Toby Duke rapped once on the Ashwood front door before testing the doorknob. It was unlocked. He leaned around the short wall to get a good look at the driveway. There were no cars parked there, but the garage door was closed so it was impossible to tell just who was home or if there even was anyone home.
He retrieved his gun from its ankle holster before carefully twisting the knob. He pushed the door open gently so that the hinges didn’t squeak. The thick carpet muffled his footsteps. He silently moved from the entry to the living room.
The television was on. He recognized both the musical number starting and the actors on the screen. He rounded the corner fully, spotted a thin hand with metallic purple polished fingernails dangling from the couch. If the movie selection hadn’t been enough to clue him in, the hand would have given it away.
“’Lo, Toby” Viola Ashwood greeted, tone heavy with amusement.
“Oh, it would be you.” Duke shoved his gun back in the holster. He’d come over hoping to vent a little steam with his best friend Sebastian or even get a bit of warm sympathy from Olivia, but all he got was the often exasperating baby Ashwood.
It wasn’t that he didn’t like Viola. Most of the time, he got along with her better than he did with the others. She was good for jokes, research, and demon hunting. She wasn’t usually his go-to for more serious matters. Not only did she tend to make light of most everything, he knew she had enough of her own problems to deal with. Plus, she had the maddening habit of using whatever she learned for blackmail.
“Funny how that works, considering I live here and all.”
“You left the front door unlocked. Anyone could have come in and robbed the place. Anything could have come in here and killed you.”
Duke pushed off the wall and headed for the kitchen. If Sebastian wasn’t going to be around for Duke to talk to, Duke would have to settle for drinking his friend’s beer. He snagged two bottles of beer and, at the last minute, grabbed a small bottle of fruit juice before nudging the refrigerator door closed with his hip. He snatched both an unopened bag of corn chips and a bag of chocolate sandwich cookies off the counter on his way back to the living room.
Viola paused the movie when Duke re-entered the living room. She shifted the melting icepack so that it covered more of her left eye. If Duke couldn’t see how bad the bruising was, hopefully he wouldn’t say anything about it. Or narc on her.
“I’ve got a weapon handy for any demon stupid enough to try and attack me. The wards would have gone off had that been the case. As for robbers? Yeah right. We’re the biggest freaks in the neighborhood. Even criminals are afraid of us.” Viola tried to stealthily reach for the thin blanket draped over the back of the couch, but her arms weren’t long enough to reach it.
Duke dumped the snacks and drinks onto the coffee table before shoving it closer to the couch. He had to concede to her logic. Demons usually weren’t brave, or suicidal, enough to go after Trackers at home. After twisting the top off his beer bottle, he finally looked at the teenager stretched out on the couch.
“What in the hell happened to you?”
Viola’s forearms were littered with tiny, red scratches. Similar scratches covered both of her legs from the knee down. Her right ankle was wrapped tightly and propped up on a throw pillow. He could see a good-sized bruise forming on her chin.
Viola shrugged, winced when the motion pulled sore back muscles. “Had a Graca shove me in to a thorny bush, remember?”
Duke’s brow furrowed. He and the Ashwoods had spent the better part of the morning chasing down a pack of stray Gracas. He’d had Olivia with him while Sebastian partnered up with Viola. Sebastian had mentioned Viola’s encounter with a bush, but hadn’t said anything about her being injured.
“Your brother said you were fine.”
“I am fine.” Viola wrinkled her nose and stuck out her tongue. She’d have rolled her eyes for good measure, but didn’t think her swollen eye would appreciate it. “Really.”
“Where’s Bas?” Duke set his beer on the table, knelt beside Viola. He lifted one of her arms, sniffed it to make sure she’d applied antiseptic on the scratches. He found it hard to believe overprotective-to-a-fault Sebastian would leave an injured Viola home alone.
“He’s got a date with that elementary school teacher again. What’s her name? Amy, I think.” Viola ripped her arm out of Duke’s gentle grasp. She flopped back against the couch. “Before you ask, Olivia had to meet some friends for a study group. Which is, of course, nerd-speak for group date.”
“And they just left you all by yourself?” Duke arched an eyebrow. The corner of his mouth curved up in a smile when Viola squirmed guiltily. She could be so easy to read sometimes. “Let me guess, you threw a fit, told them you were fine, and shoved them out the door, right?”
