An idea tumbled through Noelle’s mind. Sex market. A rare Rakan. Blow the lid off …
She sat up straighter. All the women she’d seen in those photos had been pretty. Taken from their homes. Held captive. No ransom had been demanded. They hadn’t been beaten. Starved, yes, but that could have been because the skinny ones fetched a better price. Who knew?
Maybe nothing had been done to them yet because they hadn’t been sold. Maybe they were to have gone to a single buyer rather than seeing to hundreds in a single day. Slavery had to be a big business. Skeevy, disgusting, and to the one doing the selling, worth killing over, as Devyn had said.
They could be way off base, but … maybe they weren’t. Right now they had no other leads.
“I’ll put that detail on the Markses’ house, and I’ve got Margarete injected with our isotope tracker,” Hector said, fingers flying over the keyboard on his phone, already texting Mia, she was sure. Probably even checking Margarete’s location. “While I was there, I noticed the walls were reinforced metal. Those shields will keep any otherworlders from teleporting inside.”
“You still have contacts in the slaver world, Devyn?” Noelle asked.
Hector propped his elbows on his knees, leaning toward Devyn, riveted. He cared about the victims. Truly cared, wanted justice.
She liked that about him.
You softening, girlie? Look where that got you the last three times.
“Nope,” Devyn said. “About a year ago, a promising up-and-comer went missing. Gerard Hendrick, gone in a puff of smoke. He would have done anything to make a sale, was practically going door to door, then suddenly stopped. I didn’t care enough to check up on him. Then, before I started helping AIR out, I killed my last remaining foot in that door to save our very own Eden Black.”
Too bad. Would have made things easy.
Hector cleared his throat. “This is adding up to some heavy shit. We need to keep any connection between Marks, Margarete, and the slave market quiet. Not just because we might be wrong, but because we don’t want anyone going after our Rakan. Of course, that’s moot if the killer is the slaver. He already knows she’s there.”
“And the detail will catch him trying to grab her.” So, in a way, she was like bait.
They spent the next half hour tossing around other ideas, but nothing else stuck or felt even partially right. Not even the info Noelle kept to herself—for the moment. If Hector wanted to ditch her again, he’d have to fly blind.
Soon conversation began to lag. Then, of course, awkward silence reigned, no one wanting to look in her direction. She was extra, unwanted baggage. Whatever. I don’t care.
Noelle wasn’t letting Hector out of her sight. For the case, of course.
“You better answer this, genius, or I’ll kick your ass!” Ava’s voice suddenly belted out.
“Ava’s here?” Devyn frowned, searching the room for a sign of her.
“You explain it to him,” Noelle told Hector. “I need to take this.” Without leaving the room, and knowing she was rude as hell, she fit the cell against her ear. “Tremain here, goddess extraordinaire.”
“You’re pregnant.” A flat statement, not a question, and crackling with so much rage Noelle was surprised her mother hadn’t already combusted. “With an otherworlder’s child, at that. An otherworlder who is also a football player person.”
Football player person was said with the same disgust one might expect to hear malignant cancer. Her mother was the biggest freaking human elitist on this planet or any other. “Mother, how many times do I have to tell you? You can’t believe what you read.”
A hopeful pause. “You’re not pregnant?” What her mother didn’t say but implied: Thank God.
A laugh escaped her. “I do have a bun in the oven, yes.” And it had been glazed with honey and sugar, butter melted over the top. “I’m just not sure who the father is. And, to be honest, I’m in a meeting with three of the other candidates, so can we save this conversation for after the paternity test?”
Another pause, this one heavy, crackling again. “You don’t know who the father is? That’s disgusting and idiotic, Noelle, even for you. How dare you embarrass the family like this! Your brothers are flying home. I’ve had to cancel my cocktail party. How far along are you? Is it too late to—”
Okay, that had felt good.
All three males were watching her, their moods somehow suddenly lightened.
“That was an interesting one-sided conversation,” Hector said, a gleam entering those luscious ocher eyes and chasing away a few of the shadows that constantly seemed to swirl inside.
“Sucks for you that I won’t give you a play-by-play.” You don’t deserve it.
“You better answer this, genius, or I’ll kick your ass!”
Another call? Groaning, she flashed her middle finger in a bid for one sec of silence. Then she placed the phone to her ear and tuned everyone out. “Tremain here.”
“Of course not,” she said with a roll of her eyes.
“We just needed the press to keep their rabid hunger for a story away from our case.” Bothered her that Jaxon hadn’t known that right off the bat. Like her mother and brothers, he still saw her as that flaky little girl, yet he’d spent the past year hovering over her shoulder.
Well, you still feed that image. Can you blame him?
Yes! Hector had seen through it. Why couldn’t anyone else?
And I’m still not softening toward him. “Just don’t tell my mother. She’ll alert the press en masse.”
“All right.” Jaxon’s chuckle slithered over the line. “You want me to throw fuel on the fire? Maybe have Corban come in?”
“Actually, tell my brothers that Corban refused to marry me, and that they should really let him have it, defend my honor, that kind of thing. That’ll keep the vultures happy for quite a while. Oh, and they should let Corban have it in person rather than on the phone so he’ll forever understand how he’s wronged the Tremain name.” Call waiting beeped. Damn it. She was changing her number. “Listen, I’ve got to go.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll take care of your brothers.”
Tune-in. Dallas opened his mouth to say something.
One sec. Tune-out. “Tremain,” she said into the mouthpiece. Maybe Jaxon wasn’t such a bad cousin, after all.
“What’s this bullshit about Corban Blue being the father of your fake baby?” Ava demanded.
