“Come on, pick up,” Viola muttered under her breath. She clutched the fat cell phone tighter and pressed back against the wall when footsteps approached. She wasn’t in the mood to deal with anyone at all, especially not them. She turned her head, wincing when her hair caught on the rough surface of the brick wall.
The voice that finally answered was not her brother’s but was just as familiar. “Toby, where’s Bas?”
“Well, hello to you, too Shortcake,” Toby Duke teased with fond amusement.
Viola rolled her eyes. It figured that Duke would only be up for chatting when she didn’t have the time. “Yeah, hi. Where’s my brother?”
“On a date with some chick he met on campus. He left his phone here.” Duke grabbed his boots from beside the door, carried them back to the living room, and sat on the edge of the couch. He cradled the phone between his ear and shoulder while he slipped on his boots and tied the laces. “Speaking of dates, I’m heading out so what’s up?”
Viola bit her lip and glanced at the group of high school boys in the parking lot a few feet away. “I was hoping he could… I need… do you know where he was going?”
“Damn.” She sighed and ran a hand through her short, dark hair. It was bad enough she’d been humiliated in front of a restaurant full of people, but now she had to drag Duke, the guy she’d crushed on for years, into things. “Could you…”
“Spit it out, kiddo,” Duke prompted, his patience fading as Viola continued to ramble and ask half-questions.
“Never mind. It’s okay. I’ll call Aaron.” She nodded decisively. Aaron would understand. He wouldn’t think less of her or tease her about it.
Duke surged to his feet. He was always Viola’s backup when Sebastian wasn’t available. Who had she found to replace him? He chose to ignore the tightening in his chest at the thought of being replaced. She was an annoying quasi little sister he hadn’t asked for. “Who the hell is Aaron?”
He scowled as he tried to put a face to that name. He’d met a few of Viola’s friends the handful of times he’d picked her up after detention or when she was sick. “The kid with the blue Mohawk and the bar in his tongue? Looks like he walked face-first into a pincushion?”
“Goodbye, Toby.” Viola’s finger hovered over the button that would disconnect the call. She got that neither he nor her siblings approved of her friends, but she didn’t have to listen to their disparaging remarks. She’d had her fill of that for one night.
“Wait!” Duke called out. “Sebastian mentioned you were going out with friends. Do you need a ride? Is that what you’re calling about?”
“Yeah,” she murmured. Tears pricked the corners of her eyes. She rapidly blinked the back before they could make her mascara run. The last thing she needed, on top of everything else, was too look like a raccoon or panda. When prompted, she gave the name of the restaurant she was at. After Duke promised to be there in five minutes, she slipped the phone into her pocket and sat down to wait.
To her horror, Duke parked his truck right beside the group of teenage boys. Viola kept her head down and eyes glued to her feet as she rushed to the passenger-side door and wrenched it open. She slammed the heavy door, but could still hear the snickers and laughter.
“What’s going on, Vi?”
“Nothing. Just take me home, please.” Viola hugged her purse to her chest and squeezed her eyes shut. She didn’t want to talk about her night. All she wanted to do was curl up on the couch, eat a gallon of chocolate fudge ice cream, and watch infomercials until she passed out.
As he pulled out of the parking lot, he glanced over at the unnaturally subdued teen beside him. She wasn’t going to freeze him out. Her brother might let something like that slide, but Duke was risking being late for his date with the very… enthusiastic and flexible… Mandy to chauffer Viola around. At the very least she owed him an explanation.
“Were those your friends?” If they were, the two of them were going to have a long conversation about the type of people she hung around.
“No,” Viola scoffed. While she wasn’t Ms. Popularity like Olivia, the friends she did have were loyal. They would never have done that to her. “They’re just some jerks from school.”
Duke’s stomach twisted. He knew Viola had a difficult time at school. After accidentally conversing with a ghost on the first day of her freshman year, she’d been labeled a “freak.” She’d allowed herself to be pigeonholed into the “goth” and “emo” categories. The gossip about crazy, always bruised Viola Ashwood had only gotten worse after her father disappeared and her mother was institutionalized. Since school had started in September, she’d been caught fighting twice and skipping six times. Sebastian was on a first-name basis with both the principal and Viola’s social worker.
“Were they hassling you?” Duke had no problem turning the truck around and showing those boys what happened when you bullied someone. He picked on Viola a lot, but he’d never do anything to intentionally hurt her. His father had raised him better than that.
“You’re not going to let this go, are you?”
“How long have you known me, kiddo?”
Viola huffed and leaned her head against the cool window. “Xavier Grant, he’s on the baseball team and in a few of my AP classes, asked me out on a date.”
“Sebastian didn’t say you were on a date!” Duke interrupted. Again, he ignored the sharp pang in his chest.
Viola cracked open an eye and glared at him. “Like I’d tell Bas about it. I’m not stupid enough to subject someone to Sebastian Ashwood’s version of the Inquisition. I guess I should have told him, though. He might have spared me tonight’s round of prank the freak.”
