“Can’t deny it. But if you’d bothered to check my dating profile—currently single,” she added with a dignified sniff despite her bindings, “you would have found out that I think slavers are pretty much the scum of the earth.”

Hector didn’t mean to, but he squeezed her neck in a bid to quiet her.

Phillips laughed, the sound as chic as the man himself. “All right, enough pleasantries. Let’s get this interrogation started.” When he extended his arm, palm out, the white-haired Arcadian gave him a syringe. “This is adrenaline”—a dramatic pause to ensure he had their attention—“among other things. You see, I did a little research on you, Miss Tremain, and discovered interesting facts about your father and what was done to you. What?” he said when she balked. “You thought that was a secret? Sorry to disappoint you, but acquiring information is a hobby of mine. Anyway, I found the methods for keeping you awake during your surgery quite interesting.”

Hector gulped, struggled in his chair, but all he managed to do was shake Noelle around, and he stilled. Sweat beaded on his forehead. He could guess where this was headed.

“Here’s what is going to happen,” Phillips said. “I’ll ask a question. One of you will answer. When you don’t, I will inject Agent Dean straight in the heart. And just so you know how serious I am, he’ll get his first injection now.”

“Don’t you dare,” Noelle growled in her first true surge of emotion. A potent mix of rage and fear Hector knew intimately.

Hector tried to scoot out of the way, and Noelle tried to shove him out of the way, but even with their joint efforts, Phillips reached between them and slammed the needle deep in his chest without any problems.

Instantly, Hector’s blood heated and his heartbeat quickened. Tingles erupted in his shoulders and flowed down his arms, catching in his fingertips. A slight glow seeped through his pores, causing his fresh tattoos to crackle. All over, sweat began to pour from him.

Noelle didn’t seem to notice. But then, her pain receptors were fried, so she wouldn’t know if she were nearing decapitation.

Fear and more of the horror blended inside him, the adrenaline or whatever it was cranking them up, magnifying both until he could barely breathe. Shit, shit, shit! Concentrate. Protect Noelle. Must protect Noelle.

Dallas had said it was all about restraint. Mind over mind. Mind over fucking matter.

“You were about to tell me how you knew where my otherworlders were being kept,” Phillips stated calmly.

Both guards flanked his side, glaring down at Hector. His skin itched, heated another degree. He closed his eyes. Calm. “Lucky guess, that’s all.” Keep the focus on himself, away from Noelle.

“Anonymous source,” Noelle rushed out. “And no, we don’t know who it is.”

Truth mixed with a lie. Smart. How would Dare react? Hector looked the white-haired Arcadian over first, not wanting to be obvious, then Dare. Still glaring, no hint of fear. All the while, sweat continued to pour off Hector, his heart a maddened fist in his chest.

“Sorry, but you’ll have to do better than that.” Phillips curled his fingers around a new syringe but didn’t use it. Yet. “AIR is a well-oiled machine. Inquiries would have been made. Calls and emails would have been traced. Anonymous would not have remained a mystery for long.”

Silence. He and Noelle stared at each other, worried, unsure. So far, Hector had things under control. But—

“All right. You only have yourself to blame for this,” Phillips said. A second needle jabbed into Hector’s heart.

The flood of heat was instant, the organ hammering against his ribs so hard the beat soon became warped. His horror intensified. His fear intensified. The itching and burning in his arms intensified. The glow in his shoulders and forearms intensified.

Smoke curled from his skin, thickening with every second that passed.

No. No! Air hissed through his teeth. Couldn’t burn Noelle. Must remain calm.

“Hector,” Noelle said, her tone gentle. “Look at me. I’m fine. I’m fine.”

He couldn’t hurt her. He couldn’t. He would rather die. Mind over matter. MIND OVER MATTER.

Both voices were a blur of noise inside Hector’s head. Mind over matter. He chanted the phrase over and over. He would not hurt Noelle. She was his love, his life. HE WOULD NOT HURT HER.

