Ouch. She hit below the belt, too, but then, he’d jumped right into that one, hadn’t he.

He never should have told her about the hookers. None of his friends knew the truth. Not even Dallas. Hell, all of AIR probably thought he was gay. But he’d told Noelle in an effort to elicit her disgust. And lookie. You got it. Shocker.

“You better answer this, genius, or I’ll kick your ass!” he heard Ava say before he could think up a reply. He frowned, panned the area. Ava was nowhere to be seen. “You better answer this, genius, or I’ll kick your ass!”

With her left hand, Noelle held up her index finger in a bid for a second of privacy. With her right, she pulled a very slim cell from between her breasts.

“I only have the ringer on for one person,” she said at the same time Ava threw out another, “You better answer this, genius, or I’ll kick your ass!” Noelle added, “Ava stole my phone and programmed this as her personal ring tone. I liked it so much, I decided to use it for every call.”

He snorted, though he was strangely charmed by her admission. She truly adored her friend. Every aspect of her friend, at that, even the bizarrely cruel streak both women seemed to possess. He was also strangely envious. He might tease the guys at work, but he wasn’t comfortable enough with any of them to fool around. Again, not even Dallas.

“This better be important,” she said into the receiver. Jealousy flickered in his chest as her previous words sank in. She’d kept her ringer on for someone. A special someone obviously. His hands fisted.

“I told you no.” Her gaze skidded away from him, allowing him to study her face more intently. Such a red, red mouth … He licked his lips, suddenly imagining ripping the phone away from her and giving her a hard, punishing kiss.

She smelled of something rich and heady, a perfume from the wilds of a jungle, as well as the stars in the heavens. His cells heated, his skin pulled tight against his bones. Nothing dangerous, not yet, allowing him to remain where he was.

And therein lay the danger.

He wanted her so badly, he might try and fool himself into thinking all was well so that he could have her. If he hurt Noelle, scarred her, marred her in any way, he truly would hate himself forever.

You won’t hurt her. You’ve kissed her twice. She’ll be fine.

He found himself reaching out to sift his fingers through her hair. Thankfully he caught himself in time. He scowled. Temptation was a dark, dark bastard.

Mind out of gutter. She needed support, not a pawing.

He attempted to listen to her whispered conversation, but couldn’t make out more than “Forget it” and “I’m thinking about becoming a lesbian.” That couldn’t be right, though.

Bit by bit, those silver eyes frosted over. “Mother.” She gave up trying to keep things quiet. “This is Ava’s wedding. I told you I’d talk to you tomorrow. And for the record, I will tell you no about the set-up then, too.” With that, she hung up, stored the phone, and glared at Hector as if everything were his fault.

Her mother. The jealousy vanished—even though the woman had been trying to set her up. Noelle had said no, at least, and would say no tomorrow.

“I can relate,” he said. “My mother was …” A horrendous bitch. Trash. Uttertly sadistic. “Persistent when she wanted something from me.”

“Was?” The sharpest edge of her anger smoothed and just as she had the first day he’d met her, she suddenly appeared cool, aloof, and untouchable. Now, however, he knew she was none of those things.

“She’s dead.” And I’m the one who killed her.

Their gazes locked in a long battle for domination. A battle he didn’t give his all. He was too busy enjoying her. She was a visual feast, and he couldn’t help but gorge. Such lush femininity, ripe for the taking.

“Why do you care what I’m feeling, anyway?” she grumbled, caving first.

Score one for him. Finally. He always felt out of sorts with her, as if he had never—could never—come out ahead. “I don’t care.” He said the words, an automatic response, but for once, he didn’t mean them.

Her back straightened and her shoulders squared, a predator uncoiling for attack. “That was a very rude thing to say.”

He was getting to her, cutting at her, and she needed that. Needed to drain the poison inside of her, whatever kind of poison it was. “I’m not apologizing for it.” Unlike Dallas, Hector couldn’t make her laugh. At least, he didn’t think he could. He’d never tried to cheer a female up through humor. But he could help her, and maybe … maybe one day, when she looked back on this night, she’d remember him fondly.

Or not. “Oh, you darling man,” she said with her sugar sweetness. “Your lips say no but your eyes say I’ve never been sorrier for anything in my life.”

Will not laugh. “Did you really think you and Ava would grow old together?” he asked, tossing enough disgust in his voice to piss anyone off. “That neither one of you would ever fall in love? Get married?”

Smoldering silence followed his words. She remained still—more predator than before. A wounded panther, ready to strike.

Whatever she dished, he could take. He wanted to take. To do something besides walk away from her—or watch her walk away from him. “McKell won her pretty quickly, didn’t he? I mean, it only took him a few months to rip her from your side. That must mean she was ready to leave you, was probably tired of you.”

Annnd here came the explosion. “She wasn’t tired of me, you bastard! She will never be tired of me, just like I will never be tired of her. I’m her best friend, and she loves me. She loves me.”

Success, he thought, and oh, was it bittersweet. He did not like seeing Noelle so torn up. Did that stop him from continuing to push? No. “And you love her? Enough to miss her already?”

“Yes. Okay? Yes. Is that what you want to hear? I miss her so damn badly.” Tears pooled in her eyes, a bone-deep hurt reflected there. “I love that she’s happy, but I hate that I’m losing her. She’s mine, not McKell’s. Mine. I found her first, and I should get to … she should …” Her shoulders slumped.

“She should appreciate you better? Because you built her up, right? You made her what she is?”

The fire returned, swiftly burning through the hurt. “Hell, no! She built me up.” Noelle thumped her chest, just over her heart. “She made me better. I was on a very dark path, and she became my light. I love her more than … more than …” She raised her chin. “I love her more than anything. I would bend over backward to help her bend someone else over backward! And I will always be there for her—if I’ve got nowhere better to be.”

