Arm check. Slight burn, slight itch. No glow. He was okay. For now.

She sniffled as if her heart were currently in the process of breaking. “You’re not going to wish me a good morning, too?”

“No, I’m not.” I hope your morning blows. Mmm, blows. Shit. Damn. And a thousand other curse words. He needed to rewind, and try another thought. I hope the rest of your day sucks. Mmm, sucks. Damn it! “Now concentrate like a good little girl.” A command to both of them. Because yes, he was more like a chick every second he spent with her.

“Sir, yes, sir.” No more hurt in her tone.

Was she mocking him? Surely not.

The first lap had left a fine sheen of perspiration on her exposed skin, making her glisten erotically. Same with her friend, Ava, who kept pace at her side. But he didn’t want to throw Ava on his bed and screw into her spinal cord.

You don’t want to do that to Noelle, either. This kind of wanting was new to him, that was all. He’d deal. He’d overcome. He always did.

“Agent Mean, watch out for that—”

His boot slammed into something hard and immobile, and he barely managed to keep himself vertical.

“Rock,” she finished. Her husky laugh echoed across the distance, sank past skin and into cells, fizzing like champagne. She’d moved several more feet ahead of him and didn’t look back, that ponytail continuing to swing.

“Have you forgotten the meaning of the word dibs again?” he heard Ava ask her.

Noelle cartwheeled as she replied. “Nope. I was just showing you how it’s done.”

Ava snorted. “How what’s done? Annoying everyone to death?”

They had a strange relationship. More than boss/ employee, as he’d first supposed. Exactly what they were to each other, however, he hadn’t yet worked out. But he wasn’t going to ponder it now. There were more important things to do. Like run everyone into the ground, himself included.

Noelle never again bypassed him, but that was not the blessing it should have been. She remained just ahead of him, and he never lost sight of her. She moved like a panther. Sleek, fluid, effortless. And she never slowed. But then, he never did.

She always pushed herself harder than anyone else—except for him. He pushed her even harder, hoping to break her. So far, no luck.

Damn it. She had to be gone by the time he returned next month. His arms, his hands … yep, they really began to burn and itch. The ink had already faded a bit.

When he got home, he’d take a few days of personal leave and redo his tattoos. Somehow those Celtic symbols were the only thing that actually helped him. How they kept his ability under control for as long as they did, he didn’t know. Just like he didn’t know why he was like he was. No one else in his family had ever exhibited this kind of curse.

Plus, the ink was his gauge. The lighter it was, the more of a danger he was. When there was nothing left, even God couldn’t help him. Hector wouldn’t just kill everyone around him; he’d inadvertently destroy entire buildings.

“He’s trying to murder us,” a trainee wheezed as he came up from the rear.

“After this, I’m going to murder myself,” another rasped.

Hector glanced at the timer hanging from his neck. They’d been running three hours and thirty-two minutes. So he’d gone a tiny bit over the two and a half hours he’d intended. Babies.

He studied each one. They were drenched in sweat, even Noelle, and their steps were now dragging. Good. He would have liked to push them even harder, and hell, push himself since the jog hadn’t yet done shit to his hormones, but there was more crap to do before he could take off, so the sooner he got started the better.

And the sooner he got himself under control, the sooner he could get back to work. A case would occupy his thoughts, keep him focused.

“All right,” he shouted, halting in the middle of the dirt track. “Bring it in. And hustle.”

All but Noelle and Ava obeyed. The twosome kept running.

What was this? National Test His Patience Day? “Now!” he roared.

“Before,” Ava panted, “you told us to run until you said stop.”

They were right. Smarter by the second. His narrowed gaze swept across the trainees around him. “What are you doing, standing around? I didn’t say stop, did I?”

With a symphony of groans, they leapt back into action. He let them eke out another mile before saying the magic word. “Stop.”

Every single one of them dropped where they were and sprawled on the hard, cool ground.

