Now Ava sat in Noelle’s car at the other end of the parking garage. Shadows enveloped her. The sun shone through the open pockets of concrete, lighting up the area behind and beside her, but even if a stray ray of light managed to sneak all the way to the car, the windows were completely tinted, as capable of blocking UVA as curtains. Which was necessary. As the books stated, vampires possessed very sensitive skin, and blistered easily.
After busting Noelle out of the hospital, Ava had refused to leave her side, keeping guard, ensuring Noelle remained conscious. So she’d lost a little blood. Big deal. She was on the mend and steady on her feet. For the most part. And the cut in her side? Whatever. Had worse.
Where are you, Hector?
The conversation she and Ava had had just before she’d exited played through her mind.
“Sure you want to do this?” Ava had asked. “Because if you want to break up with him, I’ve got a wicked cool speech, only six words, and he’ll leave you alone forever.”
Breaking up wasn’t on the menu, but she’d had to hear her friend’s guaranteed relationship ender. “Tell me.”
“Just say: I will finance your penile enlargement.”
Noelle had nearly choked on her own laughter. “I don’t want to be without him. He’s mine. My McKell. I have to try and win him.” One last time, she had to try to convince him they belonged together. No matter what.
The look he’d given her just before Dallas pegged him with the tranq … hard, determined, unwavering. He meant to end things.
“I’d like to say I’m dismayed that you picked a human torch,” Ava had said, “but honestly? I expected worse.”
Yeah, Noelle had spilled about Hector’s ability. He’d kinda let the rabbit out of the hat on that one, anyway. Although things really were contained, the truth buried.
“So what do you think your likelihood of success is?” Ava had asked next.
“Darling, this is in the bag.” Bravado, pure and simple. She’d never been so unsure. With his spine of iron, Hector rarely backed down from a decision.
The parking garage’s only elevator, the one that led to and from AIR offices, dinged, opened, and out he strode. She straightened. He stopped short when he spotted her, then squared his shoulders, pasted a scowl on his face, and kicked back into motion.
“What are you doing up?” he demanded.
“Chasing you. You should feel proud. I’ve never done this for anyone else, but you’ve made me do it for you over and over again.”
“You should have stayed in bed, damn it.”
Her heart drummed unsteadily. They were off to a bad start. He’d just ignored her confession. Well, she’d just have to up the stakes. “I came here to tell you that I want you. I love you, and you need to deal with it.” There. Out in the open.
She loved him. All that he was, all that he would be. Every obstinate, protective inch of him. His power, his passion, his drive. She loved him.
Stunned disbelief, then a furious shake of his head. “No. I don’t need to deal with anything. I quit AIR. I’m leaving New Chicago. I’m leaving you.”
A move she hadn’t predicted. Sickness churned in her stomach. “I don’t care about the house. I don’t care about what was in it. Don’t do this because you feel guilty. Don’t do this because you’re scared.”
He gave a bitter laugh as he scrubbed an ungloved hand over his face. He’d taken the time to tattoo himself, the symbols dark and glossy. “Scared doesn’t even begin to describe what I feel, Noelle. If you had been near me, you would have died. Do you understand that?”
“We’ve been over this. You could have, but you didn’t. I could have, but I didn’t.”
“That’s not good enough for me.”
Here she was, fighting for him, for them, and he oh, so casually dismissed her. She reached out to flatten her palms on his chest, needing contact with him, any kind of contact, but he stepped away, out of reach.
“Hector,” she shouted, stomping her foot in frustration. “Don’t do this.”
“I could feed you some bullshit line about not thinking I’m enough for you, say I’m still concerned about my past, or even tell you all the things I want to change about you,” he said, broken, “but I won’t. Even though I know you’d haul ass and never look back. Thing is, I love you. I love you so goddamn much, I’m a mess. I’m leaving you anyway. Nothing will change that. Nothing. Do you hear me?”
He loved her. He loved her. Only that knowledge beat through her dread and rallied her. “Don’t do this, Hector. Give us a chance. Please.”
You’re begging? Yes, and she didn’t care. She just wanted him.
His jaw clenched, as if he were fighting with the need to accept. “Go back to the hospital, Noelle. There’s nothing more for us to say to each other.”
“Stop!” he shouted, at last killing the distance and getting in her face. “Just stop. Do I need to feed you the bullshit? Is that what it’s going to take? We are done. Do you understand? Done.”
In and out she breathed, the air like fire in her lungs, scorching. As she’d feared, he wouldn’t back down. He was ending things, and that was that. He wasn’t going to try, wasn’t going to give her a chance. Even though he loved her.
He’d never looked more upset, but he said, “Finally.”
A shudder rippled along her vertebrae, vibrating through the rest of her. “I’m through chasing you. I’m through seducing you for your own good. I’m through!” She gave another stomp of her foot, emotion giving her strength.
Her chin lifted. Don’t cry anymore. Don’t you dare fucking cry anymore. “If you learn to control your ability, don’t come back for me.”
Bastard! “You should have wanted me enough to fight for me. The way I was willing to fight for you. I mean, I convinced myself you were different than everyone else, that you really saw me, and maybe you really did, but that still wasn’t enough, was it.” A statement, not a question. “I was never enough.”
He took a step closer to her now, as if her pain had reached him as nothing else could have. “Noelle, don’t say that about yourself. You are—”
“No!” She flattened herself against the Jag, was shaking her head. Dizziness hit her, but she didn’t shut up. “You had your chance. You wanted to push me away, well, congratulations. You’ve now succeeded.”
“It’s for your own good,” he shouted, beside her and banging a fist into the metal, shaking the entire vehicle. “I’m always on edge with you. I can’t lower my guard for a second. If I do, I could kill you, and I couldn’t live with myself if that happened. You deserve better. You deserve a man who can touch you. A man who can give you everything you need.”