Her fists clenched and throat tightened at the memory. “Apparently, he’d only asked me because of a dare. He had to take the ‘violent, psycho chick’ to the restaurant and then after ordering, go to the bathroom and never come back. All his loser friends took bets on how long I’d sit there before I realized what he’d done.”
Duke had to restrain himself from doing a U-turn in the middle of the highway and racing back to the restaurant. The demons he hunted had nothing on the cruelty of teenagers. “How long did you wait?”
Viola grinned fiercely. “Dumbass didn’t pay attention to where we were sitting. I watched him try to sneak out of the restaurant. I grabbed my purse and followed him to the parking lot.”
“Good job, Vi. I hope you beat the hell out of him.”
“Let’s just say he’ll never try to do anything like that to a girl wearing steel-toe boots, that’s for sure.” Viola’s smile faded. “Monday’s going to suck beyond belief, though.”
Duke pulled into Viola’s empty driveway and put the car in park. He brushed her bangs out of her eyes with gentle fingers. “I’m sorry, Via-mia.”
The hint of pity in his tone grated. Viola jerked away from him and quickly unlatched her seatbelt. She wrapped her anger and indignation around her like a piece of armor. “It’s okay. I don’t care what they think, anyway. They’re all self-absorbed sheep.” Her fingers closed around the door handle. “Thanks for the ride. Hope your date goes better than mine.”
“Hold on a sec.” Duke grabbed for her arm, but she slipped out of reach. The stubborn set of Viola’s jaw was familiar, but the pain lingering in her eyes made him ache. “Are you hungry? You didn’t get to eat at the restaurant.”
“I’m fine. Get out of here. You don’t want to miss your chance to get laid, do you?” Before Duke could respond, she jumped out of the car, shut the door, and ran to the front door. Once the door was unlocked, she turned and waved then stepped into the dark house.
She waited until she heard Duke’s truck backing out of the driveway to relax. Her shoulders slumped and her knees gave out. She slid to the floor, buried her face in her hands, and let the tears fall. She tried not to care what people said about her, but it was impossible to ignore a group of ten guys laughing in your face. She’d never felt so pathetic in her life.
Once the tears dried up, she reluctantly trudged upstairs to her bedroom then changed out of her “date clothes” and into her comfiest pair of pajamas. She washed the streaky makeup off her face and winced at the redness of her eyes. She looked as pitiful as she felt. It was definitely ice cream time.
A sharp rap on the door interrupted her search for the carton of triple chocolate chunk ice cream she swore was in the freezer. Holding a steak knife behind her back, Viola peered through the peephole before unlocking the door. “Toby?”
Duke pushed past Viola. The temperature had been steadily dropping all night and it was downright cold outside. He eyed the knife in her hand, nodded approvingly. At her curious stare, he held up a paper bag bearing a familiar logo. “I brought dinner. Burger Barn, of course.”
Viola followed him to the kitchen. She returned the knife to its drawer and watched as he retrieved a couple of paper plates from the cabinet. “What happened to your date?”
Duke shrugged a shoulder. He unwrapped a burger, lifted the bun to check for onions, and set it on one of the plates. He dumped a carton of greasy, golden fries next to the burger then pushed the plate towards Viola. “I’ll see Mandy tomorrow night. With Burt sick, I decided that I should stay available in case the team on rotation gets overloaded. I figured hanging out with you was better than sitting at home alone.”
She wasn’t buying his excuse. Demonic activity was always lowest in December. There was no way the two Trackers on rotation would be busy. She loved him even more, though, for lying to her. “Thanks, I think.”
Duke winked as he finished unwrapping his own meal. In the living room, they settled on opposite ends of the couch with a mountain of throw pillows between them. Duke snatched the remote out of her hand but didn’t switch on the television.
“Now, I haven’t cleared this with Warden Bas yet, so don’t get your hopes up. I’m on rotation in two weeks. From 11:59 on Wednesday night to 11:59 on Thursday. If you promise to do everything I tell you to do and not be a pain in my ass, you could spend the day with me.”
A bright smile lit up Viola’s face. Not only was Duke offering to spend her birthday, the day of the year she hated because it was the anniversary of her father’s disappearance, with her, but he was going to let her be on rotation with her. It was a better present than the used convertible her brother had already bought! “Thank you!”
“No guarantee there’s going to be any calls,” Duke warned, smothering his own smile. Making Viola happy was ridiculously happy. He turned on the television and punched in the number for the all-cartoon network. “Now shut up. They’re doing a marathon of all the ‘60s Christmas specials.”
“You’re such a dork.”
“Like I won’t be hearing you singing along in a few minutes.” Duke chuckled and picked up the fry Viola had flung at his head. He sank further into the couch cushions as the commercials ended. It wasn’t a loud, smoke-filled bar and his companion wasn’t a busty blonde, but it wasn’t a bad way to spend a Friday night.