The bed next to Noelle’s.

First, no one but Noelle was allowed to speak to Ava like that. Ever. She loved Ava more than she loved herself. Maybe because Ava was the one person in the world she trusted. The one person in the world who always told her the truth, straight up, nothing held back. The one person in the world who thought Noelle was perfect, just the way she was.

Second, it was important to establish a prison-like hierarchy right from the beginning. That way, no one would dare try to shank them.

A quick twist and kick on Noelle’s part and the girl’s nylon went skidding across the floor, panties flying in every direction. Another kick, and the girl followed. “Say something like that to her again, and your balls will take the same path as you and your underwear. Feel me?”

“Noelle, my love,” Ava said in a sing-song voice, balancing her bag on the now vacant bed. “I think the person in question is female.”

“Oh, my bad. I’m so sorry,” she told the girl with the same saccharine sweetness she’d used on the guys. Her hand fluttered up to her heart, baby bird delicate. “I thought you were a dude. It’s the mustache. That’ll fool me every time.”

Huffing and puffing, the “person in question” jumped to her feet. “Just what are you gonna cut my balls with, bitch? They frisked you same as they frisked me. You got nothin’.”

Question of the day: was now the time to reveal the switchblade she’d smuggled in?

Nah, she thought next. The girl was a crier. On the bus, the black and very gorgeous instructor, Ghost, had gotten in her face and called her a carbon-based waste of space, and her freaking bottom lip had quivered.

Talk about humiliating to watch. Noelle hadn’t cried since her father paid his medical staff to fry her nerve endings and destroy her pain receptors while she was still awake, and she sure as shit wasn’t going to cry when someone called her silly names.

And okay, her dad had done the unthinkable to safeguard her from ever being tortured by others, but that didn’t change the facts. At twelve, she’d been strapped to a gurney and cut open like a melon.

All because she’d been abducted a few weeks before, her captors wanting to cash in on her ransom. To prove how serious they were, they’d sent her parents video of her being beaten, screaming from the pain and begging for help. So, when her dad had gotten her back, he’d gone a little nutso.

That little receptor-frying procedure had taken endless, torture-filled days, with needles shoved into her tendons, muscles, and sometimes even drilled into her bones. Days of having what seemed to be acid and broken glass poured straight into her bloodstream.

Anytime she’d passed out, the doctors had woken her up with chemical injections to the heart. Adrenaline, and crap like that. She’d had to tell them when something hurt, after all, so they’d know where to concentrate their efforts.

Well, everything had hurt. Until the very end, when she’d stopped feeling anything at all.

“Just going to stand there, coward?” the girl huffed at her.

Coward? Oh, hell, no. Noelle was a lot of things—spoiled, sometimes cruel and clueless, always gorgeous—but never a coward. She had survived a hell most people would only ever have nightmares about.

If you flash metal, the first thing she’ll do is run. The second is tattle.

Was that enough to get Noelle kicked out?

Ava must have known she was thinking about risking it because her friend, who knew her better than anyone else in the world, whipped her cell phone from her pocket, pressed a few buttons, leaned over, and said, “Lookie, Noelle. Lookie at what Ava’s got,” to distract her.

“As if that’ll—ohhh, a pretty!” A holophoto of Noelle had crystallized above the small device.

Usually Ava only snapped her picture when she was at her worst. Black eye—boom, there was Ava. Hangover morning—Ava again. Nasty cold—hello, darling Ava. But in this one, Noelle was leaning against a doorjamb, hands stuffed in her pockets, her expression far away, as if she were lost in thought.

“When did you take this?” she asked, unable to find the memory herself.

“And you’re just now showing me? Harsh, Ava. So harsh.”

“Hello, I’m talking to you,” Mustache Girl snarled. I’ll call her MG for short, she mused, before saying to Ava, “I look so smart. I bet I was pondering nuclear physics. Or maybe quantum mechanics. Oh, oh, I know. Paradox theory.”

“Nah. I’d just asked you if you’d eaten my granola bar.”

