Monday, January 31, 2011

Trowel - A House of Veadra side-story

For those of you familiar with my little House of Veadra series, this is a side-story that fits in between Juliana's story and Astra's. There are a few spoilers, but nothing that you shouldn't have seen coming.
For those of you not familiar, this is just a little fantasy/royalty series that helps take my mind off the Ashwood-induced mental blocks. You can read the side-stories as stand-alones or, if requested, I can put up links to the main stories.

Don't worry... there's more of Duke and Viola coming very soon!


(Post-The Fall of the House of Veadra and mid-Triumph of the House of Veadra)

Astra loved her garden. It wasn’t a very large plot of land, just a few square feet tucked away from palace tourists and visiting nobility. She’d argued for hours with Pierre, the head gardener, until Zed had reminded her that it was her property. Pierre had finally stopped complaining about the loss of land, but he drew the line at lending her any tools or seeds. The wild flowers and herbs she grew couldn’t match the splendor or fragrance of Pierre’s carefully tended gardens, but it was a place she could relax and… ground herself… so to speak. She needed an outlet for the influx of magic that followed Lissy’s death and to work out the frustrations that came with being queen.

She was understandably annoyed when a pair of polished black boots trod carelessly over her blooming tiger pansies one sunny summer afternoon. She balled her fists, prepared to give the intruder a very large, very angry piece of her mind until she heard a heart-stoppingly familiar click. Her blood froze.

Hands clasped to hide their trembling, she sat back on her heels and straightened her shoulders. “How did you get past the guards?”

“I slit their throats.”

She blinked, swallowed back a wave of grief. There would be time later to mourn their passing. “If they don’t report in every fifteen minutes an alarm is sounded.”

“I won’t need that long, Majesty.” The would-be assassin’s voice dripped with disdain. Flat black eyes studied the slender young woman at his mercy. It was a pity he didn’t have time to fully enjoy their time together. His lips curved upwards in a sinister sneer. Finally, the House of Veadra would fall for good.

Before his finger could squeeze the trigger, she wrapped her hand around the trowel and drove the pointed tip into the side of his knee. While he grabbed his injured knee, she wrestled the gun from his grip. With in a matter of seconds, their positions had been reversed. She kept the gun trained on a spot between his eyes; her hand didn’t shake.

“You should probably have remembered just which daughter of Veadra I am,” she observed dryly. “Being a princess wasn’t all etiquette lessons and fancy balls.”

Guards poured out of the palace and into her garden. She winced as they trampled her precious plants. So much for a fresh bouquet of wild flowers on the table for her dinner with the Grand Duke of Olysia. Norris, her head bodyguard, slipped the gun from her fingers.

“We’ll take him from here, Your Majesty.”

“Lewis and Morris, they were on duty at the door, he said he killed them.”

“Yes ma’am. Their bodies are being taken to the morgue. As soon as we’ve moved this scum to the dungeon, I will inform their families.”

Astra shook her head. “I’ll do it.”

“Az!” Zed, panting and red-faced, pushed past the throng of guards and wrapped his tree-trunk arms around her waist. Sharp eyes quickly scanned her for injuries. “What happened?”

“Security breach. Attempted assassination.” Astra shrugged a shoulder. “Total decimation of my pansies.”

“Oh, Az,” he breathed. He’d never met anyone, royalty or not, who had so little disregard for their own safety. He loved her desperately, but he was glad she was Norris’ headache most of the day. He much preferred heading the Avedran Royal Army. At least he could count on soldiers to follow orders. Despite her time in the military, it had never been Astra’s strong point.

“I’m going to visit the bodies of Lewis and Morris in the morgue, and then I am going to call on their families. They died in my service; they deserve nothing less than the utmost respect.” She glared at both men fiercely, daring them to argue. They wisely kept quiet.

“Would you like me to go with you, sweetheart?” He was loathe to let her out of his sight, but Zed knew that Astra preferred to grieve in solitude.

“No. I’ve got this.” She glanced over at the assassin and the wooden handle sticking out of his leg. She winced. Pierre had grudgingly given her the tool, and there was no way she was going to use it again. “I am going to need a new trowel, though. Do you think you could ask Pierre for one? Pretty please?”

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Three Lies and a Truth (4/4) -- January 2009 - Duke/Viola

And, here's the truth.

