Fine. They hadn’t done any of those things before, but now they wouldn’t have the opportunity. Once Ava turned into a vampire, she would be unable to venture out during daylight hours without burning like deep-battered shrimp.
So Ava would only be doing night patrol for AIR. And yeah, okay, Noelle could change her schedule, too, and would, if AIR would let her, and they had better fucking let her, or she’d quit, even though she’d come to love the job. Even still, McKell would be the one with access to all of Ava’s free time.
Time that had once belonged to Noelle.
Guilt was like acid in her veins, a disease without a cure. Ava was so happy. So damn happy, and here Noelle was, pouting about it. But too many things were changing all at once, and Noelle simply couldn’t process everything.
A hard knock rattled the stall’s door, and she yelped, straightened. The alcohol must have finally kicked in because the motion left her head swimming and her thoughts fogging. Good, that was good. The foggier she was, the happier she’d appear.
She could play this. No one would ever know the depths of her despair. Not even Ava. “Yes, rudeness, I am. Can’t a girl do her business in private?”
“Not this girl, and not today. Finish and come tell me how gorgeous I look.”
Yes, she could do that. Noelle leaned over and waved her hand over the motion sensor. The toilet flushed, Jack and Jim rattling together and refusing to go down. No matter. She squared her shoulders, pasted on her megawatt grin, and opened the door.
And there was Ava, her sweet Ava. “My God. You look gorgeous.” Truth. Breath was actually catching in Noelle’s throat, clogging the passage.
Ava beamed, love radiating from her, giving her burnished tan a melted cookies-and-cream sheen. Her curls framed her delicate face and tumbled past her shoulders. She wore a gown of golden silk, in a goddess cut, the material flowing all the way to six-inch hooker heels. The best part, though? A necklace made from human finger bones hung around her neck. A gift from McKell.
Ava was supposed to laugh, maybe twirl and demand more compliments. Instead, Ava cupped Noelle’s cheeks, and peered deep into her eyes. “I love you. And really, McKell’s just my starter husband. You know I despise commitment. I’ll probably leave him before the honeymoon is over.”
Hardly. Those two were forever, and all three of them knew it.
“I wouldn’t do this if I thought I would lose you,” Ava said, voice softening further. “You and me, we’ll be together for eternity. Probably not in heaven, but we’ll still be together. You know that, right? Tell me you know that.”
Noelle held onto her smile. Barely. “I know that.” And she did. But things would change, and more than they already had. One day Ava and McKell would have a kid. Or six. The way they went at it, they might have a baker’s dozen. Ava would have a new family, one that did not include Noelle.
Aunts, even kick-ass aunts like Noelle would be, were merely an extension, rather than part of the whole. That’s just the way things worked.
Where was her happily ever after? Where was her stand-by-you man? She hadn’t been on a single date since leaving AIR training camp. There’d been offers, of course, but she’d been unable to feign interest.
Always she’d thought, Where’s Hector? What’s he doing? and flaked.
“Now,” she said, performing a twirl of her own. A mistake. The dizziness magnified. When she stopped, two Avas watched her with more of that concern. “How do I look?”
Several moments ticked by in silence before determination overwhelmed the concern, and Ava smiled. Knowing the little witch as she did, Noelle knew her friend had just decided time would prove her right.
“You look amazing, and if one person, just one, says you look prettier than me, there’s going to be a massacre after the vows are said.”
“What if that someone is me? Because I’m just gonna say it. I do look prettier than you.” She sighed, revealing only a hint of her wariness. “Maybe at your next wedding you’ll manage to outshine me.”
This time Ava laughed. “Shut up. I can get away with talking that way, but when McKell hears anyone else voice any kind of doubt, he lectures about what’s his, his, his.”
Yeah, there was no one more possessive than McKell.
Noelle experienced a slight pang of envy that none of the guys she’d dated throughout the years had ever tried to stake a claim on her. Corban might have demanded more of her time, but in the end, when she’d left him, he hadn’t come after her, hadn’t fought for her, and she’d realized he’d never really loved her either.
