You know what you have to do.

Yeah, he did, and he’d get to that. Right now, he had to finish his tatts. They might not help him now, but they’d help him later, after he’d gotten to that.

He’d discovered this method about a year before joining AIR. He’d been desperate, having tried meditation, and even keeping a freaking food journal on the off chance the problem stemmed from something he was eating. Then he’d read somewhere that once upon a time berserkers had tattooed themselves with images meant to keep themselves calm.

Hector had thought, why not, and had done the same. Though he’d quickly burned through the first round of ink, he’d liked the fact that he could judge his heat factor with a single visual sweep. So he’d tried again, peppering his arms with different symbols for peace. He’d soon learned the Celtic one lasted the longest, helped the most, and acted as the best guide.

So he’d been applying these ever since.

If any of his coworkers had ever noticed that the ink was sometimes light, sometime dark, or that the symbols sometimes linked in new places, they’d never said. He never let anyone study them, anyway, and everyone knew never to touch him.

When he finished, he cleaned both arms and applied antibiotic ointment. Tomorrow he’d have scabs, but whatever. He’d wear his gloves and no one at AIR would know.

Mia had a case for him, and he was excited to dive in. Five more otherworlder girls had been found in a warehouse. They were around the same age—late teens—though each was a different race and unable to speak English. They weren’t as undernourished as the three before them, but they were just as traumatized.

Mia had brought in translators, but even still, the girls had given very few usable details. All they’d known was that they’d been home one moment and in the warehouse the next. Unfortunately they hadn’t seen their captor—or didn’t remember seeing him. Drugs could screw with anyone’s memory, and they’d each had fresh track marks on their veins. Track marks they’d claimed to know nothing about.

They’d been trapped for three days, and no one had come for them. They’d beaten at the walls and screamed for help, but no one had heard them. Understandable.

After the human-alien war, the planet had been razed and nearly everything had to be rebuilt. Most buildings were now comprised of shield-armor, and most walls were soundproofed steel. Even in warehouses.

Great if your planet was going to war. Bad if you were a woman locked somewhere you didn’t want to be.

Mia had found them only because she’d received an anonymous tip. The same way she’d found the others. Hector planned to do a little digging and learn what he could about Mr.—or Miss?—Anonymous.

He also planned to interview the girls and see if they’d remembering anything new—or had held anything back. He would try to be gentle, but his voice was gruff no matter what he said or what emotion he was going for, and his appearance alone usually scared the fairer sex.

Maybe that’s what the girls needed, though. Maybe they were still afraid of their captor(s). Maybe they needed to know an AIR agent could be just as frightening, and that someone like Hector would protect them with his life.

And he would. He had a weakness for the young and the damaged, and worked that type of case harder than any other. Which was why he had to be top shape tomorrow.

Determined, Hector made himself a sandwich and quickly inhaled every crumb, even though the thing was tasteless and settled like lead, then downed a glass of water. All right, then. He’d taken care of two needs. His arms and his hunger.

That left only one.

Biting the inside of his cheek, he picked up the phone and dialed Happy Endings.

Hector had been waiting for that shrill ding dong all morning. Having stayed up the rest of the night, unwilling to go back to bed and risk another dream, he’d had nothing to do but think of Noelle. Of her lips pressed against his, of her tongue battling his, of her body arching into his. Of her accepting him, just as he was. Of her needing him, all of him.

If ever there had been a woman created solely to tempt him, it was Noelle. Her beauty, her scent, her taste, her … everything. She appealed to him on every level.

Now he was like a junkie in need of a fix, worse off than before. He couldn’t go to work on edge like this. And yet, he wished like hell he’d never made that call to Happy Endings.

You want to accidentally hurt the otherworlders you’re supposed to interview?

He stalked to the ID panel and gritted, “Open.” The front door obeyed, metal sliding to the side, no longer separating inside from out.

Air laced with car exhaust, sunshine, and thick, cloying perfume drifted to him. He didn’t look at his visitor’s face; he didn’t care what she looked like and actually preferred not to know. He looked at her arms. No track marks. He looked at the pulse at the base of her neck. Good, strong, and steady.

She wore a loose white blouse and a well-fitted black skirt, as if she were headed to the office rather than the bedroom.

His gaze moved beyond her. Bright sunlight glinted off the dark, nondescript sedan she’d parked in his driveway. He scanned the houses across the street from his. Tall but narrow, each was built with a different color of brick—from brown to gold and even purple—and packed closely together. None of his neighbors were outside. Even though they’d never be able to tell what the girl did for a living by her car or appearance, he was glad.

To his left was a dentist, and to his right a family of four. They’d be disgusted if they knew what went on behind his door. He was.

Hector moved aside and motioned the woman inside.

She soared past him without a word. So. She knew his MO. Either she’d been here before, or the girls who’d been here had talked and told her what he “liked.” Zero communication, a straight shot to his guest room, a blow job, then a straight shot out.

“Close,” he said and once again the door obeyed. He didn’t turn around. Didn’t follow the woman as she clicked and clacked down his hallway. He just stood there, looking around as if his home was new to him.

He had no holophotos, not of himself and certainly not of his family. He would have liked a few of Dean, if any had ever been taken or if Dean had still lived. They hadn’t. He didn’t.

There was no clutter. No vases, no colorful but useless bowls or other shit women seemed to like. Just the basics. A couch, a loves eat, and a coffee table. An entertainment bureau, and a few plaques for “heroic” behavior on the job.

The fabric on the furniture was synthetic and worn, the table cheap stone rather than real wood, and the TV as basic as electronics came. He didn’t live here so much as exist here, flittering through between cases.

What would Noelle think of his stuff?

