“Lesbos,” MG muttered as she walked past them, heading toward the … enzyme showers.
Ugh. Group showers. Sure, you could remain fully clothed in an enzyme stall, and the dry mist would even clean your shoes, but Noelle preferred to strip and sing in private.
At home, she bathed in water. The real deal, which was hugely expensive, but she didn’t care. There was something so soothing about the patter of liquid against porcelain, the spray of hot water against skin, the enveloping, invigorating steam that filled your nose, your lungs.
“Plus,” Noelle continued as if there’d never been a lag in the conversation, “I thought it’d be prudent to lower Hector and Dallas’s expectations. You know, start at the bottom and fly our way up.” Thereby making it easier to prove themselves.
What’s this? Trying to prove yourself already? Tsk, tsk.
AIR wasn’t a potential boyfriend. She could make an allowance, but only this once. And only because Ava wanted this so badly.
“Normally I’d agree with your methods,” Ava said, “but we kinda need their support if we’re going to pass this thing.”
“Oh, we’ll more than pass. We’ll crush this place.” Delicate fingers smoothed the hair from her brow. “You’re right. We’re too awesome to do anything less. Plus, we’ve got good old-fashioned lust on our side. I think Dallas was imagining your body twined around his like a pretzel. Hence his asinine question about pretzels and Jaxon’s swift retaliation.”
“Nah, Dally was just showing off in front of his friends. Which is why I went with Oh, my God, as if I really thought he meant the food, but afterward, I felt like I should have brought it down a notch and said OMG.”
The corners of Ava’s mouth twitched with her amusement. “Would have been priceless, and I would have broken a few ribs from laughing. As it was, I just peed a little.”
“And the other guys? How’d they react?” Not too obvious, not too eager. “I was too entrenched in my role to notice.”
“Jaxon was embarrassed by you. Sorry. And Hector was disapproving.”
No disappointment. You knew they felt that way.
Had Jaxon told Hector embarrassing stories about her before her arrival? she wondered suddenly. Was that why Hector had frowned at her the moment she’d stepped off the bus?
Her cheeks heated as she imagined exactly what Jaxon could have shared. The time she’d interrupted a dinner party her parents had thrown, walking through the dining room in only a bikini, giving an elderly gent a heart attack. All because earlier that day her father had said, “You want better grades, buy them. You don’t have what it takes to earn them on your own and I’m sick and tired of being embarrassed by your lackluster performance,” and she’d hoped to punish him.
Or the time she’d filmed a bit part as a murdered waitress in Chucky’s Evil Twin, just to embarrass her elitist mother. Another punishment. The week before, Madam Tremain, as Ava sometimes liked to call her, had asked all her friends to send their single sons Noelle’s way so that she’d stop “digging through the trash for her dates.”
“My math could be off here,” Ava went on, “but I’m pretty sure all three guys thought you’d been dropped on your head one hundred and seven times.”
Noelle gave another chuckle, a common occurrence in Ava’s presence. “Teaching them better is gonna make this experience,” delicious, exciting, thrilling, “halfway tolerable.”
She also had lived through the first round of drills. And the second … third … and fourth—no thanks to her instructor. Hector Dean had it out for her, for real, demanding she run faster, climb higher, and shoot straighter than anyone else.
Whenever he felt she wasn’t giving something her all, which was all the damn time, he yelled at her.
Usually that kind of thing pissed her off and sent her spiraling—either with anger or frustration, causing her to act out. Instead, she truly found herself running faster, climbing higher, and shooting straighter.
Trying to prove herself to him—and not just for Ava’s benefit either. For her own. Just like she’d done with her parents and Corban. And yet, this time around, the experiences filled her with a weird blend of happiness and sadness. Happiness because she was succeeding, sadness because Hector didn’t seem to care.
Why am I never good enough?
