Since this one is a shorty, I figured I'd make it one of those blog-only type stories. This is a period of time I haven't really covered in any of the previous backstories (Glide Like Ghosts) or the main stories (or even the WotDs).
Viola didn’t know what she’d done to deserve a trip to this particular level of hell, but it must have involved the slaughter of puppies, kittens, and nuns. Quite possibly the clubbing of baby seals, as well. Whatever crime she’d committed, she hoped she’d enjoyed the hell out of it.
She was certain the Cowboy Corral was well over its occupancy limit. Her glass was nearly empty, but there was no way she was going to fight her way through the crowd to get a refill. She’d only managed to score a table by flirting outrageously with a drunk, middle-aged man and dislocating his thumb when he’d tried to slip a hand under her short, denim skirt.
She had the beginnings of a migraine courtesy of the loud, twangy country music. The live band was a step up from the canned music they’d played earlier, but it really wasn’t her thing. It made her even more aware of the Manic Mutts concert she was missing. She took a small sip of her light beer and winced at the bland taste. She’d wanted to order a vodka cranberry or a stout beer, but she had to keep a tight grip on her mental shields. One little slip and her super-secret mission would be over.
Hot, stale breath washed over her face. She gagged internally and forced herself to meet a bloodshot pair of brown eyes. The man, in his mid-twenties with dark hair and a scruffy jaw, leaned closer into Viola’s space.
“No.” Viola snapped open the book she’d brought with her and promptly ignored the man.
“Can I buy you a drink, baby doll?”
“No.” The textbook for her History of Globalization class was dull as dirt, but it made a good prop and she really did have to study for an upcoming test. She hoped he took the hint and went after someone else. If she had to turn him down a third time, she’d undoubtedly do it in a manner sure to blow her cover.
She glanced over the top of her book at the couple seated six tables away. The blond man she’d been watching for three hours shifted the arm he had across a curvy, artificially-enhanced brunette so that his hand brushed her assets. Viola swallowed a wave of nausea. Having to watch her quarry paw all over inebriated tramps was undoubtedly the worst part of the night.
“This ain’t study hall, pretty girl. This is a place for drinkin’ and recreation.” The dark-haired man slapped a long-fingered hand across the pages of Viola’s book. He grinned crookedly when she turned her eyes back to him.
She slowly closed her book and slid it into her oversized purse. Pasting on a flirtatious smile, she walked her fingers up the front of his shirt until she reached the collar. She twisted the material and yanked him down to her level. She crossed her legs and pressed the spike heel of her knee-high boots into his crotch.
“When a lady says no, bud, it’s in your best interest to listen.” She flexed her foot, smirking inwardly at the flare of his nostrils and the pain in his suddenly sober eyes. She released her grip on his shirt, made a show of wiping her hands with a damp cocktail napkin, and leaned back in her chair. “Are you going to make me say it again?”
“N-no ma’am,” he stuttered, backing away until the crowd swallowed him up.
Happier than she’d been ten minutes earlier, Viola shifted her gaze to the table. Panic burbled in her stomach when she didn’t see the blond man or his busty companion. She sat up straighter and scanned the crowd for a familiar face. She cursed herself for wasting her time with the other man.
There was a spirit hovering nearby. She could ask it where the blond man had gone, but someone in the crowd would notice her talking to empty air and rumors would start. While most people would write them off, he’d hear them and know she was watching him.
“Can I get you something, hon?”
Viola nodded at the tired-looking waitress. “Vodka cranberry with a twist of lime,” she ordered, handing over her driver’s license before the waitress could ask for it.
She drummed her fingers and rapidly worked up a back-up plan while she waited for her new drink. How could she have been so stupid? She had only one task and she’d screwed it up. If anything happened to him, she’d never forgive herself.
Her overactive imagination was hard at work creating worst-case scenarios. Had he tried to drive himself somewhere? Had his temper gotten the better of him? Was he in the parking lot brawling with a pack of tattooed, drunk bikers? Had he gone in search of a demon to take his frustration out on? Had he gone home with the skanky brunette?
“Here you go.” A hand with red-painted nails appeared in Viola’s line of sight. The waitress set the drink on the table along with Viola’s i.d. She accepted payment with a small, genuine smile before hurrying off to another table.
