“Honest.” Elle. All the men in her life eventually called her Elle. A soft nickname for the soft girl they assumed her to be. Or rather, wanted her to be. Little wonder she longed to punch every one of them in the face when they used it.

Not that she’d ever admit the truth, however. Expressing your displeasure with something was tantamount to begging to be tortured by it.

Dallas’s hand slid down her back and landed on the curve of her ass. His fingers splayed, covering as much ground as possible. “Besides the pedicure, what do you consider better than this?”

Where to begin? “Long walks on the beach, even if it’s freezing outside. Good—or cheap—wine in front of a crackling hearth. Chicken noodle soup. But it has to be made from real chickens, and not that syn-shit, or I’ll have to strike it from the list. A lukewarm bubble bath, a mediocre book, a—”

“Okay, okay. God,” he said with a laugh. “You are hell on a guy’s ego.”

“Something of mine needs stroking,” he muttered, “but it’s not my ego.”

“Yeah, I can feel your something,” she replied dryly. “Can you move that thing already? It’s annoying.”

Another warm, rich chuckle left him. “Fine. Give me a minute.” He pulled back long enough to reach into his pants pocket. Her mouth fell open.

“I didn’t mean—” She stopped. He was readjusting his erection in front of everyone!

Only he withdrew a pyre-gun, the crystal dull rather than sparking, indicating the safety was on, and stuffed the weapon in the waist of his slacks, behind him. Then he drew her back into his embrace.

The shock had yet to leave her. “Now who’s hell on an ego?” she grumbled, her cheeks just a bit hot.

“Then let’s help each other out and revisit the whole stroking issue, hmm?”

Incorrigible sex fiend. And she wished, really and truly wished, she desired him. Even in the minutest amount. He was fun, funny, and probably a damn good lover.

“You know, Dallas,” she said, straightening to gauge his reaction. “I have this friend …”

The light in his eyes expanded, only to be crushed a moment later as his pupils expanded, too, the black pulsing. Just as Hector’s had done each time before they’d kissed, and then again yesterday when he’d eyed her black leather. “Is she a mild-mannered AIR agent by day and an insatiable nymphomaniac by night?”

Why wasn’t Noelle attracted to him again? Because this shit was amusing. “Her name is Hope Van Der Pyke.”

“And does she—wait.” The pupils retreated to normal size, and he lost his glaze of excitement and desire. “What?”

“She’s very pretty. Very wealthy. Kinda snobby, though. Anyway, you’re exactly her type.”

“Are you trying to set me up?” he said, nearly choking on the words. “With someone else? While I’m laying my best moves on you?”

“These are your best? Wait, never mind. Don’t answer that. I’d just have to feel sorry for you. So, to answer your question, yeah. I am.” His incredulity was adorable, and she couldn’t help but twist the knife deeper. “Is there a problem?”

One of her brows rose. This was more interesting by the moment. “We’re supposed to what?”

O-kay. “Do you mean that as a verb or a curse?”

“Both.” He released her to run a hand down his face, once, twice, three times. With the first, he revealed confusion. With the second, anger, and with the third self-deprecation tinged with humor.

His arms returned to her waist, but there was no drawing her in. Not this time.

“Want to tell me what just happened?” she asked.

“Do it anyway before I show you the blades I’m carrying.”

At least his humor intensified, his lips quirking at the corners. “Violent women really crank my chain.”

“Annnd, not what I wanted to know.”

“Forgive me,” he said, fingers stroking up and down her spine. In reflex, she thought, rather than in a bid to arouse her. “This is just so new to me.”

“What? Being let down gently?”

“Not that. You’ll find this difficult to believe, I know, but I’m turned down flat all the time. I’m not sure why, either.”

She snorted. She just couldn’t help herself. “Yeah, that’s a real mind puzzler.”

“Oh, Dallas,” she said, reaching up to pat his cheek. “Somehow you have turned the blackest day of my life into one that’s merely dark and gloomy. Thank you.”

He frowned. “Blackest day? Why? You look happy to me.”

Damn. She shouldn’t have let that slip out. “What are you talking about? I am happy.”

“But you just said … I just … Never mind. You’ll only tax my poor, abused brain further. So, here’s an admission for you, and an answer to one of your earlier questions. I saw this day … saw us … and we ended up in … Oh, never mind.”

“I—” The song ended, and his arms fell to his side, severing contact. “Uh, I’m needed elsewhere, so I’ll see you around, Noelle.” Off Dallas raced, never once glancing back.

“Well, okay, then,” Noelle muttered. Her gaze landed on Ava, who was peering up at McKell with utter adoration.

I want that, she thought.

Suddenly done with the party scene, and craving a minute alone, she took off in the opposite direction, heading for the back door. No one tried to stop her, and for that she was immensely grateful.

Outside, the parking lot was spread out around her. The sun was hidden behind dark, gray clouds, the air damp and cool. Closing her eyes, she leaned against the wall. She’d lived through the worst of the day. She could deal with anything else.

DAMN IT,” HECTOR CURSED when he spied Noelle. He should have left the wedding and stayed gone.

He’d left the wedding all right, but he hadn’t made it more than a mile from the chapel. Dallas’s I’m going for it had continued to ring inside his head, taunting him, infuriating him. Then he’d thought about Noelle’s red dress on his friend’s bedroom floor, resting beside a suit other than his. He’d pictured two naked bodies straining together on a mattress, had heard pleasure-filled moans.

He’d nearly destroyed the interior of his Jag as he reprogrammed the chapel’s address.