Every muscle he possessed bunched and strained. He would not hurt her. He would not fucking hurt her. More sweat poured from him, little rivers all over his body. Okay, okay. So he couldn’t control his emotions or his body’s reactions. But maybe he could move them. He attempted to channel all the heat into his chest, away from Noelle, imagining sucking it there like a vacuum.

To his amazement, the itching in his arms just … stopped. The heat even muted. His chest was a different story. The itching and the heating erupted there.

Noelle blinked in astonishment. She felt it, then; it wasn’t just his imagination. She felt the ease from fire pit to over-warm bath.

Hector kept sucking on the heat, letting it pool around his heart, burning and crackling there. I can do this, he realized. And if he could redirect the burn …

Phillips said something else. When there was no reply, he held out his hand for another syringe. Frowning, saying something else, he slammed that third syringe home.

Hector released an animalistic roar—and channeled the heat into the needle, into the hand holding it. Shoving, shoving desperately, pushing every ember out of him, holding nothing inside.

Whether the act would work, he didn’t—

Phillips released his own roar as the plastic syringe instantly melded to his hand. Eyes wide with pain, rasping shallowly, trembling, he stumbled away, fell to his ass. He issued commands, or tried to, his words jumbled. His guards scrambled to him, trying to help him rather than ensuring the captives remained in place.

A new tidal wave of adrenaline filled Hector. His sweating increased yet again, and so did the burn. But so did his strength. A side effect Phillips probably hadn’t considered. As he drew the heat into his chest, he gritted his teeth and ripped at the thick adhesive holding him to Noelle. Weakened from the extreme temperatures, the tape split apart, and suddenly Hector was free.

He allowed himself a brief look at Noelle’s neck—red, blistered, but otherwise fine—before he shoved the guards out of the way and leapt on top of Phillips, grabbing him by the neck. Hector released the mental bonds on the fury and the heat, and his arms lit up, two inextinguishable bonfires.

Phillips struggled against him, mouth flailing open and closed, eyes tearing—until his head detached from his body. Both his head and his body erupted into flames a second later. Burning … burning …

Dare punted Hector in the side, trying to force him off the bastard, but it was too late. Satisfaction washed through Hector. Phillips would never abduct or sell another female, and Noelle would be safe now. Even from him. Hector hadn’t hurt her, even while jacked up on emotion. Even with his hands shackled around her neck.

Suddenly the side door burst open and armed AIR agents flooded inside. People were shouting commands, but Hector still couldn’t make out individual words.

He couldn’t quite catch his breath and his arms were still blue and glowing. He scooted back, out of Noelle’s path so that the agents could get to her. The white-haired Arcadian vanished in one blink, and Dare in the next. Now that Phillips was dead, the Arcadian would be Dare’s only link to whomever he searched for.

Concentrating with everything he had, Hector willed his arms back to normal, channeling the heat through his entire being, spreading it out, letting it seep through his pores like mist. Took several minutes, but the glow finally began to fade, the burn to subside.

Even though he’d been controlling the ability for several minutes, an eternity surely, his success still managed to shock him. He’d never dreamed … had always hoped … yet had always found disappointment. Now … he could trust himself around Noelle. Beyond a doubt, he could be with her safely.

Joy ripped through him, as unstoppable as an avalanche.

Whatever she wanted from him, he would give her. An apology? Begging? Whatever she needed, he would supply. They would be together. Yes, she’d told him they were done if he pushed her away. But that was before this, before he’d proven himself. And she loved him. Just as he was, she loved him. Noelle was not a woman to love lightly.

He dragged himself to his feet. His clothes were singed and still smoking. His muscles twitched with energy, his heart beating so swiftly and with such force he feared it would burst through his chest at any second. “Noelle.” Where was—

There. She had her back to him and her arms around Ava.

Twisting, she met his gaze. Her expression was blank, and he experienced a kernel of unease. “Yes?”