MG gave up waiting for a response and wandered away to find a new rollaway.

“Send it to me.” Noelle rubbed her hands together. “That’s gonna be my new screen saver. For reals.”

The photo disappeared, and Ava stashed the phone back in her pocket. “I’ll send it to you the day you share the butterscotch candies you’re having delivered here.”

Always the negotiator, her Ava. “Sorry, darling, but I’m not—ah, wait. I feel you, oh, devious one.” Butterscotch was Ava’s biggest weakness. “I’ll have them here by the end of the week, you just wait and see.” Making her friend happy was one of her top priorities in life. “Until then …” Where had their conversation left off before they were so rudely interrupted? Oh, yeah. “Are you retarded? This place is a dump.”

True. They’d met in junior high, when Noelle had been acting out to prove her parents’ disapproval meant nothing to her and had (allegedly) burned her former boarding school to the ground. Ava had been desperate to lose her drunken mom’s attention, as well as the attention of the nasty men her mom had allowed to parade through their trailer.

They’d needed each other, and so they had clung to each other. Hell, they still did. There was nothing Noelle wouldn’t do for her beloved Ava. Commit murder? Sure, why not. Only thing to figure out was where to hide the body. Lie, cheat, steal? Done, done, and done. Eagerly, happily. Ava was the best thing that had ever happened to her, and Noelle took care of what was hers.

And yeah, they razzed each other. A lot. Matching “dim wits” with little Ava, as Noelle’s brothers used to say, was fun. Torturing her was even more fun. But at the end of the day, if anyone else even looked at Ava funny, Noelle went lethally insane.

Speaking of funny looks. “Did you see the way that Hector guy eyed me up and down, as if I belonged in a scientific studies magazine for newly discovered fungus?”

“Yeah, but did you see his muscles?” Ava threw MG’s forgotten wardrobe over her shoulder before unpacking her own.

“How could I miss them? His I’ve-tasted-human-heart-and-liked-it black T-shirt was strained to the point of lunacy.”

“Vocab lesson time. You mean lewdness. As in, indecent.”

“Stuff your lesson. I meant lunacy. As in crazy. One glance and my brain short-circuited.” Short-circuited with the urge to touch, the desire to lick, the need to claim.

None of which she understood! Claim? Not in this lifetime.

He wasn’t her usual type. He was tall, tattooed, and bald, with the cruelest frown she’d ever seen. Oh, she liked ’em tall, but tattooed? No. Try refined. Bald? Even peaches sported fur.

Although he wasn’t bald from age or genetics. A shadow of stubble had covered his scalp, proof his roots were there and thriving. So, obviously, he shaved. But who shaved on purpose? And why?

She’d almost asked him. Only thing that stopped her was the suspicion he would ignore her. Because the entire time she’d stood there, trying not to notice him but noticing him anyway, he’d had her under that microscope for fungi—and clearly found her the worst of the lot. Honest to God, that frown of his had made her shudder. Or shiver. She wasn’t sure which. But there was no denying something about him appealed to her.

His eyes were an intense gold and utterly piercing, the rest of his features all kinds of intimidating. From the hard slash of his dark brows, to the blade of his nose, to the aggressive slant of his lips. Throw in the rough angle of his chin, and you had a visual definition for hardass.

And okay, okay, a beautiful visual, at that, with the kind of rugged sex appeal one might find in a survivalist. Which … come to think of it, was a favorite fantasy of Noelle’s.

She’d often imagined herself alone in the mountains, some kind of hungry animal chasing her down. Survivalist Guy jumped from the shadows and saved the day. Then he turned to face her, shirtless, sweaty, kind of grungy, his pants ripped and stained with the creature’s blood and gore, and he refused to wait for her to thank him. He just backed her up against a tree and plundered the living hell out of her mouth.

You don’t go for hardasses in real life, remember?

Yeah, but Hector had such wide shoulders. And even as tall as she was, he’d towered over her. He’d dwarfed her, really. Made her feel small … feminine. She liked feeling small and feminine, she realized.