No mercy. “Did I say you could rest? Bring it in. And actually hustle this time.”

He watched as they lumbered to their feet and closed the distance. ’Course, he watched Noelle a little more intently than the rest. Because she was soaked, her white tank and sports bra were see-through. He saw more than hard nipples. He saw color. Pink, perfect circles made for a man’s tongue.

Scowling, Hector rubbed the building burn from his left arm. Time to take care of his problem once and for all.

HECTOR SPUN SLOWLY, SURVEYING each member of the group forming a circle around him. Well, every member but Noelle. Avoiding those nipples was priority one. “So far, all you pussies have done is exercise. Time to change that.”

He gripped the collar of his shirt and tugged. The material swept over his head and dropped to the ground. Someone might have gasped, but he couldn’t be sure. Next to go was the stopwatch. He rolled his shoulders, stretching the muscles. The bones in his neck popped as he turned his head left, right. Sweat formed rivulets down his chest, and caught in the waistband of his jogging shorts.

Another gasp, then a moan. A smoky moan. As if Miss Noelle Tremain liked what she was seeing.

Shit. He wouldn’t look; he fucking wouldn’t look.

“You.” He pointed to the guy some of the girls had been caught sighing over. Johnny Deschanel. Dark hair, dark eyes. Not quite as tall and muscled as Hector—who was?—but he was the closest in size and perfect for the first demonstration. A demonstration that would, hopefully, scare the stubbornness right out of Noelle, saving him from having to take this to the limit. “Ass in the circle. We’re doing hand-to-hand.”

Cocky little bastard strutted despite his obvious fatigue.

Those with a modicum of training were always the easiest to flatten. They considered themselves experts, maybe because they’d actually managed to take down a few opponents in the outside world. Here, now, that experience was more of a hindrance. Johnny had no idea what someone with a lot of training could do to him.

“Attack me,” Hector said to Johnny. He withdrew the thin newly designed asbestos gloves hanging from the back of his waistband and tugged the material over both of his hands. “Hit me, even once, and you and the rest of the trainees are free to do whatever you want for the rest of the day.”

Excitement and resolve glittered in those dark eyes. But the guy didn’t say anything, just nodded and dove for him.

Something Hector had foreseen. He merely stepped to the side, and Johnny soared past him, slamming into Ava with a hmph. Noelle took exception and kicked him off. What did surprise Hector was the way Johnny used the momentum to his advantage and popped to his feet. Smart. Wouldn’t bring home the victory for him, but smart.

Having witnessed how quickly Hector could anticipate and react, Johnny chose a different route for his second go. He circled … circled … closing in. Moment he was within striking distance, he threw his fist into Hector’s nose. Or tried to. Hector caught his hand and twisted, spinning him around and pinning his arm against his back.

The angle was awkward, painful, and mortifying, because there was nothing Johnny could do to escape without popping his shoulder from its socket.

Easier than anticipated, and somewhat disappointing. Hector hadn’t gotten to break a single bone.

“What did he do wrong?” he asked the group. And yeah, maybe he was showing off a little. As Johnny squirmed, Hector’s chest puffed up like a peacock’s tail, all look at me, look how strong I am.

Noelle and Ava both raised their hands.

“Oh, I know. Me, me, pick me!”

“No, pick me! I’m righter. More right. Whatever, pick me!”

A few seconds later, they were attempting to lower the other one’s arm.

Ignoring them, intending to explain the intricacies of his magnificence himself, he released Johnny and gave the guy a shove toward the open spot in the circle. “Have a seat.”

Rather than obey, Johnny swung around with a growl, fist cocked and flying. Hector dodged, and threw a punch of his own. Johnny wasn’t fast enough to dodge. Contact. The trainee went down like a stone in water, and just like that, it was lights out.

Hard fact: you put knuckles against cartilage, and knuckles would win every time.