See? Ava hadn’t needed to be told. Ava just knew.
“I thought you were lusting after Hector Dean,” her friend went on. “And don’t try to deny it, because I noticed the way you eye-raped him at the wedding. Why didn’t you pick him?”
“Oh my God, I have missed you and your slappable mouth so much!” Noelle’s chest constricted tightly. They’d seen each other just yesterday, texted constantly, but still. “And to answer your question, hardly. He doesn’t deserve me.”
At that, Hector scowled. Oops. Her tuned-out had failed this go-round. Just to be irritating, she pinky waved at him with her free hand.
Smoke curled from the tops of the gloves. Smoke that did not contain the slightest trace of nicotine. His hands … flaring up …
Dangerous, she thought. To Ava, she said, “Hang on,” and got a lot of sputtering in return. “You should probably take a breather, Hector.” Hint, hint. “Maybe go outside, cool down.”
He gave an abrupt shake of his head. “I’ll be fine.”
He would know best, but … She didn’t like this. Can’t question him here and now. “So have you done the deed yet?” she asked Ava, keeping her eye on Hector.
“Hey, you. Tiny tot,” she added so that only Ava could hear. She didn’t want anyone else calling her friend by that nickname. Then she added more loudly, “I’m talking to you.”
“Me?” Ava asked. “It’s my turn now for your exalted notice?”
“Yes.” Hector had mentioned strong emotion caused the flare-ups, but what had set him off and why? “You’re so lucky.”
“That’s true. So here’s the other reason I called. I’m happy to say that forty-three minutes ago, I drank McKell’s blood.”
“But?” Though panic immediately clawed at Noelle’s skull—losing Ava, officially losing Ava now—she forced herself to remain outwardly calm.
She caught a hint of concern in her friend’s voice, something she didn’t hear very often. She pushed to her feet. One last, lingering glance at Hector—he was watching her through narrowed lids—and she gave the guys her back.
“Sweetie, it’ll happen,” she said, striding into the kitchen for a little privacy. If Hector took off without her, fine, she’d deal. She knew where Brenda Marks would be in an hour, and she’d go it alone if necessary. “I promise. And you know I always keep my promises.” As she spoke, she looked through Dallas’s cabinets. Soup cans sat alongside fallen boxes of cereal. What a sloppy, disorganized man. Soup should be next to bread mixes, and cereal next to bags of chips. Everyone knew that.
“Yeah, but what if it doesn’t?” Ava said. “I mean, this is one thing neither of us can control or force. And what if McKell stays young and I start aging, and then I become a wrinkled hagbag of bones?”
When Ava worried, Noelle worried. She twirled a lock of hair around her finger, daggers in her chest, determination in her veins. “Do you want the God’s honest truth or a sweet, soothing lie?”
“Okay, here it is. You’re an idiot.”
Ava got her second round of sputtering on.
“Remember when he turned Hellina?” Noelle’s dog. “He told us hours passed before she experienced even the slightest change. Besides, we’re talking about grumpy, possessive McKell. If he could, he’d keep the world’s supply of oxygen to himself. Like he’ll really let time have you. Time he can manipulate, I might add.”
“Of course I am. I’m always right.”
She heard banging in the background.
“McKell’s trying to bust into the bathroom,” Ava said with what sounded like a shiver of excitement. “I maybe might kinda sorta have told him that his inferior blood wasn’t working and stomped off.”
Oh, to have video feed of that. “Go soothe the savage beast and call me back when you have fangs. I want to make fun of your lisp.”
“Done and done. And Noelle? Thanks.”
“Anytime, tiger.” Noelle returned to the living room and found the guys exactly as she’d left them. Scowling at her. She flopped back into her chair. “So—”
Him and his demands today. At least his arms had stopped smoking. “That was some random guy I once banged asking me if I was sure Corban was my baby daddy. Oh, and I almost forgot.” Her cell was still in her hand, so she quickly sent all three men the same email attachment. “Check your in boxes. You’ve now got a copy of Bobby’s financials, as well as his daily planner for the last month, as well as his mother’s schedule for the month.”
Because Hector hadn’t left her behind, he had earned a reward. Information.
Hector palmed his phone, fiddled with the buttons. Then he gaped at her. “How did you get these so quickly?”
Was he kidding? “If you aren’t cheating, you aren’t trying. A few taps of my keyboard, and magic happened.”
“So you hacked into his system?” he sputtered, reminding her of Ava.
“And his attorney’s and his mother’s. You’re welcome. Now you don’t have to wait for answers.”
“AIR can skirt a lot of things, Noelle, but not the paperwork needed to obtain this kind of info from a rich human.” Chastising words, but there’d been … dare she think it … pride in his voice.
“So arrest me.” When he made no reply, she added, “Anyway. Guess who inherited everything?” She didn’t give anyone a chance to answer. “The mother. Yeah, that means she had motive to pay for Bobby’s eternal good-bye, but I’m still not buying it. We do need to talk to her, though, because she was the last person to see Bobby alive. They had dinner last night.”
“The wife confirmed that dinner,” Hector said, massaging the back of his neck. “He introduced them, and Margarete said she was pissed. But like you, I’m still not buying. She would have been more likely to kill the otherworlder, even with the payoff for her son’s demise.” He pushed to his feet, and faced the still somber-faced Dallas. “I can’t make that call to Mia now. You understand that, right?”
“Call me if you … envision anything else.”
A nod as stiff and reluctant as Hector’s had been. What was going on between them? And what had Hector meant by “envision”?
He breezed over to her. “Up.”
Only place she would have let him tell her what to do was in bed. Now? He could suck off! “Ask nicely.”