Duke swirled the heavy glass hoping to discover a hidden measure of whiskey underneath the melting ice cubes. No such luck. He didn't bother asking the bartender for a refill. Joe, who usually indulged his favorite customers, had made it more than clear that the drink in Duke's hand was the last for the night. With a sigh, Duke squinted bleary eyes and sucked a whiskey-flavored ice cube in his mouth.
"You want me to call a cab for you or someone else?" Joe asked as he pulled the glass out of Duke's lax grip. As his bar was a popular hangout for Network Trackers, Joe knew all about demons and Duke's responsibilities. He also knew why Duke had staggered through the doors with an unshaven face, wrinkled clothes, and the burning desire to drink himself into unconsciousness.
A phone number tumbled out of Duke's dry mouth. Body numb and brain fogged, Duke slumped in his stool and rested his hot cheek against the damp, slightly sticky bar top. The racket around him went in one ear and out the other. He kept his open, bloodshot eyes glued to half-empty bottle of Crown Royal on the shelf behind the bar. He hadn't slept in over thirty-six hours and, though exhaustion seeped out of his pores, he wasn't in any rush to drift off to dreamland. Having witnessed the autopsy, he knew what horrific nightmares would plague him.
God, he needed his father. He'd gladly give up decades off his life and everything he owned for five minutes with Paul Duke. He needed to know how to keep his head up at the next Tracker meeting and where to find the strength to meet the eyes of the freshly widowed Jamie Sparks. He wanted to ask his father how he was supposed to keep going in spite of the guilt tearing his heart apart. How had his father gotten over losing his first Tracker?
A slender, smooth palm gently caressed his scruffy cheek. Delicate fingers brushed the hair off his sweat-dotted forehead. The crisp scent of mint mixed with sharp rosemary was a pleasant respite from the combined odors of cigarette smoke, beer, and perspiration. He slowly loosened his grip on his mental shields and braced himself for contact with warp-speed, disorganized thoughts. When he wasn't immediately bombarded by chaos, he dropped his shields completely and basked in the unexpected, soothing warmth of the other mind.
"Can you stand up?"
Duke rolled his head towards the familiar feminine voice. He could almost taste the salty residue of tears on her cheeks. Sorrow thickened her slight Southern accent and elongated her vowels. Under any other circumstances, he might have appreciated the unintentional sultriness of her tone. He couldn't though. It was his fault, in a way, she'd been crying. Taking advantage of that would make him an even bigger bastard. There were other reasons he was supposed to keep her firmly in the 'friend' category, but with the alcohol clouding his brain, he couldn't remember what they were. Something about his parents and her brother…
"V'la?" He blinked his gummy eyelids and tried to make two of the three Violas he was seeing disappear. He succeeded only to have the one Viola blur around the edges. It made her look like an angel. The thought of Viola Ashwood as an angel was almost enough to make him smile.
"Wha're y' doin' here, Vi?"
"You called me, bud."
"Okay, technically Joe called me, but I figure you had to give him my number so it's the same thing. Essentially."
Viola smiled tiredly at Duke and slid her hands down to his biceps. Thankful she'd taken advantage of the gym in the last twelve hotels she'd stayed in, she tugged him off the stool and onto his feet. When his knees weakened and he wobbled unsteadily, she slipped underneath one of his leaden arms and propped him up with her shoulder. After tossing a grateful smile and several bills at Joe, she helped Duke stagger out of the bar into the muggy Houston air.
"Thought y' were in Ok'homa," he said as they slowly made their way across the parking lot. He closed his eyes to protect them from the bright street lights only to open them when the ground beneath his feet dipped and spun. The slim arm around his waist tightened and a hand dipped into one of his front pockets. Keys jangled, but he didn't have the energy to call her on her poor pick pocketing skills.
"We headed here as soon as we heard about Max. Patrick and Olivia dated for a couple of months in college and Stephanie was a year between you and Bas. Mrs. Sparks called Bas while we were on our way to ask if he'd be a pallbearer. I spent some time with her earlier and will go over again in the morning."
Duke winced. He'd let Abelardo and Bert do most of the notifications when they'd offered, but he'd forgotten about the Ashwoods. He wondered who had made the call and which sibling had been forced to break the news to the other two. He hoped like hell Viola, who had more ties to Max Sparks, hadn't been the one to answer the phone.
"'M sorry, Vi. Should've called y'first."
She swallowed down a lump of misery, her heart breaking for him. She wanted nothing more than to ease even a fraction of his pain and guilt. "No, you shouldn't have. You had a ton of more important things to do than worry about me."
She stopped abruptly, steadied him when he lurched forward, and glared. "Yes, Max was my mentor, but he was also your Tracker and Granny's friend and Tim's partner. You had enough to deal with, okay? Bert's the one who called. He was very kind about it."
Duke let Viola maneuver him into the passenger seat of his truck. He batted her hands away when she tried to buckle his seatbelt. Bitter laughter spilled from his lips when she moved his seat forward. "Y've got short legs."