How could he? She’d never been the woman he’d wanted.
“So what are you doing in here?” Noelle asked. “Your ceremony starts—” she glanced at the clock on the wall “—five minutes ago. Oh, shit. I’m sorry!”
She’d been helping Ava with her hair, had felt the panic burning up her throat, and had fled into this bathroom under the guise of having to pee so badly she was ready to wet herself. Half an hour had passed.
The area was small, with two stalls, one sink, and no sitting area to check your makeup and chat. At least the walls were painted a pretty silver, none of the stone crumbling.
Ava should have sheer opulence, utter luxury, but she had flat-out refused to allow Noelle to pay for anything. Not that that had stopped Noelle from sneaking in a few improvements. Like, say, paying for the entire building to be refurbished in secret.
“I can’t get married without my maid of honor at my side, so do me a favor and hustle that sweet ass of yours into the chapel.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Noelle jumped into motion, and Ava smacked the ass in question.
Out of the bathroom, through a narrow hallway with scarlet carpeting and glowing wall sconces she went. When she reached the main foyer, with faux wood tables pressed into the corners, and a chandelier dripping with glittering crystals, she paused.
There were the arching double doors that led to McKell. Though her stomach twisted with nausea, she held out her arm, waiting. Ava linked their fingers. Her skin was cold, a little clammy.
“Nervous?” Noelle asked. Beyond the entrance, she could hear the gentle strum of a harp, the delicate notes of a piano.
Some of the nausea eased. “I can get you out of here in five seconds flat and—”
Ava laughed. “I’m not having doubts, you dope. I love McKell, and he loves me, and I honestly can’t live without him. I just hope I don’t trip and fall. Or, do I have food in my teeth? I knew I shouldn’t have eaten those strawberries.”
“If you trip and fall, I’ll point and laugh, but I’ll also make sure your panties aren’t showing. If you’re wearing any, that is. But that’s the worst that can happen, so your worry is kinda pointless. As for your teeth, they’re perfect. Just like you.”
The tension drained from Ava’s grip, her temperature warming. “You’re such a sap.”
“Just for today.” I’m a big girl. I will survive this. “So, are you ready to do this or what?”
“Okay, then. Here we go.” With that, Noelle kicked open the doors and escorted her best friend down the aisle.
A gasp swept over the crowd, and like a wave, they stood, one row after the other. McKell paced on the dais, his tux ripped at the collar, his tie sagging, as if he’d pulled them both a few times too many. He possessed hair the most luscious shade of indigo, pale skin and eyes of the purest violet.
He was a beautiful man, strong and muscled, toweringly tall, and he was utterly undone by the sight of his bride. He stilled, his gaze locking on Ava, his anxious expression changing to one of awe and reverence. He didn’t care that everyone saw his reaction, either. He was too proud of his woman.
The little pang returned to Noelle’s chest. McKell hadn’t wanted a best man, or any groomsmen for that matter—none deserved the honor of standing next to him, he’d said—but all of AIR occupied the first few rows.
Noelle nodded to Mia, who looked gorgeous in blue. Beside Mia was her husband, Kyrin, a delicious Arcadian who reminded Noelle of Corban in appearance only. Same white hair, same lavender eyes, and skin the color of a winter storm. But Kyrin thought his woman was perfect and wouldn’t change anything about her.
A movement at the corner of her eye had her glance shifting. Dallas had just reached up to tug on his earlobe. He realized she was watching him and smiled, but there was no amusement in the baring of those teeth. He’d been doing that a lot lately, like at yesterday’s crime scene. Trying to appear nice and polite, but failing miserably. She had no idea why.
Her gaze slid away—and landed on Hector, who stood beside him.
Hector. He watched her intently, warily, as if she were a bomb about to detonate.
And he hadn’t texted her yesterday, so she figured she’d done more damage to the perp than she’d thought.
Why, why, why, hadn’t time and Hector’s shitty attitude lessened his appeal, dissolved her fascination, and stopped the draw?
