Then she’d met Ava. First day, they’d exchanged insults and actually gotten into a fist-fight. Second day, they’d kissed and made up, and the little tart had leaned into her and said, “Why do you smell like my mom?” Noelle had given up cigs from that day on.
Ava should be here. Ava should partner her on this case.
Should, should, should. Sighing, Noelle slid into the booth at the back of the The Last Stop, a small, rundown, all-night diner, expecting Hector to slide in beside her. He did not. He sat across from her, and Dallas claimed the space beside him.
And of course Dallas was back to his moody, broody self, glaring at her.
As big and muscled as they both were, they consumed the entire bench. The tabletop pressed into the hard ropes of their stomachs. Their shoulders rubbed.
They’d rather be uncomfortable than touch her. Awesome. Well, she would rather they were uncomfortable and touching her. She dipped low in her seat, stretching out her legs, ensuring one of her knees wedged between Hector’s legs and the other wedged between Dallas’s.
They stiffened in unison, and she fought a smug grin.
“That’s bad for your posture, you know,” Hector said in that grumbling tone he just loved to use with her. “Sit up. Now.”
How cute he was, issuing commands as if he were her boss. “I don’t think I will. And if my back knots up,” she replied with the sugar-sweet tone she loved to use with her enemies so they’d never suspect her strike, “I’ll let you massage it better, so you can stop hinting that that’s what you want to do.”
He scowled at her. She smiled at him, a mere baring of her teeth—before flipping him off. Dallas watched the byplay through slitted lids. His mouth hovered between a fierce frown and a twist of abject terror.
What was his deal?
Well, she wouldn’t worry about him. Only the case mattered, she reminded herself. They’d dropped the witness at AIR before coming here, hoping he’d sober up and hurry through withdrawal so they could talk to him.
A harried waitress approached, a computerized notepad in hand, shifting impatiently from one sneakered foot to the other. She was older, with frizzy salt-and-pepper hair and ink stains on her hands. But she wore a necklace made from macaroni noodles, and Noelle’s heart gave a lurch.
She’d made a similar necklace for her mother long, long ago. Madame Tremain had pinched the thing between her fingers and grimaced. Grimaced, as if she were handling a rotting animal carcass.
“Mama wears diamonds, darling, not pasta,” she’d said. “Besides, we don’t want nasty insects getting into the house, now do we? No, we don’t. So throw this thing away, and we’ll go buy a real necklace.”
Noelle shoved the memory deep inside her, where a thousand others just like it resided.
“I’ll have coffee,” Dallas said. “Black, strong. Fine, just go ahead and bring me motor oil.” There was something wrong with his voice. Gone was the charmer entirely. In his place was a raging asshole. “Oh, and about a thousand painkillers, if you’re serving them.”
“Only with the eggs. You?” One graying brow winged up as she focused on Hector.
At long last, that stressed gaze landed on Noelle. She hadn’t even glanced at the menu glowing on the side wall, but she’d been to places very similar to this one and knew what they served. Except for one tiny yet important detail. “Do you have real meat or do you only use the syns and clones?”
“Are you kidding me with this?” Dallas, snarling.
Noelle never removed her gaze from the waitress. “Well?”
“Syns and clones. You want real, you’ll have to go somewhere else.”
She heaved another sigh. Yeah, she’d figured that was the case; she was disappointed nonetheless.
During the war, things like water, animals, and, well, anything delicious had been contaminated, ruined, or almost completely wiped out. Now, to get the real thing, you had to pay—and pay out the ass. Only a few shops in this district catered to people like Noelle, who were more than willing to bend over.
“Oh, come on,” the waitress said, what little patience she’d had vanishing. “You want something or you don’t. Which is it?”
The attitude could use a tune-up, but its rust and lack of shine wouldn’t diminish her tip. In fact, she could mess up Noelle’s entire order, spit in her food, whatever, but the macaroni guaranteed her a hefty tip.