January 2009

“What time are you coming home?”

“I’m not.”

Duke paused, one hand on the refrigerator door, and pulled the phone away from his ear. He scowled at it as if the woman on the other end of the line could see him. “The hell?”

“Stop glaring and check the calendar, dork.”

The laughter in Viola’s voice did nothing to soothe his rattled nerves. He walked around a dozing Finn and squinted at the calendar tacked to the side of a cabinet. He wasn’t used to calendars. Aside from Network rotation scheduling, he’d never had to keep track of where he was going or what he was doing. The calendar was Viola’s idea, which made him laugh because she the most chaotic, impulsive person he knew. She’d insisted, though, on jotting down every appointment in tiny letters and nagging him until he did the same.

‘Dinner with A’ was written in the small box for that day. His scowl deepened. Why did she have to rely on the calendar? Couldn’t she simply have told him about her dinner plans? Who was ‘A’ anyway?

“Who’re you having dinner with, Vi?”

“Aaron.”

Duke exhaled noisily, counted to ten. He reminded himself that throttling his wife was a no-no. “Who?”

“Aaron Montemayor,” she said. “My best friend in high school. My one Network recruit.”

“Blue Mohawk dude!”

“Yeah, you know he got rid of that right after graduation, right?” Viola paused, hummed under her breath. “I guess he didn’t figure it would go over well in El Paso.”

Duke flushed and clamped down on their mental link. If Viola knew that he’d been the one to banish her best friend, the kid who’d clung to her like a puppy, to the other end of the state she’d kill him. It didn’t feel right to claim that jealousy had prompted him to assign Aaron to El Paso, but something had urged him to get the kid as far from Viola as possible.

“I guess not,” Duke responded once he’d cleared the lump from his throat.

“Anyway, it’ll be good to see him. We’ve kept up through e-mail and phone calls, but it’s been a couple of years since our last face-to-face convo.” Viola’s happiness was evident in her tone. A flare of jealousy burned in Duke’s gut. He was the only one supposed to make her sound that way.

“Sounds like you miss him.”

“Yeah.” Viola sighed wistfully. “I guess I do.”

Duke’s fist clenched, the phone’s plastic casing creaked. A growl rumbled in his chest. “Vi…”

“Hey, wow, it’s later than I thought. I need to run up to my apartment and change clothes before I meet A. I’ll call you on my way home, okay?”

“Whatever.” Blown off for a friend. A guy friend. A guy friend who’d had a crush on her so evident Sebastian had commented on it. Duke briefly considered using the GPS tracker in her phone to follow her and spy on her ‘dinner’ with Aaron the potential wife stealer.

“Hey,” she snapped, having caught his last thought. “I love you.”

That made him feel marginally better. “I know.”

“Tobias.”

“I love you, too.” Duke grinned. Take that, Mohawk boy! “Brat.”

Three hours later, he was ready to act on his earlier idea. He had to sit on his hands to keep himself from reaching for his laptop. A blast of cold air across his face distracted him from clock’s ticking second hand. His heart sank. His father had stopped by to visit, but the ghost-to-human translator was out. With her friend.

“Sorry, Dad. Vi’s not home.” He sighed dejectedly, before inspiration struck. He turned his head towards the lingering cold spot. “You could go see her, though. Just… check up on her, you know.”

Icy air whipped across his face. He frowned. “She’s having dinner with a friend, Dad. A male friend. An old male friend.” Another shockingly cold blast of air stung his cheeks. “Please?”

The air disappeared. Duke didn’t know if his father had gone in search of Viola to spy on her or to tattle. Knowing his father, his money was on tattling. Duke sank deeper into the couch cushions. He might as well get used to the couch. It would undoubtedly be his sleeping spot for the next couple of days.

Two hours after his father’s short visit, Duke’s phone rang. He scrambled for it with a haste that, had anyone been home to see it, would have been embarrassing. Viola’s name flashed on the screen. He pressed the button to accept the call and held the phone up to his ear braced for a tongue-lashing.

“Tobias,” Viola gasped.

Duke’s heart shot to his throat. He couldn’t tell if it was a good gasp or a bad gasp. Was she injured? Hurt? In a car accident? Being mugged? Being kissed breathless by her former friend?

“Get to the corner of Crosstimbers and 45 right now,” she instructed, voice raspy with a tinge of giddiness.