“Lesson number one.” Hector straightened, his arms falling to his sides. “The fight isn’t over just because your opponent is. You can’t use a pyre-gun to stun humans, and some otherworlders have somehow inoculated themselves and can move within seconds of being hit with the rays. Always make sure your target is really down and out. Example.”

He kicked the unconscious Johnny in the stomach. Air whooshed from the guy’s mouth, and his body jerked, but he didn’t curl up to protect his vitals. All right, then. He was really down and out.

Someone clapped, whooped. Hector spun, eyes slitting. There was Dallas, in Johnny’s old seat, pearl-white smile flashing against his deeply bronzed skin as his fist pumped toward the heavens.

“Taught him everything he knows,” Dallas said. “Hector, I mean, not the one who got the nose job free of charge.”

I will not laugh. “Take out the trash, would you, Dal?”

“Sure, sure.” Dallas snapped to and was dragging Johnny out of the circle within seconds.

“So.” Hector performed another spin. “Who’s next?” He waited a few heartbeats of time. “Noelle?”

He nearly flattened her with the fierceness of his stare, their gazes locking together, clashing. Her starling gray against his crackling gold. He expected her to decline. Maybe to cower. She grinned the eager beaver grin he’d seen day one, and stood. All innocence, all playfulness, total contradiction.

Irritation—and surprise and more of that stupid arousal—twisted a knot in his gut.

Noelle gave her friend a thumbs-up. The sun had finally found its place in the blue, blue sky, shining brightly, no clouds obstructing the brilliance. Her ponytail was plastered to her head, her cheeks flushed bright red, but damn it all, she’d never been prettier.

“I won’t go easy on you.” Truth. He couldn’t. Not if he was going to be rid of her. And okay. Maybe he was wrong and she’d make a good agent one day. That determination of hers, if channeled properly, could take her places. And maybe it was unfair of him to want her kicked out because he was attracted to her. Didn’t matter. She was rich. She’d get over it.

“Go easy on me? Why, Agent Mean, I’d be disappointed if you did.”

He was not impressed.

“Same rules? Meaning, it’s on like Donkey Kong, and we get a freebie if you’re hit?” she asked.

He nodded. Donkey Kong? And goddamn it, her voice. That husky, smoky quality once again made everything she said suggestive and dirty. Like, same rules somehow became inside me.

So now he would have to give her everything he had without using his arms. The burning had cranked up a notch, the tattoos glowing through the material’s pores. He prayed no one noticed. Or, if they did, that they assumed it was an optical illusion.

Not a farfetched thought, he told himself. As exhausted, hungry, and abused as they were, they’d believe anything. Surely.

In a world where aliens walked among humans who did not yet accept them, discrimination was rampant. How much worse would that discrimination be for a horrendous genetic mutation? And that’s what Hector was. He knew it. He’d researched the hell out of himself, his past, and his family, and that was the only explanation that made sense.

“Soooo, are you just going to stand there or what?” Noelle asked.

Shit. Distraction wasn’t going to help his cause. “All right. Let’s see what you’ve got.”

“Oh. Okay.” Eyes gleaming, she lifted her tank and bra. “I’ve got thirty-six C’s.”

The male trainees might have whistled, the females might have gasped. Hector couldn’t be sure because he lost focus of them. Lost focus of everything but those perfect breasts. Honest to God, his thoughts derailed, his nerve endings going white-hot throughout his body.

Rose-colored nipples, beaded and ripe for sucking. She had no tan lines, was the same sweet cream and honey all over. And she was closing the distance between them, jiggling, those breasts staring at him, tempting him, daring him, almost within reach. Totally within reach.

He flexed his fingers; he wanted to reach.

She double tapped him in the mouth so hard he was spitting blood as he fell. Stars winked through his line of vision before he landed. And then, when he hit, his skull cracking against the same rock he’d tripped over, the stars vanished and thick black cobwebs took their place.

However long passed before he blinked open his eyes and saw a flame of white flashing over him, he wasn’t sure. All he knew was that his temples throbbed and the stars had decided to do an encore.