"I do not," she protested hotly, slamming her foot on the gas pedal and backing out of the parking space. "They're perfectly normal for my height. You're the one with freakishly long legs, Tobias."
"How come y' don't call me 'Duke' li' ever'one else? 'S always T'bias."
Viola's fingers clenched the steering wheel tightly. She couldn't very well tell him that she did it to piss him off enough that he'd never forget her or mistake her for one of his floozies. They never learned his first name. She liked being set apart from the plastic, blonde Barbie dolls he went through like water. Even Olivia, who swore she hadn't encouraged Duke's flirting a few years earlier, called Duke by his last name.
"I don't know. You got all huffy when anyone besides Granny called you 'Toby' so I went with 'Tobias.'"
She grinned. "Then I must be doing something right."
"I hate you."
Her heart sank. There were days she feared he meant that. She loved him fiercely, had since she was a kid, but was afraid he saw her as nothing more than irritation he was better off without. She'd remain his friend for the rest of their lives if that's all he ever wanted, but sweet mercy she wished for more.
Duke rested his head against the seat and studied the woman behind the steering wheel. Did she realize that she was the only girl to have ever driven his truck? He was even reluctant about letting Bert or Abelardo drive his vehicle. In the faint greenish light from the dashboard, he could see that her eyes were red and swollen. Pain, whether from Max’s death or his harsh words he couldn’t be sure, was written all over her pretty face.
"Yeah?" She tried to tamp down the hope that colored her tone. She mentally kicked herself. He was mourning the loss of a colleague and she was dreaming about declarations of devotions. God, her mother was right: she was a selfish bitch.
"Viola, I..." Duke broke off on a sigh. He wasn't sure what he wanted to say. 'I didn't mean it,' was the first thing that came to mind. 'Thank you' warred with 'I need you' and in the back of his mind lurked words too complex and terrifying to even contemplate.
He sighed again, shifted his head and stared out the windshield. "Where are we going?"
"Your house." She let the disappointment roll off her back. Duke needed her to be a friend and not a lovesick fool. "I didn't figure you wanted to be around Bas or Olivia. Granny's not real sympathetic when you're drunk, either. I'll stay with you, if you want."
"Just like old times," he muttered, remembering the nights she'd driven him home from the bar on the anniversary of his father's death. It was odd, but he trusted her, more than anyone else, to care for him when he was blitzed.
"Eh. If you could not throw up on my shoes this time, I'd appreciate it."
"Will do my best." He belched, gagged at the fumes burning his nostrils. “But no promises.”
"Thanks." She dropped one of her hands to the seat and wrapped her fingers around his. She gave his hand a small squeeze.
Duke reluctantly disentangled himself from her grip. Her skin felt good, almost too good, against his and he was starting to remember a few of the reasons she was on the forbidden list. "Hands at ten and two, Vi."
Viola growled at him but put both hands back on the steering wheel. The rest of the drive to Duke's house was silent. After parking the truck, she jumped out of her seat and ran around to the other side to help him out. Though he protested, she kept an arm around his waist during the walk to the porch. On the second porch step, he stumbled over his own feet and sent them both crashing to the ground.
She dodged his falling body, but scraped her palms and bare knees on the rough wooden porch. Flat on his back, Duke cackled like a hyena. Viola rolled onto her back beside him and picked splinters out of her right palm.
"You're not going to win any gracefulness awards, Tobias." She whimpered as she dug out a particularly deep splinter. A bead of blood welled up from the wound. "Give me a sec and we'll get up and in the house."
"Nah," he panted, trying to control his laughter. "We'll stay here."
"Okay." She whimpered again, cursed softly. As soon as the funeral was over, she was going to make Sebastian and Duke spend a day sanding and resealing the porch. It was too damn dangerous the way it was.
"Let me see that." Duke grabbed her wrist and dragged her towards him until she was lying across his chest. He held her wrist up to the dim light and squinted at the splinters. "I keep causing people pain."
"Hey!" She thumped his shoulder with her free hand. "Max's death sucks beyond belief, but it wasn't your fault. It's a risk we all take every time we go out on rotation. You can't blame yourself. That's just stupid and a waste of time. I promise that no one blames you at all for what happened. It was supposed to be a regular Digaion hunt and there was an accident. It's terrible, but it happens."
Duke gently pulled a thin splinter of wood out of her palm. He soothed the pain with a chaste kiss to the abraded skin. "Thank you, sugar."
Giddiness welled up inside, but she kept her face impassive. "It's nothing, Tobias. Really. It's what friends do."
Duke nodded. He tilted his head back and closed his eyes but kept Viola's hand sandwiched between his. He tried to keep his eyes open, but they drifted shut. The tension he'd carried around since Max's death melted away. Viola was warm and soft against him; her slightly irregular heartbeat lulled him to sleep.
"Just so you know, Tobias," she whispered in his ear as her own eyelids grew heavy, "even if I had been in Oklahoma or Maine, for that matter, nothing would have stopped me from coming when Joe called. It's what people in love do."