Viola’s lower lip puffed out in a truly spectacular pout. She tilted her head back against the soft cushion and let the icepack slide off her face. She heard his sharp gasp. Not surprising considering her eye was nearly swollen shut.
“They hover. Do you have any idea how absolutely annoying that is? Olivia would keep me drugged out of my mind if she could because my pain makes her head hurt. Sebastian’s worse. Blood makes him squeamish so he sucks as a nurse, and then all he wants to do is hold my hand and ask me if I need anything. I just wanted to be left alone.”
“They care about you, Vi,” Duke reminded her sternly. He knew how suffocating the older two Ashwoods could be, but Viola took them for granted at times. Most people would give anything for such a close-knit family.
“I know they care. I know.” Viola huffed angrily. She batted Duke’s hands away from her face when he tried to inspect her eye. She patted the pocket of her shorts to make sure the prescription bottle hadn’t fallen out. She had a few painkillers left over from the last time she’d been injured. As soon as Duke left, she was going to take two. “They just drive me crazy. And, I guess I’m a little grouchy because I had plans for the weekend.”
“It’s only Friday night. Olivia should be able to help cover that shiner up tomorrow. Besides, the places you hang out, Via-mia, you could wear a ski mask and fit in.”
Viola playfully punched Duke in the arm. She was glad he was teasing her already; it meant lecture-time had come to an end. “I can’t. I’ve got to rest. I cannot go to school on Monday bruised up or with a sprained ankle. One more injury and the school’s going to call a social worker.”
Duke frowned. He knew Sebastian had run into a few problems with the school regarding his custody of Viola, but he wasn’t aware it had gotten as far as that. Was there something he, as quasi regional Network head, could do to help his friend out? All of Viola’s injuries were Network-related, after all.
“Oh, stop scowling like that. You look like Bas and that’d just be a shame, wouldn’t it?” Viola grinned impishly. She pointed to the juice bottle and held out her hand expectantly. “It’ll be okay. We should only have to deal with this for another couple of months. Hopefully they’ll leave us alone once I turn eighteen.”
Duke handed over the juice as well as the bag of cookies. Beer and chips in hand, he rose to his feet. “Shove over, kiddo.”
Viola popped a cookie in her mouth. She sat up long enough for Duke to sit on the couch. Duke’s shoulder occasionally made a good pillow, but his thigh was hard as a rock. The sweatshirt she’d taken off hours earlier was quickly rolled up. Fortunately, his knee made a good resting area for her drink.
“What’re you doing here?” Viola didn’t bother reaching for the remote. If Duke wanted to talk, she could put off watching Rocky Horror Picture Show for the fifth time in a week. She really wanted a pain pill, though. It looked like Duke was settling in for a long visit, and her entire body was starting to ache.
Duke absently ran his fingertip along Viola’s temple. Without meaning to, he dipped into her mind. Pain, sharp and throbbing, was the first thing he encountered. She wasn’t as fine as she made out to be. Underneath the pain was impatience as well as a few jumbled thoughts centered on her shorts’ pocket.
“What drugs have you got, Vi?”
Recognizing that no-nonsense tone of voice, Viola slipped her hand into her pocket. She pulled out the bottle and rattled it. Duke took it from her grasp and popped off the top. He tapped two pills into her hand, watched closely as she swallowed them with a mouthful of juice. After twisting the lid back on the bottle, he put the bottle into his pocket. Viola wouldn’t be self-medicating while he was around.
“Going to tell me why you’re crashing my pity party, Toby?”
Duke tore open the bag of chips. He didn’t have to be here, didn’t have to answer her question. There were places where the beer was colder and the entertainment better than a campy musical. He’d even made tentative plans to meet up with one of his old girlfriends. Just as he was deciding to push Viola’s head off his leg, his cell phone rang.
Viola jerked upright when the loud, shrill ring came from right beneath her ear. She scowled and rubbed her ear while Duke fished the phone out of his pocket. To her confusion, he glanced at the display and rejected the call. As soon as he set the phone on the coffee table, Viola darted forward and grabbed it.
Before Duke could rip it out of her hands, she checked his call log. If he was avoiding one of his vapid, shallow ex-girlfriends, she was never going to let him hear the end of it. Which one was stalking him this time? Bambi? Candy? Lynda with a ‘y’?