“Okay, time’s up,” Ava said. “I gave you a chance, but you didn’t take it. So, I call dibs!”

Noelle was not disappointed. If one of them called dibs on a guy, the other had to back off. Besties before testes, and all that. So, no touching, no licking, and no claiming Hector for herself.

“Fine, but I’ve got dibs on Dallas.” Rather than unpack—surely someone would eventually do that for her—she jumped on her mattress. Dust plumped from the stiff syn-cotton covers, making her cough, scowl.

Maybe when she phoned for those candies, she’d request a maid. One maid. AIR could not deny her such an indispensable part of life, a service as necessary as breathing. Not if she had her attorney threaten them. Food for thought.

“Dallas.” Ava closed her nightstand drawer and rigged a lock on the handle to keep people like MG out of her stuff. “Good choice. He’s a gorgeous one.”

And he was more Noelle’s type. Tall, dark, and pretty. Although there’d been a serial-killer vibe in his electric blues. Something that could explain why she wasn’t as drawn to him as she was to Hector.

Even though Hector gave off the same vibe.

So, okay, there was a flaw in her logic. Big deal. She wasn’t admitting to an attraction to Hector. Not aloud, at least. One, he clearly wasn’t interested in her. And well, reason number two kinda fell back on reason number one. Being with a man who did not absolutely, utterly adore her would screw with her hard-won self-esteem and mess her up inside.

She’d start trying to prove herself worthy of him. Like baking him a cake after his terrible day at work, when she and kitchens were long-time enemies. Or pretending not to care when he blew her off or forgot her birthday. Or attending parties with her family when she’d rather have her skin peeled from her bones, just because that’s what good girls did.

Noelle was done with that kind of thing. Done with trying to be something other than what she was. If a guy couldn’t see the treasure underneath the smart mouth, he didn’t deserve her.

And I am a treasure, damn it. Right?

Ava finished her chore and snuggled up beside Noelle on the bed. “So tell me. What was all that lame-assed giggling about? And the couldn’t-find-my-brain-if-given-a-map-and-a-shovel stupidity?”

“And the laziness,” she said, being helpful. As always. Automatically Noelle rolled to her side and tucked her hands under her cheek. This was how the two of them had spent many a night during their childhood. Lying side by side, chatting for hours.

Those were her favorite memories. Nothing she’d said had ever shocked or disgusted Ava.

“Please.” Ava rolled her eyes. “You’re always lazy. That’s just part of your charm.”

And one of her more intelligent traits, if she did say so herself. Why do something for yourself when plenty of people wanted—and needed—to be paid to do it for you?

“Oh, and the next time you want to go the master-slave route,” Ava said, “I need at least a month’s warning to work on my biceps.”

“Consider this your warning. I want to go the master-slave route for the rest of our lives.”

A snort. “Did I mention that I loved the pretend hurt over my death threat? Classic!”

“What I can say? I totally missed my calling as the best actress in the world.”

A calling she’d missed because she’d never actually planned to work.

Noelle would have gladly financed Ava’s entire life of leisure, saving her friend—and herself—from ever having to get a job. But Ava actually enjoyed earning her own way, so Noelle always went along for the ride.

They’d worked in a bakery, at a used car lot, inside a makeup factory, and as interns at her brother’s law firm. Sad truth was, Noelle would rather toil herself into an early grave than be without her best friend.

Codependency, thy name is Noelle. Did she care? God, no. She just loved Ava.

Noelle pushed out a breath. “Well, you know my family has always viewed me as a useless doll.” Not just her immediate family, but her cousins, aunts, and uncles, and anyone else associated with the Tremain name. They fed off each other, delighting in sharing humiliating stories about the things she’d done and said.

She beamed. “I knew you thought I was hot.”

“Dude. If you had a penis, I’d freaking marry you.”

A genuine chuckle left her. “Anyway, I was just giving Jaxon a taste of what he expected.”