You were that man. He would never think so, though. “You know what? One day I’ll get over you and move on.” A lie, such a terrible lie. “One day I’ll find a man who actually enjoys spending time with me, who thinks I’m worth any risk, even a risk to myself. But you … you’ll never get over me. I’m it for you and without me, you might as well curl up and die.”
Tears filled his eyes, the gold shimmering. “You’re right. You are it for me. I know there will never be anyone else. And I don’t want anyone—” Suddenly his mouth sagged open, strange sounds escaping, and then his knees buckled.
“Hector, what’s—” That’s when she saw the Arcadian standing behind him—the Arcadian who had teleported in, stabbing a needle into Hector’s neck. And now hers. A sting of pain, a flood of warmth.
In the background, she heard Ava’s scream of rage, heard the pound of booted footsteps, then her entire world went black.
HECTOR FOUGHT HIS WAY through a thick, cloying fog. He’d been shouting at Noelle, desperate to make her understand, aching for her, wanting to soothe the pain in her eyes, knowing he couldn’t, when … something happened.
A sharp tingle in his neck, a total wipeout of the mind. What the hell had happened?
He blinked open his eyes, and several moments passed before he was able to focus. He was sitting in a chair, upright though he couldn’t support his own weight. He was shirtless. And his—Oh, fuck no!
His bare hands were taped around Noelle’s neck, her skin warm and soft beneath his palms, her pulse racing.
Horror lit a match of understanding in his brain. Teleported out of AIR. Strapped to a chair, Noelle strapped to a chair in front of him. All of his fears manifested, right here, right now. He’d been so careful never to touch her. And now … now … He wanted to hack off both of his arms. Wished he had. They wouldn’t be in this situation.
Her hands were cuffed to the arms of her chair, her ankles cuffed to its legs. His gaze met hers. Rather than fear or pain, he saw anger in those silver depths.
“I’m fine,” she said without any emotion.
“Oh, good. Everyone’s awake.” Xavier Phillips stepped into Hector’s line of sight, his expression smug, gleeful, his pale hair smoothed into place. Every inch of his gray business suit proved flawless, not a single wrinkle. He looked as if he were attending a meeting with the board rather than an execution.
And that’s what he had planned, no question. He’d watch as Hector burned his woman to death. Afterward, he’d shoot Hector in the head. Or maybe he’d just let Hector go, let him live with the awfulness of what he’d done.
“Pays to have Arcadians in your employ.” Phillips dusted an invisible piece of lint from his shoulder. “Makes gathering your enemies so very, very easy.”
From the corner of his eye, Hector stealthily catalogued his surroundings. They were in a warehouse of some sort, emptied out but for the chairs they were perched on. Besides Phillips, there were two other threats. The Arcadian who’d grabbed them and a dark-haired, blue-eyed man Hector had once seen … when? Where?
He slashed through the lingering mental fog, scenes forming, vanishing, and realized he’d seen the guy walking a dog outside of Bobby Marks’s home. And then again at the restaurant with Brenda Marks, which he hadn’t thought anything about at the time. Rich people lived in the same neighborhoods and frequented the same places.
Now, up close like this, he realized exactly who he was dealing with, and wanted to curse. Dare Snow. Noelle had noticed him at the restaurant, too, had said he was the one who’d approached her at the ball, but Hector hadn’t noticed the resemblance to Mia until now.
An interesting development, but not one that would help him. Dare, undercover with his own goal, wouldn’t blow everything he’d worked for to save Hector and Noelle. In fact, the guy might kill them before Phillips could, simply to keep his secret.
“How’d you know we’d be there, in the garage?” Hector croaked to Phillips, desperate to buy time, to think. He had to keep his emotions under wraps. Had to remain numbed out. Meanwhile, he also had to come up with a way to get Noelle the fuck out of there!
“One of my Arcadians stayed at Bobby’s crime scene and followed you home. The next day you switched cars with a female agent, the head of AIR, and he placed a tracker on yours. I knew where you were every minute of every day.”
Hector had felt eyes watching him so many times, but he’d never thought … never known. Some agent he was.
“I was content to leave you alone as you played at your investigation because I didn’t expect you to get very far. When you took Gordman”—the barest hint of anger—“I experienced a moment of panic, but you never came for me, never approached me, and I figured he had kept his mouth closed. Now I can only assume he gave you my name?” A question, rather than a statement.
Hector would not admit they’d stolen information from Gordman’s car. He didn’t want the guy forewarned for the future, taking precautions. Just in case Hector failed in his current mission. “Exactly right.” Gordman was slime, but he was currently under AIR protection, so he’d—maybe—be okay. No guilt.
“My mistake, then.” Phillips reached out, dug his fingers into Hector’s scalp, and forced him to face Noelle. “When my prized Arcadian failed to return the night of the party, I knew something was wrong and sent another. I was told your arms glowed blue and burned everything they touched.”
I’m so sorry, sweetheart, he tried to project.
She seemed to look past him. “So why are we here?” she snapped. “What do you want?”
“You’ve been a nuisance, and I’m tired of waiting for you to go away. Now you’ll share information with me or you’ll suffer. And I don’t think I need to tell you that you’re going to die today, no matter what. It’s how you die that’s up for negotiation.”
“Like?” she prompted. “What do you want to know?”
“Like, how did you know where I kept some of those women? Not Gordman. You raided several warehouses before you captured him.”
She didn’t miss a beat. “And if we don’t tell you?”
Phillips smiled fondly. “I must say, I enjoy bantering with you, Miss Tremain. In fact, I’ve wanted to meet you for a while. You’re very beautiful, elegant, if a bit of a wild card.”