Maybe the hurt hadn’t burned away. Maybe Hector had absorbed every last drop, because damn, his chest was doing that aching thing again. She was throwing out facts—her love—but mixing it with her pain—claiming she had somewhere better to be. A heartbreaking, amazing mix.

The tears sprang forth anew and cascaded down her cheeks in a white-hot stream. She wiped them away with a shaky hand, then stared down with shock at the wetness on her skin. “I’m crying. Shit! I’m crying. I never cry.”

Yeah, and the sight of those tears nearly undid him the rest of the way. Can’t tug her close. Can’t hold her. “Why are you beating yourself up about your feelings?”

“Because,” she sniffed, retreating into her stubborn shell.

“Don’t make me rip the answer out of you. Why?” he insisted.

“Oh, all right.” Another grumble. “I’ll tell you, but only to save time. I can’t wait to get away from you.”

Hardly. If that were the case, she would have already left. Would have busted his lip with her fist and bolted.

The knowledge that she wanted to be here, with him … He remembered how she’d once begged so sweetly for him to kiss her. Just a taste, she’d said, luring him straight into temptation, unable to resist.

“I’m beating myself up because I should only be happy for her,” she whispered, each word dripping with shame. “I shouldn’t be sad for myself.”

“Just so you know, being both—happy for her and sad for you—doesn’t make you a bad person. It makes you human.”

“I guess.” How miserable she still sounded.

“Would you rather be a cold son of a bitch like me?”

She lifted her head. The first thing he noticed, her lashes were long, spiky, and wet. The second, she was a damn pretty crier. No swollen eyes or red, splotchy skin for this one. Just vulnerability and angel-soft loveliness.

“Why are you being so nice to me?” she asked in that soft tone. “You hate me.”

Hate her? When he hungered for her more than he’d ever hungered for another? But then, he done everything in his power to shove her out of his life, hadn’t he? And he needed to keep shoving.

If he stopped, gave in to her, the consequences would be everlasting.

Yeah. He should leave. Now. Should walk away. He was good at that, as he’d already proven. Instead, he gave her the words that might damn them both. “I don’t hate you, Noelle. I fucking crave you.”

SHOCK BOMBARDED NOELLE AS Hector’s confession rang in her ears. He was breathing heavily, some dark emotion practically bursting through his skin. So badly she wanted to believe him.

She studied his tortured expression. Pushing for answers here, now, wasn’t wise anyway you sliced it. Public place, possible public humiliation. Did that stop her? Hell, no. “You can’t—what you said can’t be true. You wouldn’t ignore me—”

A moment passed as he visibly fought for control. He rubbed a hand down his face, the skin on his palm normal, the ink dark. “I don’t want to talk about this.”

Too bad. “You brought it up. Also, you made me talk about my problems when I didn’t want to.” And he’d helped her in a way she could hardly believe. She felt lighter, more guilt leaving her by the second. “A year ago, you stomped all over me, told me never to speak to—”

“I know what I told you,” he snapped, interrupting again. “I don’t need a retelling.”

“So why are you with me right now? Helping me with my problems? Telling me that you …”—her voice lowered to a barely audible rasp—“crave me.” Why? The intensity of her need to know the answer staggered her.

How many nights had she pleasured herself while thinking of him? Now he was suggesting, in a roundabout way of course, that he had done the same. That amazed her, delighted her. Truth or lie, though?

He looked over his shoulder, at his car, as if he longed to bolt.

“Oh, no, you don’t.” Scowling, she cupped his cheeks and forced his attention back to her. “You’re staying right here and confessing.”

His eyes narrowed to tiny slits, a glare that usually preceded multiple dark curses. Instead, he said, “I’ll stay.” Harsh, broken. “If we talk about something else.”

Damn him. He meant it. Restrictions grated, big time. In fact, she would have left him in the dust on principle alone, but then he did the strangest thing. He leaned into her touch, rubbing his stubbled jaw against her palm, practically purring like a contented kitten.

Maybe he did crave her. But … but …

When he realized what he was doing, he went military straight and paled. He shook out of her hold, his eyes glazing fearfully, guiltily, then angrily.

He had liked the connection, but hadn’t wanted to like it. Why? The question of the day, it seemed. Hell, the question of the year.

Whatever the answer, though, he wasn’t yet ready to spill all and really would bail if she remained in pursuit. That fear … So she would drop the craving thing. For now. But, oh, God, hope swirled through her, a bright light in an endlessly dark void.

“So, uh, how have you been?” she asked, hands tingling where they’d touched him.

Now he arched a brow, losing his worry, guilt, and anger in a single instant. Relief descended. “Since yesterday?”

“No, smartass. Since …” Our last kiss. “All year.”

O-kay. Was this how it would always be between them? Either snipping and snapping at each other, on the road to kissing, or struggling for something to say? A fraction of the hope withered.

“How’s our suspect, the van’s driver?” she asked, deciding to talk shop rather than separating and ending on a bad note. There had to be more to their relationship than the snipping and silence. Right? He craved her.

A little color drained from his cheeks, and he rocked back on his heels. “I wasn’t going to tell you until after the wedding, but …”

“At the hospital. Cyanide pill. Had one in a hidden pocket.”

“Why would someone do that?”

Hector’s strong shoulders lifted in a shrug. “Fear. You remember what he said, about the mysterious he hurting him worse than we ever could.”

Yeah, but still. “You get any useful info out of him first?”

An abrupt shake of his head, the color returning to his cheeks and deepening with … shame? Probably. Hector took his job more seriously than most, and took his cases personally.