“I’ll have two eggs, over medium, with a side of hash browns, and don’t skimp on the butter or whatever variation you use. I want four strips of bacon, two sausage patties, and four hotcakes. I don’t care what kind of syrup you bring, just make sure it’s warm. Also, I want two pieces of toast, but don’t put any butter on those. And I want jelly, whatever you’ve got.”
A hmph sounded as the waitress finished typing. She wandered off, and Noelle noticed that both Hector and Dallas were staring at her with equal measures of bewilderment.
“What? I’m hungry. I didn’t eat before, during, or after the wedding.”
“Yeah, but you just came from a gruesome murder scene,” Hector, Mr. Obvious, said.
“And that means I should starve for the rest of my life?”
“It means you shouldn’t eat something that looks like the dead guy’s chest,” Dallas snapped. “Now can the two of you stop flirting with each other? It’s annoying.”
Seriously, what was wrong with him? “How about this,” she told them both. “I’ll worry about my appetite and potential digestive problems, and you two worry about shutting your fucking mouths. Sound good? As for the flirting thing, your radar must be malfunctioning, Dallas. If you consider that flirting, I feel sorry for your girlfriends.”
No response was forthcoming, just more staring. Although Hector seemed to be battling a grin.
She snuggled deeper into her uncomfortable seat, the vinyl cracked and torn and catching in what was left of her savaged dress. She couldn’t wait to shower and change. Alone. Without Hector.
Avoid, avoid. Any topic was safer than the man across from her.
She cast her gaze through the smoke-hazed room. There were about twenty booths, nearly all of them stuffed with AIR agents, some in uniforms, some in street clothes. Conversations were loud, and laughter, when it came, was gruff.
There were two TVs posted in the far corners of the room, both playing the same game. Football. And there was Corban Blue in all his Arcadian glory, tall, strong, as pale as a moonbeam, making an astonishing pass, the ball whizzing through the air so quickly the camera couldn’t track it.
Lately, she just couldn’t escape him.
“What are you looking at with such an amazed expression?” Hector asked. He turned, saw the television, and grunted like the caveman he truly was. “I didn’t know you were into sports.”
“I’m not. I’m into the men. Uniforms are hot.”
Hector had removed his gloves on the drive over and hadn’t replaced them. Now he curled his fingers around the edge of the table, his knuckles quickly bleaching of color. What? Had her reply pissed him off? Made him jealous? Well, good. He deserved to stew.
God knew she would relive their interaction tonight over and over again, and it’d be nice to know he had reacted to her, even in so small a way.
Dallas nudged him, and the two focused on each other. A conversation about sports ensued, followed by an exchange of wedding gossip. Hector relaxed, the fine lines around his eyes easing.
Since neither of them seemed keen to discuss the case, she whipped out her cell and texted Ava.
R U a vamp yet? Fingers crossed the text interrupted something important.
McKell’s blood could turn anyone or thing—like, say, a dog named Hellina that Noelle used to own—into a vampire. And now that bloodsucking bastard was vamping up her Ava. Her sweet, baby-faced Ava. Would her tan fade? Probably. Would she sprout fangs? Definitely. Hellina had.
No worries, though. Noelle would ensure Ava always looked her best. She drafted a mental Christmas for her friend. Sunless tanner, bloodred lipstick that wouldn’t smear, a car with UV-repellant shield armor, and a recipe for making Mr. Bloody Marys with McKell’s blood. Because they were mated, Ava would be unable to drink from anyone but McKell without sickening. So no noshing on agents or targets who got on her nerves.
Noelle’s phone vibrated, signaling the reply had just arrived.
Knowing Ava, her cell rested on the nightstand beside the bed. Just in case Noelle needed her. A darling gesture, and one of the many reasons Noelle adored her.
Screen name Tits McGee said: Nope. We bargained. He has 2 last 30 mins before I let him turn me. 3 tries in, and no go. Noelle had named her after a character in an old movie she and Ava loved to watch, but just then she seriously considered changing the name back to Pocket Rocket. That one always had a nice ring.
