“Incoming,” she muttered. “There will be bloodshed. There will be casualties.” Before, she’d hoped to warn her brothers. Threaten or insult Hector and suffer. Too late. Her mother was a lost cause.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse arrived, forming a half circle around her and Hector. Carter, Anthony, and Tyler were taller than she was, but not taller than Hector, and that made her grin.

All three possessed the same shade of milk chocolate hair, but only Carter, the oldest, had Noelle’s gray eyes. Anthony and Tyler had brown. Like mud, she thought with a snicker.

“I’m surprised to see you out in public,” her mother said, chin in the air. “In your condition and drinking alcohol no less.”

Maybe this conversation wouldn’t be such a trial after all. Fighting a grin, Noelle drained her glass. “This is my baby we’re talking about. She’s been ready to party since the moment of conception. Maybe even before.”

“I should have put you over my knee a long time ago. Maybe then you wouldn’t enjoy hurting others quite so much.” Carter, the eldest and the Tremain heir, glared up at Hector. “Who are you?”

“The guy who will punch your fucking nose into your brain if you talk to her like that again.” Hector spoke without any menace, and that made the threat all the more real.

Noelle stopped fighting and grinned. My man deserves a reward for that.

She made the introductions, and her mother—the warden of the Tremain household—gave him a look that said she’d seen better things on the bottom of her shoes.

“I always have the people hanging around my daughter investigated, Mr. Dean. Your yearly income is laughable, and you spend most of it on… on…” Madam Tremain lowered her voice, whispered disgustedly, “professionals. Who do you think you are, bringing that kind of filth around someone of Noelle’s pedigree?”

Going straight for the heart. Or groin. Wonderful. And the longer they hung around, the worse it would get.

“He’s the best man I know,” she interjected, praying Hector believed her. Because it was true! “Better than the bastards you raised.” When her brothers sputtered in offense, she glared them into silence. “You know you are. And guess what, Mother. Hector’s better than you. Now, if you’ll excuse us… I see guests in need of a good flashing.”

Noelle gave her glass to a slack-jawed Anthony and dragged Hector to the other side of the doorway. His gloves were still in place, so she didn’t worry about being burned.

Concern for Hector’s feelings nearly overwhelmed her as she whirled to face him. “I’m so sorry.” Their differing social status had always bothered him. To be reminded so brutally, and in front of witlessness… “She’s a snob and I meant what I said. You are my favorite man.”

His expression remained blank. “Don’t worry about it. She didn’t tell you anything that wasn’t true. Didn’t say anything other people aren’t saying.”

Every muscle in his body stiffened, stopping her. “Game face on,” he said. Determination radiated from him. “Mr. Phillips just walked in.”

Noelle paled. “Wait. Before we approach him, I have to tell you what happened when I left you.”

The story she next told him made Hector’s blood run cold. Noelle was a capable agent, and he hadn’t been apprehensive about her safety. Much. Fine, he’d been apprehensive. But as her words played through his head, he realized she could have been shot, stabbed, abducted, and he wouldn’t have known until too late.

That was a quandary for another night, though.

“What do you want to do?” she asked.

Hector took one look at Xavier Phillips and knew Dare—tell Mia that Dare is back, he’d said. Dare, Mia’s missing younger brother?—had told the God’s honest truth. Nothing Hector said would get Phillips to talk. Nothing would trip him up. Too much confidence radiated from him. He was too at ease. Too… perfect.

Phillips was tall and lean with coiffed blond hair and flawlessly tanned skin. Two Arcadians flanked his sides, guarding him as they would a national treasure. He stopped to shake hands with people, conversed, laughed, but never stuck around, and the guards never allowed anyone to get too close. He made the rounds, socializing. Acting friendly, charming females, and it was clear almost everyone liked him.

Only a few men revealed their fear around him. Their laughter was forced, their expressions frozen. Clients, definitely, who knew a ruthless side to the man that the others did not. A man who had abducted and sold countless women, as if they were no more important that sweaters. Strange, though, that Phillips had shared his identity with them rather than use a middleman. Made Hector wonder if Phillips had had to threaten them a time or two.

Things had worked out for Margarete Marks, but Hector doubted many others had come to enjoy their circumstances. Fury rose inside him, sparking the heat and the itch in his arms.

“Noelle,” he said, purposely not glancing at her. “I need you to do something for me.”

So eager to please, he thought. She assumed her family had hurt him when, in fact, the opposite was true. She’d rushed to his defense. Had called him the best man she knew. Her favorite. For a moment, he’d felt like king of the world. He couldn’t let her know, not while they were here. She’d stop being so eager to please. “Stay by my side and stay quiet.”

Dare wanted him to walk away, but he couldn’t do that. Wouldn’t do that.

A pause. A clink of her teeth as she gnashed her jaw. “Come on.” He kicked into motion, and as promised, Noelle stayed by his side. Shockingly, she stayed quiet, too.

When they reached Phillips’s crowd, Hector shoved his way to the front, earning a few grunts, groans, and several protests—at least until his determination and savagery were realized, then everyone quickly backed away.

The Arcadians stepped in front of Phillips to shield him, but the confident businessman waved them back and frowned at Hector. “I hope you have a reason for such a rude display.”

“I do. My name is Hector Dean, and I’m with AIR. I know what you’ve done, what you’re doing, and I’m coming after you with everything I’ve got.”

Smiling, Hector stalked away, a gaping Noelle still at his side and still silent.

“You made yourself a target,” Noelle seethed the second they were in the car and speeding along the highway. She hadn’t known what to expect as she’d followed him through the ballroom, but that short and sweet conversation wouldn’t have entered the realm of possibilities. “After that Dare guy told us to stay away from him.” Not that she’d planned to do so, but still!