“Why?” Duke shot out of the chair. He shoved his feet into his boots, quickly tied the laces, and grabbed his jacket off the rack beside the door. He snatched his keys off the small table as well as his favorite gun. It would do for demons and wife-kissing old friends.

“Dliains. Three of them. Come on!”

They weren’t on rotation, but he knew the pair on schedule had been called out to a sighting in Galveston. He wasn’t sure how Viola had known that, but he didn’t care. There were demons near his wife. She could take care of herself, but… “I’ll be there in a few.”

“Cool.”

He found her perched on her SUV’s rear bumper. She held out her gloved hands when he was within arm’s reach and tilted her face up for a kiss. Gentleman that his father had raised him to be, he obliged his lovely wife. She tasted like dark chocolate and pinot noir. His lips thinned. Dessert and wine? What happened to friends meeting over pizza or hamburgers? And why was she wearing a skirt?

Oblivious to Duke’s mounting anger, Viola pointed towards a dark side street. “They went down there. There are three foreclosed houses at the end of the block. I think that’s where they’re hiding out.”

“Aaron’s a Tracker and is probably closer. Why didn’t you call him when you spotted them?”

Viola cocked her head to the side and arched an eyebrow. Was he upset that she’d called him? “I saw a demon and I called you.” Perplexed, she shrugged. “Instinct, I guess.”

The knot in Duke’s stomach eased. Her first instinct was to call him. He could work with that. “How was your dinner?”

“Absolutely wonderful.” A bright smile lit up her face. She rested her cheek on his shoulder. “I didn’t realize just how much I’ve missed A until I saw him. It was as easy to talk to him as it was when we were kids. We could have sat there for hours.”

The knot tightened. He was easy to talk to, wasn’t he? They had conversations and comfortable silences and their own private jokes. Aside from questionable fashion-sense and horrid taste in music, Aaron didn’t have anything Duke couldn’t offer Viola.

A small hand slapping his shoulder snapped him out of his reverie. He glared down at his wife. “What was that for?”

“Telling your dad to come spy on my dinner with A.”

“Oh.” He winced when she hit him in the same spot again. “What the hell was that one for?”

“Sending A to El Paso. He didn’t know anyone out there and his family lives here. We always need Trackers in Houston. What was wrong with you?” Her hazel eyes narrowed in suspicion. “It wasn’t because of me, was it?”

“He was in love with you!” The words burst from Duke’s lips before he could stop them. He kicked himself for sounding like a jealous idiot. The last thing he needed to do was give Viola ammunition to use against him.

“Yeah.” Viola wrinkled her nose. “He got over that towards the end of senior year. It was a good thing, too. I hated hurting him like that.” She chewed on her lip and stared at him through her lashes. “You were worried about me having dinner with him tonight?”

“You two were best friends. You brought him into the Network. He… you ran track together, and you had all your little goth jokes, and he listens to the same music you do. I might have been a little concerned. Justifiably concerned.”

“You are such a dork.” Viola chuckled as she playfully punched his arm. “Don’t you know that I’ve been yours since you hit that demon with the baseball bat and pulled the Lefla spike out of my toe?”

Duke flushed guiltily. He did know that. At the time it had made him slightly uncomfortable, but looking back he felt flattered and a tad ashamed. Viola hadn’t bothered disguising her feelings while he’d ignored what was right in front of him. “I’m sorry, sweetness. For now and then.”

Having followed his leaps of logic through their link, she shook her head and patted his cheek. “Don’t make me sound like a saint, Tobias. While it’s always been you, I can’t say I haven’t been tempted a time or two.”

“Charlie,” he guessed, remembering that the deceased Tracker had been her prom date.

“Mmm-hmm,” she agreed, smile growing. “And there was that summer Jeremy Whittier trained with Max before going overseas. I was totally in lust with him. Those abs and that rich, bad boy vibe? Yum-my.”

“Viola!”

She giggled happily. “Oh, please. I had to live through your Candis and Mandys and Lisas and Jennys. Don’t be a hypocrite.”

He growled, but didn’t complain. She wrapped her arms around his neck and pressed her lips to the warm skin behind his ear. “I have never, in my life, loved anyone more than I love you, Tobias Duke, and I never will.”