“Are you okay?” He closed the distance between them, so desperate to touch her, to finally hold her as he’d always fantasized about, he could barely contain himself.

“I’m fine. And hey, thanks for not killing me,” she said with a bland smile. Then she returned her attention to Ava and the pair strutted out of the warehouse.

NO MATTER WHAT HECTOR did or said the next few weeks, Noelle wanted nothing to do with him. She never gave him anything more than that bland smile. Once, she’d even patted him on the top of his head and pinched his cheek like she’d done to Dallas that first day of camp.

A lesser man would have given up. There was stubborn, and then there was I’d rather die. Noelle bypassed even that. But Hector wasn’t a lesser man. Noelle had chased him, and now he was chasing her. That was only fair.

For too long, he’d just accepted the fact that he couldn’t be with anyone. Then she’d come along and screwed with his head, his body (thank God for that!), and his heart. Now she had to live with the consequences. Because bottom line? He wouldn’t live without her.

He was from the streets, something he’d once considered a stumbling block between them. Well, no more. Over the years he’d learned how to break the rules, and that’s exactly what he planned to do with her.

Noelle spent all of her time furnishing her new home, as well as recovering from the stitches in her side and minor burns on her neck. Though she’d told only Ava her new address, Hector had found her and had showed up the very day she’d moved in.

After discovering out how he’d done it—AIR had pegged them both with the isotope tracker while they were laid flat in the hospital, which was how they’d come to the “rescue” that day in the warehouse—she’d shut the door in his face.

Same thing the next night, and the next. Seeing him hurt her soul-deep. So talk to him? Hell, no.

She had warned him. Let her go again, and lose her forever. At the time, he’d been okay with that. Just because he’d changed his mind didn’t mean she would change hers.

He’d proven to himself that he wouldn’t hurt her. So what. He could touch her without fear now. So what, she thought as longing swept through her. He’d pushed her away one too many times. Had broken her heart into a thousand pieces he could never hope to patch up.

And any time she thought she would cave, she just reminded herself that he could change his mind yet again. He could decide he was still too dangerous and leave her. Not going through this again.

She climbed the steps of her new porch, used the ID pad to let herself in. Night had fallen, and she’d forgotten to program the lights to switch on automatically. She’d spent the day with Ava, who’d kicked McKell out of their apartment and to his man cave so that Noelle could be pampered in peace.

In her living room, she patted the walls until she found the light switch. Took her forever, because she hadn’t yet learned the layout of the place. Hadn’t had voice recognition software installed, either, so that she would only have to speak a command for things to happen. Finally, her finger caught on the switch and light chased all the shadows away.

Hector sat on her new couch, gorgeous as always. Black hair unkempt, shirt wrinkled and rolled up to his elbows, his pants dirt-stained. His arms were bared, without gloves. His tattoos were dark, freshly applied—but those tattoos weren’t symbols for peace. Her name was scripted on every inch of visible skin, from fingertips to elbow. Her heart gave a leap. Stay strong. “What the hell are you doing here?”

Golden eyes pierced her. “Forcing you to listen to me. I’m sorry. I am so sorry for nearly leaving you.”

Another leap. “Nearly leaving me? Ha! You did. Your apology is too late. I’ve moved on.”

He flinched, then quickly rallied. Determination wafted from him.

“I heard you quit AIR,” she said, trying for a breezy tone. When she returned to work, she and Ava would be partners. They would work the night shift. Together, as they’d always dreamed.

As thrilled as Noelle was, she hated the thought of working without Hector.

“Mia hired me back,” he said. “Paired me with Dallas. We’ll be working the night shift, too.”

So he’d checked up on her. I will stay strong, damn it. “That’s cool. Whatever. I’m sure Ava and me will be kicking so much ass, we’ll never be in the office.”

“Predators should be afraid.” His features softened. “I also came to tell you that I love you. With everything that I am, I love you. Just the way you are. I don’t want you to change. I just want you to be with me.”