Hector had flinched every time Phoenix had slammed her fist into Noelle’s midsection. But Noelle hadn’t. Noelle had taken it and thrown out taunts.
Phoenix, who should have known better, had reacted, all emotion and no thought, allowing Noelle to lead her around on a leash. Hector had already realized Noelle was smart and tough, but that even he hadn’t foreseen.
Phoenix: You really think you’re AIR material, huh? You think that pretty smile of yours is going to solve cases for you?
Noelle: Of course. Proof: when I walked into this room my smile solved the case of the mysteriously missing blond agent who only has half a brain.
Phoenix: Do you like your brain slamming against your skull?
Noelle: More than anything.
Phoenix: Think your smile will be as beautiful if I pop your front teeth?
Noelle: Oh, Agent … Blond Girl … Person. The fact that you’d find me so pretty even without my teeth is sweet, but you’re not my type. I like my men with thinner mustaches.
Phoenix: How’s my mustache looking now?
Noelle: Who cares? Caress me again. I liked it.
Hector had been so turned on by Noelle’s attitude, his arms had glowed and he’d had to take care of himself. Twice.
Damn it, pushing Noelle away had been the stupidest, most intelligent thing he’d ever done.
After their second near miss that night at camp, he’d told Mia to take him off instructor duty or he’d quit AIR for good. Usually Mia didn’t take ultimatums well, but in this, she’d caved. Maybe because she’d sensed his desperation.
Once he’d arrived home, he’d gotten himself under control. On his own. And he’d remained mellowed out, except for the few times he’d run into Noelle at HQ.
Other agents had flirted with her, and she had flirted back. But if she was dating anyone—seriously or otherwise, not counting the imaginary Don Carlos—he didn’t know it. And he didn’t like that he didn’t know. He didn’t like the thought of her with someone else, in any capacity, either. Especially not the imaginary Don Carlos! And he knew the bastard was imaginary. Noelle’s eyes took on a pearlescent sheen every time she lied, and they’d looked plucked straight from the sea when she had mentioned him.
Dallas used to flirt with her, but that had stopped a few weeks ago, after they’d all run into each other at a bar after hours. As if the pair had seen each other naked, but had argued and parted ways.
The thought alone enraged Hector. He flattened his hands on his thighs before he did something stupid. Like ask in the form of punching. The answer didn’t matter. Couldn’t matter.
Even as a teenager, with more hormones than brains, he’d known he was better off keeping females at a distance, and he’d succeeded. Until Kira. From the worst of the streets herself, she’d wanted, needed, a protector. Someone to keep her safe, to scare away anyone who thought to rape her. Someone to make sure she had a place to stay. So she’d charmed him and he’d fallen.
He’d tried to be careful with her. For a while, they’d kept things nice and easy. A kiss good night, a kiss hello. Then they’d graduated to a little heavy petting. His arms hadn’t acted up too badly, and she’d hinted that she wanted to take things further, so he’d decided to go for it.
One night, as they made out, he’d stripped her, then stripped himself. His first skin-to-skin contact, and oh, had he been excited. The heat had intensified, but he hadn’t realized how much. Until he’d reached up and cupped her breast. His arm had already atomized, so he’d gone through her and hit the mattress springs. She had died instantly, her heart rendered useless.
Seeing her like that … he’d never been the same. What little hope he’d carried for making a relationship work had gone up in flames with her. And to be honest, no one had ever tempted him to try again. Until Noelle. But …
His fear was simply too great, too deeply rooted. The fact that he craved her far more intently than he’d ever craved Kira only freaked him out more.
If he hurt her, burned her, he would never be able to forgive himself. Would never recover. That’s why he’d done everything in his power to make Noelle hate him. Avoiding her at the office, making snide comments when they ran into each other.
Well, mission accomplished, he thought now.
Yesterday, they’d been all about the awkward polite. As if they’d never kissed. Never pressed their bodies together, straining, rubbing, both of them ready to explode.
“Be honest,” Dallas whispered. “Are you imagining that red dress on your bedroom floor?”
He would not reply. Would not voice the words that would undermine his good intentions.
He fucking would not reply. Not his agreement, and not a warning. What good would warning another man away do him? None, that’s what. Hell, if anything, a warning would only make things worse for himself.
Dallas would expect him to act on his attraction. And if he didn’t, well, he’d open the door for Dallas to act on his.
“Don’t be mad, but I can’t seem to help myself. I want her.”
Okay, so the door was already open. “Why would I be mad?” The words escaped loud, gravelly, and pissed as hell, drawing stares and a few hushes. Better question: how would he stop himself from ripping his friend’s face off?
Noelle had called dibs on Dallas, which meant she was attracted to him. Wanted him in return. Would probably like being stripped by him, touched by him. Tasted by him.
If she hadn’t been already.
He whispered fiercely, “Have you two … ?”
Dallas is your friend. Maybe Hector’s only friend. Dallas knew about his arms. Hector had finally broken down and revealed all. While working a case together, Dallas had used a few unexplainable abilities of his own, moving faster than the eye could track, controlling people with his voice, shit like that.
I wish there were an explanation for me. Though he’d kept searching, he’d found nothing. But he’d wanted Dallas to know there were others out there, that he wasn’t alone with his differences, and Hector had never regretted sharing. They’d bonded over it, almost like brothers.
And you can’t kill your brother, he reminded himself.
“And you’d be okay if I … ?”
“Okay, good,” Dallas said in that quiet voice. “That’s good. I’m gonna go for it, then. Tonight. As long as you don’t care.”
“Good, that’s good,” he repeated. “Bridesmaids can’t help themselves, either. The romance, you know. Practically puts a bull’s eye on their panties.”