Well, whatever. She wasn’t going to ponder that mystery again, and she wasn’t going think about AIR or Hector. Wasn’t going to consider how good he always smelled. Like fresh laundry and a storm-drenched sky. Wasn’t going to remember the way his eyes glittered like amber when someone—namely her—pricked his ire. Or the way the swirling tattoos on his arms flexed erotically, highlighting the thick muscles underneath, whenever he moved. Or the strange way her blood heated every time she looked at him.
She’d go insane. With rage. Yes, rage, and not an insatiable urge to fling herself against him and slide her tongue into his mouth. Ava had called dibs, after all. Not that Ava had done anything about it. There’d been no time for flirtation, and at the end of each day, everyone was too exhausted to do anything but collapse into bed.
Not Noelle, though. Not tonight. She deserved a break. From Hector, from exercise … from her own tormenting thoughts. Plus, Ava wanted those butterscotch candies and Noelle hadn’t yet found a way to have them delivered.
Having peeked at (cough stolen cough) the week’s schedule, she knew the agents planned to let the recruits sleep the entire night. A first—and a one-time-only thing. A reward of sorts for Ava setting a camp record at target practice. Go Ava! The little tyrant had hit her mark every damn time, no matter the angle she’d stood, and even when they’d blindfolded her.
That’s my girl. So, while Noelle’s peers snoozed and snored, and while the agents zoned out in front of a plasma screen, she snuck out of camp.
Midweek, she’d found an escape hatch on premises. Her dad had been an intelligence agent for the government as well as a businessman, and he’d taught her that Plan B’s were a necessity. So, while it was smart of AIR to have a place for trainees to go if otherworlders attacked, they should have hidden it better than underneath the back porch of the trainee bunk, with only a thin layer of dirt covering the lid.
Why not just hang a sign overhead that flashed the words Party Through Here.
Noelle had to shimmy underneath the wooden porch slats, streaking her bare arms and legs with the dirt, and ended up inhaling a mouthful of granules, but … Worth it. No one had used the thing in years, as proven by the rusty hinges. The air inside was musty and coated with dust.
Fortunately, the long, narrow tunnel had everlasting bulbs posted on the rounded ceiling, providing a well-lit path for anyone who walked. Or … drove? Hells yeah! There were three small go-carts lined up and ready to shoot into action.
I must have died and gone to heaven. Noelle climbed into the car at the head of the line. Voice activation and thumbprint ID had been disabled. Probably because the AIR agents who came to camp varied greatly. So all she had to do was turn the key already resting in the ignition.
The engine roared to life loudly, making her cringe and pray no one inside the overhead bunk heard. She waited a moment, expecting someone to peel back the lid, but … no.
Grinning, she pressed the gas, and boom, shot into motion, speeding down the tunnel, twisting, turning, the blasts of air lifting her hair from her shoulders and winding the strands together.
Take that, Hector Dean. Not that she was thinking about him.
Exhilaration pumped through her blood. She’d so needed this, every fiber of her being crying out for something that would fulfill her and quench the constant hunger for more. In fact, she would have to find a way to win another night off. Ava had to see this.
Even better, Ava had to race her.
Twenty minutes later the tunnel ended abruptly. A wall of brick with a dilapidated wooden staircase hanging in the center loomed ahead. Noelle slammed on the brakes, barely missing a lethal smash. She laughed out loud. Fun.
After shutting off the car, she climbed the steps, picked the lock of the new hatch, and shoved the heavy metal aside. Cool night wind blustered as she peeked out. Two graffiti-covered buildings at her sides. They were several yards apart, with a dark abandoned alley in the center, leading straight to—
She climbed the last step and shimmed to a stand, then closed the lid and gaped. Wow. Anyone who walked this alley would see cracked concrete, nothing more.
Urgency riding her, she grabbed the lipstick from her pocket—a girl had to be prepared for anything—and marked the rim, then tossed the now-contaminated gloss in a nearby trash bin.
Her exit strategy taken care of, Noelle practically skipped from the alley. She made sure to note the shops. One a twenty-four-hour photo. The other an abandoned, crumbling crack house. Quaint.