The waitress arrived with the coffees, sloshing them on the table before hurrying away. Noelle added a liberal amount of fake cream and fake sugar, wishing to God she’d thought to bring a purse full of the essentials.
After a few sips of the nasty concoction, she started typing again. Thought: maybe I should become a vamp 2. She tossed out the suggestion as a joke, but absolute, utter longing swept through her. Ava was going to age slowly. Noelle wasn’t. Ava was going to live a long, long time. Noelle had another forty or fifty years. Maybe. And that just wasn’t good enough.
So what if she would never again be able to venture out in the daylight. There were simulators and virtual reality programs available. So what if she would be as pale as milk. That’s what cosmetics were for. As long as she had Ava, nothing else mattered. Right?
Tits McGee: R U joking? U better not B joking! I will stab U in throat if U R joking!
Her gaze strayed to Hector, who was still engaged in conversation with Dallas. Still ignoring her. If she vamped it up, he would age quickly and she would age slowly. She would have to watch him die.
Okay, so maybe something else mattered. Even though Hector currently occupied the top spot on her shit list, the thought of him dead and gone made her chest ache.
She typed: Let me think about it.
I will do my best 2 help w/right decision. Luv U.
A few seconds later, her phone gave another vibration, and she had to blink rapidly to see the screen clearly.
Tits McGee: Food 4 thought. U will look so hawt w/ fangs & I will
The text ended there. Without punctuation, without finishing. Then Noelle’s cell was ringing, Ava’s voice saying, “You better answer this, genius, or I’ll kick your ass!”
“No.” Hector pinched the bridge of his nose. “That’s Noelle’s ring tone you’re hearing.”
“Uh, yes, hello?” Noelle said into the piece, knowing exactly who it was. On her way here, she’d programmed her ringer to go off for everyone but her mother, who had tried calling again. “Noelle Tremain, master of the universe at your service. How may I help you?”
“Stop texting my wife,” McKell growled from the other end. Bingo. “I need her full attention right now.” Click.
A chuckle escaped Noelle as she put her phone away. Original mission accomplished.
Hector’s golden eyes pierced her, becoming a spotlight on all the needy places inside her. “Who was that?”
To hide the fact that she was now quivering inside—God, his intensity was arousing—she waved the question away with a flick of her wrist. “You have no right to the answer. Besides, we’re here for business. Let’s get to it, shall we? If you two are done cackling like hens, that is.”
Dallas popped his jaw. “I do not cackle. I bitch like a he-man.”
“We have that in common, then.” She sipped at her coffee, grimaced at the thickness, and added more cream and sugar. “So why are you here when I’m secondary on the case?” A fact she would not let either of them forget.
Hector answered for him. “He helped me a year ago, with the women found in the warehouse. A mysterious Arcadian popping in and out after our tipster comes out of hiding. It’s suspicious.”
So he’d jumped to that as well.
“And I’m so ready to nail whoever was responsible,” Dallas said.
The fact that both men remembered that case, despite the hundreds of others they’d since worked, meant it had left a mark deep in their souls.
“Any luck on identifying the Arcadian who snatched the women out of the hospital?” she asked. Nothing had been in the file, but then, all details weren’t always reported.
Dallas shook his head, dark hair falling over his forehead. He didn’t brush the strands aside. Maybe he didn’t notice them. He’d been silent and stiff at the crime scene, but after seeing the body, he’d become deadly silent, and savagely stiff. “First order of business is finding out who Marks was working with and if any recent dealings had gone sour.”
“I’ll search Marks’s home and office in the morning,” Hector said. “Talk to his employees, that kind of thing.”
With me, right? she projected at him. Partner.
She brought her mug to her lips, blew into the steam, gulped. The sugar had dissolved, sweetening the taste, and the cream had thinned the liquid. To make sure she had his full attention, she moaned her approval louder than necessary, as if she were having sex with her cup.