The answer didn’t matter. Couldn’t matter. Why are you stalling? You’re a menace. This is necessary.

Necessary. How he hated that word. Hated how it took away his freedom of choice.

Why couldn’t he be like every other man? Able to touch a woman, hell, even touch himself, without causing all kinds of devastation. Instead, he was a killer with undetachable weapons strapped to his body.

Rage at his own helplessness suddenly exploded through him, and he punched a hole in the living room wall. There was a spray of little rocks, some springing across the room, some just tumbling to the floor. His knuckles barely registered the sting.

Calm down, idiot. Anger had the same effect on his arms as sexual frustration. Combined, the two created a toxic mix of oh shit. He had to do this. He would do this.

Grinding his molars, he traced the lingering scent of that perfume to his guest room. He never let anyone into the master, never let anyone do anything to him in the living room or the kitchen, either. He didn’t want to ever walk inside those rooms and think about this part of his life. Therefore, all sexual activity happened here.

The woman was already on her knees.

Per his specifications, she was still fully clothed and hadn’t even bothered unbuttoning her collar.

He’d never had sex with a working girl, had never dared risk that kind of physical contact with one. Hell, he’d never had sex period. Not even with Kira, his one and only girlfriend. He’d killed her before they actually sealed—

Hector threw a dark curtain over his thoughts. Out of habit, he checked the condition of his “nothing can burn through these, I swear!” gloves. A dark curse left him. Damn salesman. Hector should have known better. Even though he’d tattooed himself last night, several spots were already burned and ringed, the edges of those rings caked in soot. He even smelled of cinder.

And wouldn’t you know it? Just as before, merely thinking her name got him hard as a goddamn steel pipe, desire overshadowing his lingering anger.

What was it about her that lit him up so completely? She was gorgeous, but so were other women. She was silly and violent, a little playful, a lot vengeful. Her only vulnerability, that he could see, was Ava.

What was Noelle doing right now? Causing trouble, he thought, and next found himself grinning.

The moment he realized what he was doing, he scowled. He’d never obsessed about a woman before. Always he’d been able to walk away. So why did simply thinking Noelle cause such a strong reaction?

“Should I …” The female in front of him motioned to his zipper. She must be in a hurry to get this done to have broken his no-communication rule.

“No. I will.” But he didn’t. He just stood there, as motionless as a statue. He wanted Noelle, yet he was going to allow another woman to put her mouth on him. A woman who didn’t want him.

Guilt ate at him, the bites bigger than usual.

You aren’t locked in a cage. You aren’t forced to harm other kids just to stay alive. His life was good. He hunted predatory baddies for a living, helped prevent other kids from having a childhood as traumatic as his. So the fuck what if he paid a stranger to get him off while he craved someone else?

With shaky hands he unfastened the only button on his pants. Tendrils of smoke rose from the holes in his gloves. Shit. He had to do this quickly. He needed the release the hooker could give him, and soon, before he burned down his house with the two of them in it.

“You do the rest,” he croaked, locking his arms behind his back. “And don’t … don’t talk anymore.” He’d lose his erection, but his hormones wouldn’t cool down.

She nodded, reached for him, and down went his zipper. Cold fingers moved his underwear out of the way and wrapped around the base of his shaft. His disgust with himself climbed.

As if she were part of a movie and someone had pushed the slow-motion button, he watched as she opened her mouth and inched toward his cock … closer … He clenched his teeth.

What the fuck are you doing? his better half screamed. This is wrong, so wrong. There has to be another way.

The answer was simple. He was surviving.

Damn it, what if there was another way? He’d never tried to masturbate, had let fear stop him, but maybe he should have risked it. Maybe singeing off his cock would finally end his physical and mental torment.

Sweat dripped from his temples, sliding down his cheeks. His legs vibrated with the strength needed to hold himself in place.

Just get it over with! the other part of him shouted. The part he knew, understood. Until you do, you’re dangerous. Operating on a hair trigger.

That, too, was the truth.

What should he do? The two needs warred, both so fierce they threatened to pull him apart.

He jerked away, severing contact. The woman looked up at him, her eyes widening with confusion.

He couldn’t do it. He just couldn’t. This wasn’t right. He wanted someone else, and if he couldn’t have Noelle’s mouth on him, he wouldn’t have anyone’s. That didn’t change the fact that he needed relief, somehow, some way, but he’d deal with that as soon as the woman left.

“You have to go,” he said. “I can’t do this. I put the money on the nightstand. Please, just take it and go.” He knew his voice lashed like a whip, but he couldn’t help it. He hurt, he yearned. He was scared out of his goddamn mind about what he planned to do.

“Please,” he croaked. Finally he allowed himself to study her face. She was most likely in her early twenties, though life had not been kind to her. Had aged her beyond her years, with stress lines branching from her eyes and mouth. Her hair was bright red, too coarse to be real.

“I’m sorry you didn’t want me,” she said, but damn if there wasn’t relief in her voice. She grabbed the money and strolled away, out of the house, a spring in her step.

HECTOR WAITED UNTIL HE heard the front door snick closed before releasing the breath he’d been holding and carefully wrapping his hand around the base of his cock. He was going to masturbate, even if it killed him. And he was going to do it now, before he lost his nerve.

He could feel the burn his arm emitted through the fabric of his glove, but he didn’t fry his shaft to a crisp and took heart.

Do it. Slowly up, slowly down, he stroked. Still no problems. He increased his speed. Up, down. The glide wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t bad, either. Up, down, faster and faster.

The glow brightened. The heat blazed. And yet, still no problems.

Relaxing, getting into it, he squeezed his thick, marble-hard shaft with a strength borrowed from his desperation. Up, down, up, down. No matter how excited he became, he never hurt himself—and yet orgasm eluded him.