You offering to suck me off?” He leered over at her, hatred in his eyes, but there was no doubt in her mind that the hatred was self-directed.