Oh, hell, no. Attraction wasn’t something he allowed himself to feel, even in the smallest degree. Touching wasn’t something he allowed himself to do, ever. The one and only girlfriend he’d had, he’d accidentally killed.

Goddamn mutant arms, he thought with a snarl. Strong emotion literally fired them up, atomizing both into some kind of hot, molten steel that burned through bodies, ripped out organs, and hell, destroyed anything. Even a woman he only wanted to pleasure. So, lesson learned. He and females were not a good mix.

Friend and fellow agent Dallas Gutierrez stood on Hector’s right and moaned as if in pain. “Sweet damn, but those legs are long enough to wrap around me like a pretzel. And God, I love pretzels. Anyone know when we break for lunch?”

“That’s my cousin, dickwad,” Agent Jaxon Tremain said from Hector’s left. Had Whacky Jacky been next to Dallas, he would have drilled his knuckles into the guy’s bicep. “Watch your mouth.”

“By watch my mouth do you mean I should invite your cuz back to my place for a game of Hide the Magic Wand, or my new personal fave, Puff on the Magic Dragon?” Dallas asked conversationally. “And I know what you’re thinking. I’m really into wizardry these days. Well, you’re right.”

Hector gave a rusty bark of laughter. He hadn’t observed Dallas in this good a mood in a long time.

A low growl escaped Jaxon. “I meant I’d scoop out your liver with a spoon, you idiot!”

“Sterling silver or plastic?” Hector asked. In their line of work, details were important. Besides, he liked being part of their banter. Considering the fact that his work friends were his only friends, and he rarely socialized after hours, this kind of thing made him feel connected, like a part of the team.

Team. Something he’d never thought to be a part of, as dangerous as he was, but collaboration was a very important part of AIR. Sometimes the only thing that saved your neck was the man guarding your back.

Dallas groused, “I remember the days when you were actually nice.”

So did Hector. Once upon a time, Jaxon had been so by-the-book he could have been the book. Then he’d met his wife, Mishka, and the pretty little assassin had somehow infected him with ass**le-itis.

Jaxon liked to say she’d helped him accept his “true self.” And he actually said it with pride and affection, rather than revulsion, as if being yanked out of the shithead closet was a good thing.

No one was pulling Hector out, and that was that. He was the way he was for a valid, life-saving reason, and that reason wasn’t ever going to change. Therefore, neither was he.

“You won’t be remembering anything,” Jaxon said on a rumbling breath, “if you say one more goddamn word about my—”


The argument must have drawn Noelle’s attention because she clapped her hands and twirled. Then, with a carefree laugh, she tossed her overstuffed duffel at Ava, raced across the distance, and flung herself into Jaxon’s open arms.

Clapping? Twirling? Seriously? Maybe her record was exaggerated rather than cleaned, because damn, in that moment, the little-girl innocence radiating off her was astounding.

Sadly, that wasn’t the turn-off it should have been. With those lush br**sts and right side of dangerous curves, she was still one hundred percent woman.

Don’t go there. AIR was his life, saving innocents his only goal. He’d spent a good portion of his childhood locked in a cage, and had been forced to listen as his only brother was beaten to death. He never wanted anyone else to suffer that kind of tragedy. More than that, he never wanted to cause another tragedy.

Noelle, no matter how hot, was off limits. During camp, and forever after.

“I missed you.” As she pulled back to look Jaxon over, she giggled like they were all at a sleepover and pillow fighting. Giggled, yeah, but there were hints of smoke in her voice. The naughty kind that made him think of sex. “You get handsomer—more handsome? Whatever! You’re prettier every time I see you.”

“You, too, honey,” Jaxon said. “You, too.”

“Just for that, I’m willing to forgive you for not calling, writing, or letting me crash at your place when I was being chased by the law.”

The agent chucked her under the chin. “You’re supposed to be aiding the law, Elle.”

Elle. The nickname didn’t fit her. It was too cutesy. Which, he supposed, should have fit the china doll in front of him. Actually, it did fit, except for those hints of smoke.

“Oh, I’ll aid the law, all right,” she said with a flare of determination. “Just as soon as I’m given a badge.”

Hector did his best to cut off his snort. He failed. As if she would last through a single week of training.

Before seeing her live and in person, he would have bet she’d soar to the top of her class. After seeing her live and in person … not just no, but are you f**king kidding me no. Whether she was truly violent or just a poser, no one he knew wanted a partner like her.

Those silvery-gray eyes flipped in his direction, narrowed briefly, swept up and down his body, as if seeing past his clothes and memorizing every detail. Then she looked away, dismissing him as if she’d found him to be substandard.

All right, then. She didn’t find him attractive. Good. That’s actually what he preferred, because it saved him from having to deal with unwanted advances. In fact, he kept his head shaved to a glossy shine for just that reason. He was a man willing to do anything to discourage feminine attention.

Because yeah, females could be vanity hounds and most preferred their dates to have hair. Black, blond, red, it didn’t matter, as long as the locks were thick and lustrous. And here was a news flash for little Miss Giggles: when he allowed his to grow, it was dark brown, nearly jet, with hints of gold and worthy of a f**king lion.

Not that he was feeling defensive or anything.

Besides, even if he’d had hair, Noelle wouldn’t have wanted him. Most females found him a little too intimidating to speak to, much less someone to consider hooking up with. And soft, pretty girl Noelle had to like soft, pretty boys. That’s just the way the world worked.

“Ava,” Jaxon said to the Sunday school cutie who’d just ambled over to their group. Her duffel, as well as Noelle’s, sagged from her arms, weighing her down. “Good to see you again.”

“Yeah, you, too.” She returned the nod, curls bobbing around her face.

So. Ava and Noelle were friends. And long enough for the shorter girl to have met members of Noelle’s extended family. Interesting. With their vastly different backgrounds, Hector never would have paired them.

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