Another forceful breath, in and out, careful, measured, followed by another. Hector tried to release his growing tension with every exhalation. Suddenly his hands burned, itched, and both sensations spread up, up, all the way to his shoulders, until he knew the skin beneath his jacket was glowing.
This was very, very bad.
He jumped to his feet. The pastor stuttered to silence, and every head in the room turned his way, including Noelle’s. He was careful to avoid her gaze as he stuffed his hands in his pockets, and shoved out of his row. Was that burning cloth he smelled? Despite the fact that he only ever wore fire-retardant clothing?
Without any kind of explanation, he stalked down the aisle and out of the chapel. Before he torched it and everyone in it to the ground.
WHO KNEW A WEDDING reception attended by stone-cold killers would prove to be the party of the century?
Noelle hid in a corner in back of the spacious ballroom, swathed in shadows, trying to take everything in. The walls were painted to look as if they’d been covered in pink lace. Glasses were clinking, conversations were raucous, and champagne and chocolate scented the air. Laughter abounded, as did the sucking sounds of a good kiss. A lot of people were getting down and dirty wherever they happened to be. A few down and dirtiers were even by the buffet table, rattling the dishes when gyrating hips met stone.
McKell had Ava on the dance floor, bumping and grinding and generally looking epileptic. So did everyone else on that floor, for that matter, moving to the hard, fast rock buzzing from strategically placed speakers. An elegant, twinkling teardrop chandelier winked over the seizers, highlighting their every blackmail-worthy nuance. She’d already done a little covert videoing from her cell, and planned to torture the agents for the rest of their lives.
“What are you doing over here all by your lonesome?” a male voice suddenly asked.
A flick of her gaze, and she realized Dallas had sidled up beside her. She’d have to pay better attention. Sensing a possible threat was necessary for her job, after all. Although Dallas didn’t look threatening today. In his pristine suit, with his dark hair slicked back, his dark complexion flawless, and his electric eyes bright, he was handsome in a fallen angel kind of way, half innocence, half wicked temptation.
And he’d said something to her, she recalled. “I’m two-fisting drinks with dignity,” she replied, toasting him with both of her nearly empty glasses. Her earlier buzz had already worn off, and she was looking for another.
His lips twitched, even as his gaze swept down the length of her, heating with desire.
Desire? Surely not. Not after the distant way he’d treated her lately.
“Darling,” he said, “I hate to break it to you, but you lost your dignity the moment you walked down that aisle. In my mind, I already had you stripped.”
So seductively uttered, so charmingly delivered, she found herself grinning with genuine amusement for the first time that day. “I do know how to rock a fantasy, don’t I?”
The desire, or whatever it was, cranked up a notch, turning those vivid eyes into a kaleidoscope of differing shades of blue. “Please tell me that’s not the only thing you rock.”
A chuckle bubbled from her. “Tsk, tsk. I almost think you’re flirting with me.”
“If you almost think then I’m not doing a good enough job.” His voice dropped a few octaves, going husky, layered with a needy rasp. “So, let me clear things up. I am flirting with you. Is it working?”
Her heart began to thud against her ribs. Not from arousal but from surprise and, well, quite frankly, unease. He was Hector’s friend. So if he was flirting with her this heavily, he didn’t think Hector would mind.
Hell, maybe Hector had even told him to go for it.
Her heart thudded harder, and she was disgusted with herself. Why did she care what Hector did, said? Or what he didn’t do, didn’t say?
She wouldn’t let herself care.
Oh, she had a response, all right. “Why now?” She drained one of her glasses, then the other, and handed them both to him. “First few months we knew each other, you treated me like a mischievous kid sister. Lately, I’ve been a diseased gutter rat.”
He lifted one finger, the universal sign for one sec, and trotted off to set the glasses on a passing waiter’s tray. When he returned, his hands were empty. Probably a wise thing, not plying her with more liquor. She’d start babbling about her kisses with Hector, her dreams about Hector.
Hector, Hector, Hector. Where the hell was he? Why had he stormed out of the chapel?
Dallas jumped back into the conversation as if he couldn’t wait another moment to engage her. “Let’s just say there were complications, and leave it at that.”
Intriguing. “Little known fact about me. I can’t leave anything at that. So, staying with the topic. What were the complications and how do they no longer apply?”
One strong shoulder lifted in a deceptively casual shrug. “I won’t tell you what they are, but I will tell you that they’re diminishing in importance.”
“Why?” Damn, but her curiosity was piqued in a huge way.
He released a wary sigh. “I’m certain I was wrong about one aspect of the—I was wrong, that’s all. And don’t you dare ask about what.”
“About what were you wrong?”
“Huh-uh.” Grinning like the imp he was, he shook his head, dark hair falling over his brow. “I’m not telling, and you can’t make me. Not dressed, at least.”
Clearly, he was an expert at flirting, and yet still she didn’t soften toward him. “I took a class on interrogation, you know. There are ways to make a guy talk that involve a handful of thumb tacks and, drum roll, being fully clothed.”
“Why don’t you dance with me instead?” Not giving her time to protest, he twined their fingers and ushered her to the dance floor, where he stopped and drew her into the hard line of his body.
He must have cued the band, because the music instantly turned soft and slow. For a long while, they swayed, silent, each lost in thought. Hers: this was almost nice. He smelled good, like soap and the after-sweetness of a rainstorm. Heat radiated off him, enveloping her.
And yet, still no attraction.
Sighing, she flattened her hands on his chest and pushed. Just a little, just to achieve a few inches of distance. He pulled her back in, closer … closer … until their chests were flush.
“There, isn’t this better?” he asked in that seductive tone, his breath fanning her cheek.
“Depends on what you’re comparing it to. Better than a root canal? Yes. Better than a pedicure? No.”