She also made a mental note to inquire about buying both buildings. She could fix the alley, maybe turn it into a garden-type area, then run goods and services through the tunnel at her discretion.
Cars whizzed along the road. Bikes and scooters, too. Despite the late hour, crowds had yet to thin on this poorer side of town. Humans and otherworlders traipsed the sidewalks, talking, laughing, shopping. She spotted a few Arcadians, the race known for white hair that couldn’t be dyed, the ability to teleport, and in some cases, the ability to use mind control.
A group of Terans, a very cat-like species, with pointed ears, spotted skin, and feline grace. One Mec, tall and thin, with skin that glowed different colors with different emotions. And two Deleseans, with six arms and azure skin that kind of reminded her of whale blubber.
One day I’ll be policing these people. A surreal thought. Noelle had always been the troublemaker. So, arresting others for breaking the law? Kinda seemed wrong.
Maybe that’s why Hector kept pushing her so intently. Maybe he doubted her capability and integrity, as she’d first assumed, and thought to mold her into something better.
And you’re not thinking about him.
Deep breath in, filled with the scents of corn dogs—her mouth watered—car exhaust and perfumes, as well as faint traces of dirt and … other things. Towering lamps lined the streets, and the shop signs pulsed. Live Nude Girls. World’s Best Coffee. A Toys R Us right beside a Hooters. The moon was full, a shining beacon of gold.
“Hey, darlin’,” someone called. “How much for an hour?”
He better not be talking to me.
“Hey, you, in the red shorts. I’ll take whatever you’re selling, no matter the price.”
Yep. Me. The only clothes she’d had were for working out. Right now she sported a red tank and matching too-tight shorts. Streaked by dirt as she was, she probably looked like she spent a lot of time on her knees and back. Plus, her hair was tangled, as if someone had plowed their fingers through one too many times.
Someone had, of course, but that someone was her.
Noelle didn’t bother searching for the guy, just threw a finger in the direction of his voice and kept walking.
Yeah, yeah. Took her fifteen minutes, but she finally found a candy store. A bell chimed above the door when she entered. Ava would flip out of her mind when Noelle presented her with a butterscotch breakfast in bed.
Noelle’s teeth ground together sharply. The answer didn’t matter. Hector was her instructor, nothing more. Not once had he ever acted as if he found her attractive.
“Can I help you?” the guy behind the counter asked.
She sized him up with a single glance. Human. Late forties. Comb-over, sugar gut. He wore a white apron and earned major points for cleanliness.
The store itself was small, with three display cases and nothing in the way of furniture. Definitely needed a new business manager. There were no couches for customers to sit on so they could chat and eat more and more of the candy. No tables offering samples and free alcohol to encourage unwise spending, as she was used to.
“What do you have in the butterscotch department?” she asked.
“Not much.” He thumped a finger on the glass at his right, just above a plate of what looked to be fudge squares. “Just these.”
One of his brows winged into a stray lock falling down his forehead. “One or—”
Cash signs practically glowing in his eyes, he got to work, wrapping the squares individually and stacking them carefully in a small box.
The bell over the door gave another chime. The server glanced up, said, “I’ll be with—” then snapped his mouth closed and gulped with apprehension. His bloated cheeks paled. “Uh, just a second, please.”
Robber? Thug? Noelle spun around—and came face-to-face with her tormentor.
Hector Dean stood in the doorway, wearing a black T-shirt that molded to his muscles and black slacks that hugged his thighs indecently. He scowled over at her, his golden eyes glittered brightly. His arms were folded over his chest, and his legs braced apart, as if he meant to leap into an attack at any moment.
NOELLE,” HE SAID TIGHTLY, his voice full of gravel.
“Hector.” What did it say about her that she was aroused rather than scared? He looked capable of murder, his hard features cold and merciless, but damn if he wasn’t sexy as all hell.