Stray thought: Who served Hector breakfast in bed?
Noelle’s teeth ground together sharply. The answer didn’t matter. Hector was her instructor, nothing more. Not once had he ever acted as if he found her attractive.
“Can I help you?” the guy behind the counter asked.
She sized him up with a single glance. Human. Late forties. Comb-over, sugar gut. He wore a white apron and earned major points for cleanliness.
The store itself was small, with three display cases and nothing in the way of furniture. Definitely needed a new business manager. There were no couches for customers to sit on so they could chat and eat more and more of the candy. No tables offering samples and free alcohol to encourage unwise spending, as she was used to.
“What do you have in the butterscotch department?” she asked.
“Not much.” He thumped a finger on the glass at his right, just above a plate of what looked to be fudge squares. “Just these.”
“I’ll take them.”
One of his brows winged into a stray lock falling down his forehead. “One or—”
Cash signs practically glowing in his eyes, he got to work, wrapping the squares individually and stacking them carefully in a small box.
The bell over the door gave another chime. The server glanced up, said, “I’ll be with—” then snapped his mouth closed and gulped with apprehension. His bloated cheeks paled. “Uh, just a second, please.”
Robber? Thug? Noelle spun around—and came face-to-face with her tormentor.
Hector Dean stood in the doorway, wearing a black T-shirt that molded to his muscles and black slacks that hugged his thighs indecently. He scowled over at her, his golden eyes glittered brightly. His arms were folded over his chest, and his legs braced apart, as if he meant to leap into an attack at any moment.
Oh … shit.
NOELLE,” HE SAID TIGHTLY, his voice full of gravel.
“Hector.” What did it say about her that she was aroused rather than scared? He looked capable of murder, his hard features cold and merciless, but damn if he wasn’t sexy as all hell.
Maybe because he wasn’t yelling at her.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he demanded.
“Buying a few sweet treats.” Her heart sped into a too-swift rhythm. I will not come on to him. “How did you find me?”
“Should I, uh, call the cops?” the server said from behind her.
“He is a cop,” she mumbled.
Frost appeared in Hector’s eyes, a snowstorm of menace. “You think AIR doesn’t monitor that tunnel? You think they’d place a hatch in town and not watch it? You were tailed the second you hit the alley, and I was notified.”
The crack house, she thought. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Why hadn’t she considered the possibility of cameras and alarms? Had she wanted to be caught? And why hadn’t she sensed the tail?
“That’ll be, uh, twenty-one seventy,” the server said now.
The frost thickened in Hector’s eyes, his spine stiffened.
Nibbling on her bottom lip, she dug her ultra-thin money card from her pocket, flashed it in front of the scanner and added a twenty-dollar tip.
A bright smile full of yellowing teeth. “Thank you, thank you so much.”
“Welcome.” She grabbed the box and returned her attention to Hector.
He hadn’t moved from his command post at the entrance, probably assuming she wouldn’t try to fight her way out, or that she would plead for mercy he wouldn’t show. As if! She raised her chin. “You kicking me out of the program or what?”
If he does, I will have failed Ava. Her stomach somersaulted, acid tumbling around like clothes in an enzyme washer. I can’t fail Ava.
He popped his jaw before reaching back and shoving open the door. With a tilt of his chin, he motioned her out. Well, well. He must not want a witness to what would happen next.
The acid burned a path up her chest. Still, Noelle strapped an imaginary iron rod to her back and marched into the night. She didn’t look back to be sure Hector followed, and she didn’t wait for him, either. She headed back the same way she’d come, not bothering to move out of the way as pedestrians approached; she simply barreled past them.
The streetlamps suddenly seemed too bright, the roaring car engines and inane chatter too loud.
Hector caught up with her quickly enough, his booted feet stomping into the concrete. “I take my job seriously, you know,” he began.
O-kay. Not the direction she’d anticipated. “Why?”
A crackling pause. “Did you really just ask me why?”
“Yes.” Not to be facetious or anything, but because she was curious about him.
“I stop predatory aliens from hurting others,” he gritted out. “I save lives.”
And didn’t that just make him even sexier? she thought with a wistful sigh.
“Why do you want to be an agent?” he asked. “And don’t give me that bullshit about wanting to shoot people legally.”
So Jaxon had told him about that.
Hector went on, “I believed it before, but I’ve seen the way you push yourself.”
He’d seen—and been impressed? She wouldn’t get her hopes up on that front. “To be honest, I just want to spent more time with Ava.” No reason to lie. If AIR had decided to can her, she would be canned, no matter what she said.
A beat of silence. Most likely her bluntness had stunned him. That happened a lot. With her family, her friends, everyone but Ava. “Well,” he finally said, “your reason sucks, and it won’t get you anywhere.”
“Why would a girl like me want or need to get anywhere?” she asked, only the slightest trace of bitterness escaping.
“Don’t do that.”
“That girl like me crap. You’ve got determination and drive, and you should be proud of it, not masking it with sarcasm.”
Hector Dean had just … praised her. She was dreaming. She had to be dreaming. “Are you saying I’d … make a good agent?”
Another beat of silence, as if he had to gather his thoughts. And that was answer enough, wasn’t it.
Knew better than to ask. Also, good thing she hadn’t gotten her hopes up.
“I’m saying you need to think long and hard about whether or not you’re right for this,” he said. “It’s hard and it’s dirty.”
Even as she fought the urge to punch him in the face for implying she couldn’t handle something like that, she forced her voice to go low and husky. “Hmm, hard and dirty. Just how I like my sex.”