Duke nodded. He wanted to respond, but couldn’t get his vocal cords to work. He hoped she felt his overwhelming love through their link. He turned his head and captured her lips for another taste of chocolate and pinot noir. The combination was growing on him.

“Now,” he murmured against her lips when they broke for oxygen, “about those demons…”

Monday, January 10, 2011

Three Lies and a Truth (3/4) - Viola/Duke December 2007

December 2007

Viola knew better than to follow whatever weird instincts she’d developed since… since… then… but when she drank tequila common sense was always the first thing she lost. Followed shortly, of course, by her mental filter, her coordination, and, embarrassingly enough, her clothes. She glanced down at her long black coat and buttoned it up to her neck. Better safe than sorry.

She kept her back plastered against the side of the building as she followed the low growls of a pair of Flians into a damp alley. She cursed herself for leaving her Network phone in the hotel room she called home. Not that she was sure it worked anymore. Undoubtedly Duke had deactivated hers within hours of her brother and sister quitting the Network.

She hadn’t voiced her resignation, but that didn’t matter. She couldn’t be part of the Network. Tracking demons led to fathers disappearing, demonic possessions, years of uncertainty, living out of a suitcase, and… and… oh sweet mercy. She sagged against the rough bricks as a fresh wave of sorrow threatened to buckle her knees. She pressed a hand against her mouth to stem the sob burbling in her throat.

Once she was certain she wouldn’t make any sound, she shoved her hands in her pockets without looking at them. Logically she knew her hands were clean, but every time she saw her fingers she expected them to be covered with blood. With Amy’s blood.

At the sound of heavy footsteps, she stiffened. Viola craned her neck around the corner of the building. A familiar flash of blond hair moved in and out of her line of sight. A small smile tugged at her lips. Duke. It figured that he was on rotation the one night she’d dared to venture out of her room in search of something to fill the aching, gaping emptiness in her soul.

She eagerly soaked up sight of him taking down the two Flians with precise, efficient movements. Her fingers curled in her pockets as if wrapping around the dagger she no longer carried. Her feet twitched with the desire to dash down the alley and help him. She knew which pressure points rendered a Flian unconscious and how to hogtie one with a bungee cord or, if necessary, a shoelace.

She couldn’t join him, though. What if she hesitated like she had with Amy? What if she froze and the Flians hurt Duke? What if they killed him because he’d been too busy protecting a stupid, useless bag of flesh that seized up in fear? If they did survive after she froze, the disappointment sure to be in the blue eyes she adored would utterly destroy her.

No. It was best to stick to the shadows and deny her urges. It was safer for everyone that way. Maybe, someday, she could trust herself to Track again. Once she got the mess that was her life, and her head, under control, she could take baby steps towards reclaiming her ‘old’ life. The ‘old’ Viola. The one who dashed into danger without turning into a statue.

She hiccupped. The blond head at the end of the alley turned towards her. Startled blue eyes met hers. In her inebriated state, she lost control of her mental shield. She felt the familiar brush of Duke’s mind against hers. She understood the question he pressed into her brain, but turned her back on him and stumbled back towards her hotel.

“No,” she whispered to herself, though she knew he’d pick the words out of her mind, “I don’t miss it at all.”

She wondered if he believed the lie any more than she did.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Three Lies and a Truth (2/4) - Duke/Viola May 2000

May 2000

Viola stared at the scuffed toes of her favorite black boots. She could feel the eyes boring into her but had no desire to meet them. It was taking all her self-control to remain in the chair and not bolt out of the room. She felt like merely being in the federal building was betraying her father.

“Hey!”

A large, familiar hand obscured her view of her boots. Fingers snapped in front of her eyes. Startled, she jerked back and raised her head. Her hazel eyes narrowed at the angry face only inches away.

“What, Toby?”

“Are you even listening?”

Viola tossed her head back, wishing for the first time in two years that she hadn’t cut all her hair off, and pursed her lips. “’Your mentor is not just there to train you on how to capture or kill demons but which demons are hostile and which are to be treated as allies. Your mentor must be obeyed at all times. Failure to do so could result in your death or the death of innocent bystanders.’”

Duke wasn’t mollified by her bland recitation. So what if she’d heard him, had she actually listened to what he and Abelardo had said? He smiled apologetically at Abelardo. Viola was his best friend’s little sister and, when she wasn’t frustrating the hell out of him, his friend. Of sorts. He felt responsible for her and for taking her seriously when she’d expressed an interest in being mentored.