“Yes, I did. And Dare is the name of Mia’s missing brother. I don’t know if the guy you talked to is legit or not, but her brother was once under the influence of a very powerful Arcadian female. A very evil Arcadian female, and he can’t be trusted. So I did what I thought was right.”

Putting himself in danger, and Noelle out of it. Placing focus on him and him alone. Such a Hector thing to do and something she should have anticipated. Well, now he would just have to deal with the consequences.

“Does your home have shields to protect against teleportation?” she asked.

“No,” he repeated. “I want the Arcadians to come for me.”

Of course he did. “So you can, what? Be hauled to Phillips’s lair and burn everyone to ash?”

“Yes,” he replied, his tone dripping with relish.

Damn you, Hector Dean. “What if they shoot you in the head rather than take you to Phillips?”

A heartbeat of silence, then a shake of his head. “That’s not his MO. Phillips likes to make the kill himself. He likes to prove his power.”

“That happened once, you idiot! Twice if Maybe Dare Maybe Not Dare can be believed. And twice does not a pattern make. Therefore, you’re going to stay with me. But go ahead. Argue with me. See what it gets you.”

That golden gaze flipped to her, tortured. “I’m too volatile right now.”

Her voice dipped huskily when she said, “And I know exactly how to calm you down.”

His nostrils flared with his sharp inhalation of breath. “No. I can’t risk you. I won’t.”

Think again. “Phillips saw me with you, and I’m very well known. He might try to get to you through me.” She wasn’t above a little manipulation of her own.

F-bomb after f-bomb filled the car. “All right,” he finally growled. “Okay. I’ll stay.”

As excited as she was by the thought of having her man in her house, in her bed, all night long, she was also scared for him. He already battled a ton of shame over his past, and the number of people he’d burned. Did he really think he would suffer no mental anguish this time around?

Afterward, he would remember the screams, the smells, and his fear for hurting Noelle would increase. All the progress she’d made with him would be defeated in a single night.

“What if I can’t ever touch you freely, as you need?” Suspicion confirmed. He’d already jumped to that thought path. Mouth drying, she peered over at him. He’d successfully cleared his features of any emotion, and she couldn’t read him. “Hector,” she said softly. “I’d rather have a conversation with you than have sex with someone else.” Truth.

His jaw clenched, as if he were biting down, but he didn’t say another word and neither did she.

HECTOR KNEW BETTER THAN to stay the night with Noelle. Did he have the will to resist her? Probably not. Knowing her, she’d come on strong. She always did, and that was just the way he liked her. Definitely not.

But then all she had to do was breathe and he’d grow hard for her. He craved her more than… hell, anything. And he loved her. Damn, did he love her.

His eyes widened. He did, he realized. He fucking loved her with every fiber of his being.

She was the loveliest woman he’d ever seen. She had a big heart, a smart mouth. She challenged him, lied to entertain herself, could be violent when the occasion called for it, but she was also fun, sparkling, and as vibrant as the summer sun.

The fact that she threw no judgment his way—for anything—still managed to baffle him. The fact that she sought to comfort and reassure him any time he panicked, more so.

He’d fallen for her, all the way, and knew she was more than an obsession now. She was his life. Her body was a perfect fit to his. Soft, warm, and wet. Her taste and scent were aphrodisiacs, her cries of passion a siren’s song. Uninhibited as she was, she would try anything he asked. And she would like it. Beg for more. And yet…

I’m so bad for her. In every way. So yes. He would resist her tonight. No matter how greatly his body suffered.

Come morning, she’d probably hate him. Another rejection would be more than she could endure. The way her family had spoken to her… When this case was closed, Hector would be paying her brothers a little visit, and they’d receive the same intensive care treatment Barry had. But no wonder Noelle was so insecure about how people viewed her.

Hector could deal with her hatred, though. He’d rather she loathed his very existence than feel the sting of his arms.

And if she hated him, she would avoid him. She would treat him like she treated most everyone else. As if he were unworthy of her time. Which he was. Wasn’t that what he’d pushed for since the beginning?

Yeah, but he’d kinda gotten used to her showing up wherever he was, throwing out come and get me glances, wearing scanty clothing, seducing him, saying outrageous things, making him laugh, never judging him, always defending him.

What if I never have that again?

Sweat beaded on his brow, panic for an altogether different reason pummeling him. Shit, he had to get himself together. Had to stay focused. He’d crumble before they even reached her house.

He’d guard her tonight, and that was all. In the morning they would visit the crime scene Dare had mentioned. Hector might even show up at Phillips’s office in a bid to spur the guy into action faster. That might earn him a bullet in the brain, as Noelle had suggested, but that was okay.

If Hector had to die taking Phillips down, so be it. No more abducted women. No more otherworlders sold into slavery. No more threats to Noelle.

The car eased to a stop, and Hector emerged but remained in his open doorway, performing a swift, visual perimeter check. Front door, shut. Porch lights, on. Windows, closed. No one hovered on the property, no suspicious shadows lurked about.

Noelle commanded her door to open, then exited, quiet and withdrawn. Why? He hadn’t even told her—

A menacing growl rang through the night. Hector shifted his attention just fast enough to see one of the Arcadians from the party appear out of nowhere, still in his tux, already barreling toward Noelle, something silver in his hand. Silver and sharp, glinting in the light seeping from her porch.

Oh, fuck no. With a roar, Hector dove over the hood of the car, sliding… sliding… praying he was able to shove her out of harm’s way, even if he had to take a killing blow himself.