“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.
“You didn’t say stop,” Noelle blasted back.
“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 ni**les. 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 ni**les 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 f**king 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.
But again, he’d learn.
“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.