She really hadn’t learned her lesson, had she?
He wore a dark pinstriped suit, and her heart fluttered at the sight of him. His eyes were shadowed, almost haunted—and they were glued to her face. As always, he was frowning.
So badly she wanted to catch a glimpse of his smile. A flash of those dimples, a peek at those straight, white teeth. Teeth he’d once used to bite her bottom lip. Some nights she imagined she still felt the sharp, luscious sting.
His head tilted to the side, his interest gliding from one of her features to another. Her brow, her eyes, her mouth, her chin. Either he was drinking her in, as she had just done to him, or he was fitting puzzle pieces together.
Could he see the pain behind her happy mask? No, surely not. He didn’t know her well enough. Yeah, he saw deeper than any other man, but. … Only Ava saw the real Noelle, and Ava had no idea about the depths of her pain.
“Who gives this woman away?” a male voice suddenly boomed out.
Ava squeezed Noelle’s hand, and she snapped to attention. Shit! They’d reached the end of the walkway, and she’d been twisted like Dallas’s favorite sexual pretzel position, peering over her shoulder for God knew how long, staring at Hector.
Now there was silence. Such expectant silence.
“Uh … what now?” Her voice echoed from the steepled ceiling.
“Who gives this woman away?” the pastor repeated with the utmost patience, as if this kind of thing happened all the time.
Deep down, she wanted to shout “Not me! Never me! And no one else does, either!” but she didn’t. Bile chugged up her throat again, threatening to spill over, but she managed to say, “Me. I do. In a minute,” she added. “I haven’t yet given my wedding present to the groom.”
“Come here, you sexy morsel.” She pulled an unresisting, now laughing Ava in for a passionate kiss. That’s how she and Ava had snared McKell, once a target of AIR but now the agency’s biggest asset, after all. They’d distracted him with a girl-on-girl kiss before stunning him, and he’d loved every moment of it. In fact, he’d been pushing for another GOG PDA session for quite some time.
A few members of the crowd gasped. A few whooped. McKell reacted just as before, going taut with excitement. This was the only time he’d share “his woman,” and only with Noelle. Anyone else tried this, and heads would roll.
When she felt they’d pushed the line of scandal to its limit, Noelle straightened and peered down at her bestie, whose smile was brighter than the sun. “You’re welcome.” Trembling, she placed Ava’s hand in McKell’s.
McKell’s grin was just as bright.
“Shall we begin?” the pastor asked, some of his patience gone.
This is it, Noelle thought, sad for herself and blissfully happy for Ava all at once. The beginning of the end.
SOMETHING WAS WRONG WITH Noelle. Big time. Hector had known it the moment he’d spotted her.
He remembered her as she’d been yesterday, so damn hot his mouth had watered for a taste of her. Black leather practically painted on her breasts, her flat stomach the tantalizing color of honey and cream, her legs painted with the same leather. He was certain no woman had ever rocked an outfit better. And yet there’d been a gleam of sadness in her eyes as she’d subdued her captive.
Still his cock had reacted instantly. So had his arms, proving she was as dangerous to his peace of mind now as she’d been before. Even when she’d insulted the shit out of him, calling him a slow old man, and lied through her teeth, he hadn’t cooled down.
I’m not old, damn it. I’m in my prime.
Today’s red dress—holy hell. A fantasy come to dazzling life, revving him up. But once again he noticed the sadness in her eyes. Only now it was amplified.
He sat in his pew and pretended to care about the ceremony while examining her. She was smiling prettily, but her cheeks were pale. She was smiling contentedly, but a line of tension creased her brow. She was smiling, but she was breaking his goddamn heart.
He didn’t know how—he would have placed good odds on his not having a heart—and he didn’t know why. All he knew was that he preferred her wild and silly and yeah, too smart for her own good.
After interacting with her yesterday, he’d craved more. Just a glance, something, anything, so he had finally broken down and watched her interrogation tape from camp. Not the one that had so enthralled Dallas, but the last one. The one Phoenix had overseen.