Once there, he hadn’t gotten out, hadn’t gone inside. He’d remained in the car, in the parking lot, the tint on his windows darkened to the highest setting so that no one could see inside. He’d glared at the building, and yes, he’d taken care of himself while imagining Noelle. With him.

Finally he had calmed down, the burning in his arms subsiding, the glow completely diminished.

The only thing that burned him now was humiliation and shame. That he’d done such a thing in a public place … his stomach rolled. At least he was out of the danger zone. Small comfort, considering he wasn’t sure he’d stay out.

One of the agents inside the building was emailing pictures of the wedding reception to everyone in her address book, and not two minutes ago Hector had opened one of Dallas on the dance floor, his strong arms wrapped around Noelle. Noelle had been grinning up at him.

Only reason Hector hadn’t stormed inside to rip them apart was that Noelle had still radiated so much sadness. Seeing her, his chest had ached unbearably.

He’d told himself to go home, that Dallas would work his magic and Noelle would fall under his spell. That the two of them would drive to the nearest hotel—they wouldn’t be able to wait until they reached Dallas’s apartment, because God knows, if the situation had been reversed, Hector wouldn’t have been able to wait—and sleep together.

And once Noelle had slept with his friend, Hector would stop thinking about her. Stop dreaming of her. Stop craving her. Surely. He needed to stop. She was a thorn in his side, a torment to his soul, a sickness in need of a cure.

He could never be what she needed, never touch her the way she’d want. More than that, he wasn’t good enough for her. Another man would make her happier. Far, far happier.

Yet he opened his car door, got out, and walked toward her anyway.

Noelle heard the footsteps and opened her eyes, prepared to paste on a smile and wave whoever had intruded on her personal space inside. Then she spotted Hector, and straightened. A frown pulled at the corners of her lips. His presence was a surprise.

His big body was gorgeous, as always, but humming with tension.

His night-wild scent reached her before he did, waking every cell she possessed. Next she felt the heat of his body, electrifying her. And then he was there, just a few feet away. Within touching distance, the width of his shoulders practically engulfing her.

Bad Noelle. No touching. “What are you doing here?” she asked, not yet daring to met his gaze. She was too afraid of what she’d see. Irritation, maybe. Or maybe even nothing at all, as if she were meaningless.

“I’m cleaning my gun. What does it look like I’m doing?”

O-kay. The snotty attitude wasn’t a surprise. “It looks like you’re annoying me.”

Still he didn’t attempt an explanation. He just shrugged and said, “Well, you look beautiful.” Grudgingly offered, as if the compliment had been yanked from his throat.

And yet that was the first time he’d ever said anything nice to her and she became wet. Just like that.

Instantly her body reacted as if she’d just run a ten-mile marathon uphill. Her breath shallowed so much she was panting, her lungs refusing to fill. Her temperature went from melting to one hundred percent liquefied, her knees weakening, trembling.

Intense golden eyes narrowed down at her, long lashes nearly fused. Hard lips stretched tight over those perfect, bite-so-good teeth, the scowl most likely meant to intimidate her into silence. His chin angled stubbornly, and there was no sign of his dimple.

His tie was gone, his suit wrinkled and disheveled. His gloves, missing.

God, she’d never seen a more beautiful sight. And with those few inches of hair … wow. Beautiful wasn’t a good enough description.

“You were sad a minute ago. And earlier.” His head tilted to the side. “Why?”

A cold shower went through her veins. He didn’t know. He couldn’t. At least he hasn’t noticed your reaction to him. Her beading nipples, her quivering belly. “What do you mean?”

He did. He knew. Butb how did he know? “I’m not upset.”

How dare he call her on her lie! “This is my best friend’s most special day and I have never, ever been happier—”

“I can’t believe you ever fooled me,” he said, all kinds of self-disgust in his tone. “You’re a terrible liar.”

How. Did. He. Know? Dallas hadn’t. Ava had suspected, but even she hadn’t realized the depths of Noelle’s misery. Noelle was a master at hiding her emotions. She had to be. Otherwise her mother and brothers would have realized how they chipped at her self-esteem and launched a full-scale attack.

“What … what makes you think I’m lying to you?”

He rolled his eyes. “Like I’m really going to blurt out your tell.”

She gaped up at him. “I don’t have a tell.”

“Whatever you need to believe to comfort yourself, sweetheart.”

Sweetheart. He’d just called her sweetheart. He didn’t mean it, though. Didn’t see her that way, the way other guys saw her. But the funny thing? She liked that he’d said it. She’d known him a year, and he’d never once called anyone else by a nickname or endearment, even sarcastically. Still. Letting him get away with his attitude so wasn’t happening. “You don’t know me,” she gritted.

“No,” he said softly, suddenly more serious than she’d ever seen him. “I don’t, do I?”

To Hector’s astonishment, he was as desperate to learn about Noelle’s life and her emotions as he was to have her underneath him. The latter was too dangerous, so he’d just have to settle for the first. “Do you feel like you’re losing Ava or something? Is that why you’re sad?”

A punch below the belt, maybe, but that was just his style. No mercy, and no prisoners. A motto he lived by. A motto life on the streets had drilled into his head.

Noelle crossed her arms over her chest, the fabric of her gown going taut, the pressure shoving her breasts together and creating the most delectable cleavage, but also hiding those beaded nipples he longed to tongue.

She snapped, “I’ve told you time and time again that I’m fine.”

“Actually, you’ve told me twice. You’re not fine, and sad girls aren’t as much fun to play with, so start talking.”

A lick of fire in her eyes, pursed lips. “Is that what you’re doing? Playing with me? But Hector, darling, aren’t sad girls what you’re used to?”