The last four calls were from ‘Mom.’ Oh. Viola quietly returned the phone to the coffee table. She swung her legs back on the couch and rested her head on her makeshift pillow. No wonder Duke was looking for Sebastian.
Isabel Duke Carrolton only called her son when she was drunk and angry at her husband, the step-father Duke had never met. Those phone calls usually deteriorated into long rants against Duke’s father. She hated the Network and constantly berated Duke for wasting his life and his artistic talent by following in his father’s footsteps and taking over as regional head. The phone calls left Duke pissed off and, more often than not, drunk off his ass.
She didn’t press Duke for details. She restarted her movie and held up the bag of cookies for him. Halfway through the movie, she could feel the pills starting to work. Her mind started to drift and she felt disconnected from the rest of her body. It was a nice change from the nearly unbearable pain.
Duke glanced down at Viola when the remote slipped from her hand. He scooped it off the floor and turned the VCR off. He polished off his second beer, wished he’d brought more than two with him. He didn’t want to disturb Viola by moving her. He sank further into the couch cushions and slowly ran his fingers through her short, dark hair.
“Mom doesn’t get it. Every time she blasts the Network, she blasts me. Whenever she says that she hates Dad for putting her second or for ‘ruining’ her life, it feels like she’s saying that she hates me, too. She’s rejecting me again and again and again. I’m tired of hearing it. She just needs to get over it or leave me the hell alone.”
Duke paused when Viola muttered something that sounded very much like “bitch” but could have been “Ipswich” for all he knew. Apparently the drugs were sending her to dreamland via the goofiness detour. He smiled to himself and massaged the back of her skull.
“It just reminds me of why I’m never getting married. I don’t like knowing that I’ve got nothing to look forward to but a life of one-night stands, you know. I’ve tried to explain it to Granny, but she doesn’t get it. I can’t drag anyone into this life. It worked out for Granny and Grandpa, but I sure as hell don’t want to take the risk and end up like my parents. The Network’s gotta come first, and no girl’s going to understand that.
And half the time, I’m not even sure I can handle the Network. I see what Bert has to deal with; I remember all the crap Dad put up with. It’s a hell of a lot of responsibility. I’m starting to doubt whether or not I’m cut out for the job.”
Duke’s fingers delicately traced the swollen, darkened skin near Viola’s eye. It was a hell of a shiner. “I can’t even keep you three idiots from getting hurt in the field. How am I supposed to watch out for an entire region? Why would anyone in their right mind allow me to take over?”
“’s cause you’re th’ best, silly,” Viola slurred without opening her eyes. She clumsily patted his knee in what Duke took to be reassurance.
“I’m really not, sweetness. Thinking like that, relying on me like that is dangerous. I’ve just gotten lucky, that’s all.”
“Don’ be stupid, Toby.” Viola rolled forward just enough to press a kiss to the top of Duke’s knee. She couldn’t work up the energy to roll back. She let one of her arms dangle off the couch and her nose rest against the worn denim of Duke’s jeans.
“Maybe you’re right. I sure as hell wouldn’t want someone like your brother in charge. It’ll just mean I have to push myself harder. Spend more time shadowing Bert and Abelardo and less time babysitting you Ashwoods.”
Viola didn’t respond. Duke blew out a long sigh. He actually felt a little better after getting all that off his chest. Viola was a better listener than he’d given her credit for, though the medication probably played a big role in that.
He couldn’t leave her with all that knowledge, though. Even if she only knew half of it, she still had plenty to use as ammunition against him. With only a small twinge of guilt, Duke pressed his fingers against her temples and deliberately slid inside her mind. Thanks to the painkillers having already fogged her brain, it didn’t take much effort to alter her memories of the evening. When she finally woke, all she’d remember was watching a movie with Duke and falling asleep on the couch.
Duke pulled out of her mind and smoothed the hair off her forehead, small, indulgent smile on his lips. She really wasn’t bad at all. He never would have felt comfortable enough around Olivia or Sebastian to say as much as he had. He really needed to stop being so hard on her.
It took several minutes for it to register that his knee was warm and wet. Duke jiggled his knee just enough to shift Viola’s head. Sure enough, the material where her mouth had been was damp. She’d drooled. On him.
On second thought, she deserved every bit of the teasing he dished out.