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.

Sweet heaven. A definite shiver this time.

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!”

Damn it.

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?

God, I’m such a giver.

“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.”