Viola reached for her drink, but it was snatched out of her hands before she could make contact with the glass. Her heart lurched and her right hand automatically dropped down to the holdout knife strapped to her thigh. She prayed she could get rid of the guy with just a little flirting. Sebastian was going kill her if she got arrested for another bar fight.
“Fancy findin’ you here, Shortcake,” a deep voice drawled.
Her lips twisted into a pout. She slapped his arm hard. “You scared the crap out of me, Toby Duke!”
Scowling, Duke slid onto the chair beside Viola. He sipped his pilfered drink while examining the driver’s license on the table. He tilted it back and forth several times before flipping it over and doing the same. “It’s a good fake. Do I even want to know where you got it?”
“Nope.” Though she wouldn’t need a fake i.d. in ten weeks, she didn’t want to give up her supplier. There was no telling when she might need something falsified.
“You’ve been watching me.” The vast quantity of alcohol he’d consumed had dulled his senses so that he hadn’t felt her enter the room. If he hadn’t passed her table on the way to the bathroom and heard the familiar chaotic cadence of her thoughts he never would have known she was in the bar.
She shrugged. There was no use denying it; there was no other reason for her to be in a place like the Cowboy Corral. She didn’t have to tell him why she’d followed him, either.
“Who sent you?”
“No one.” No one had to send her. She’d watched him do his damndest to self-destruct every September 13th. It wasn’t in her nature to idly stand by and watch the man she absolutely adored fall to pieces. Even if all she could do was make sure he made it home in once piece, at least she was doing something. “I know we don’t really get along anymore, but I’m not a raving bitch all the time. Call it a temporary truce if it makes it easier to swallow.”
“I’m not going to spill my guts to you, kiddo, just because you’re here and I’m drunk.” Duke didn’t want to talk about how the guilt and misery and sorrow were choking him or how he’d been unable to stay inside his house for more than ten minutes or how sometimes he hated the Network for what it had taken away from him. He wanted to drink until he couldn’t remember his name.
Viola lifted her drink from his lax grasp. She swallowed a mouthful of the cool, tart liquid. “I don’t recall offering to be your therapist. I’m just here to ensure you don’t wrap your truck around a tree. Or get syphilis.”
An unexpected bark of laughter spilled from Duke’s open mouth. “Syphilis, Via-mia?”
“I saw the company you’ve been keeping. I’m not entirely certain you should be this close to me without a hazmat suit or a decontamination shower.”
“Ah, Mandy,” Duke sighed, eyes glazing over. “I have a date with her tomorrow night.”
She ignored the pang of jealousy stabbing her with an acid-tipped knife. She was there as a friend and not a love-struck girl. He didn’t need to deal with her issues on top of everything else. “I’ve got your cell phone in my car. You left it at our house.”
“I know.” His grandmother understood that he wanted to be left alone on the anniversary of his father’s death, but it was something his mother conveniently forgot every year. After ignoring her tenth call, he’d set his phone on the Ashwood kitchen table and walked away from it.
“I turned it off so I wouldn’t give in to temptation and tell your mother off.”
Viola’s fingers twitched with the need to soothe the shadows under his eyes and smooth away the wrinkle in the middle of his forehead. She sent out a silent plea to his father. She’d seen Paul Duke briefly at his funeral but hadn’t caught even the slightest glimpse of him in the seven years since. She’d burn up every ounce of her power if that’s what it took to give Duke five minutes with his dad.
She didn’t miss the way Duke’s eyes kept drifting to a nearby blonde in a low-cut tank top and tight miniskirt. Doing so would hurt like hell, but she had to give him the space he needed. Bright, utterly false smile in place she nudged him with her elbow. “Go ask her to dance.”
“Are you sure?”
“’Course I am. She seems like she’s just your type.” ‘Meaning she’s not me,’ she added silently. “Leave your keys, though. If you need a ride home, I’ll take you. I’ll even make sure you don’t choke in the middle of night or hit your head on the toilet seat.”
That he hesitated warmed her soul. He cupped her jaw and pressed hot lips to her forehead. “Thank you, sweetheart.”
Her smile faltered when he led the blonde onto the dance floor. Sad but her heart was not as heavy as she’d expected. There was a silver lining, after all. Duke might use easy women and booze to cope with the loss of his father, but she was the one he could count on to be there the next day. Better to be reliable than forgotten, right? She retrieved her book, opened it to the right page, and settled in for a long night of crappy country music, dry facts, and envy.