He grabbed her by the elbow and hauled her out of the chair. “Come on, kiddo. I’m taking you back home.”

Viola dug in her heels. She wrapped a hand around the arm of the chair bolted to the floor. “No! Wait! Hold on, Toby, I’m sorry.” She huffed in relief when Duke stopped dragging her towards the door. “Look, I’m not a fresh off the street recruit. I’ve spent years studying with Granny and my …,” she broke off, swallowed heavily, “my father.”

Though he silently called himself a na├»ve fool, Duke’s eyes softened. He knew how hard her father’s disappearance had been on the kid. Six months after Gerard Ashwood had first vanished she still couldn’t say his name without breaking down. “You have to take this seriously, Vi.”

She nodded. “I know.”

“Max Sparks is the best mentor you could ask for,” Abelardo said, speaking up for the first time since Duke had interrupted his speech. “He’ll be hard on you, but he’ll teach you right.”

“Okay.” Viola glanced down at the faded carpet, blinked back tears. Even if Max Sparks was the best Tracker in the history of the Network, he was still her second choice for mentor. She and her father had spent years talking about what he’d teach her when she was old enough. It sucked beyond belief that he’d disappeared before she was considered ready for Network training.

Part of her wanted to wait to start the training. If she held out another six months, her father was bound to show up. She’d give him the cold shoulder for a day or two, forgive him, and then they could start turning those dreams into reality.

The logical part of her, however, realized that if she wanted to search for her father she needed Network training. She couldn’t get Network training without a mentor. Neither Sebastian nor Duke were experienced enough to be a mentor, so she had no alternative but to rely on who the great Network whatevers on high picked out of a hat. Max Sparks wasn’t her first choice for mentor, but she’d wring every ounce of knowledge out of him nonetheless.

“Hey.” Duke lifted her head up with a finger under her chin. His blue eyes were warm with sympathy. “We don’t have to do this now if you don’t want to, Shortcake.”

“No. It’s okay.” She shook her head. Her throat ached, every word felt like ground glass scraping across her throat. She clamped down on her mental shields so Duke wouldn’t see the truth behind her lie. “I’m ready. I want Max to be my mentor.”

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Three Lies and a Truth (1/4) - Duke/Viola, September 2001

September 2001

When the doorbell rang for the third time, Viola knew that the person on the porch wasn’t going to take the hint and leave. She carefully tipped her chair back just far enough to grab her crutches. Her companion winced at the loud scrape of the chair legs on the floor when she pushed away from the table. On any other night, she’d have made a snarky remark about getting what he deserved, but it wasn’t an ordinary night. It was the anniversary. She completely understood his need to get utterly wasted.

“Where ‘re you going?”

“To see what idiot thinks playing ‘Jingle Bells’ on your doorbell is fun.” She shook her head sharply, regretting the move instantly when the room spun, to stop him from rising to his feet. “Stay there. I’ve got this.”

“’S my house.”

“Do me a favor: shut up and stay in your seat.” She rolled her eyes at his petulant expression and slowly made her way out of the kitchen. She couldn’t wait to be rid of the heavy thigh-to-ankle cast. Not only would it mean she could move like a normal human being again, but she wouldn’t have to be watched constantly. Not that Duke made a great babysitter.

It was her fault Sebastian had determined that she needed sitters, though. After being so careful about hiding the fact that she wasn’t taking her pain medication, she’d slipped up. He’d lectured her for hours about pain management, stubbornness, and a loss of trust. If she’d lied to him about the ills, what else had she lied to him about?

That was why she was stuck spending the night with Duke while Sebastian was at his school’s Parent Teacher Night. Not that she hadn’t intended on spending the evening with Duke one way or another. He got depressed, drunk, and dangerous on the anniversary of his father’s death. The guy who watched out for her all the time needed someone to watch over him one night a year.

Viola’s lips thinned when she opened the door. She glanced over her shoulder to make sure Duke hadn’t followed her before stepping out onto the porch and closing the door firmly behind her. “What are you doing here?”

“Is Toby home?”

“No.” Viola crossed her arms over her chest and leaned against the door. She didn’t feel the slightest bit of guilt over the lie. She knew what the woman’s phone calls and voice messages did to Duke. She wasn’t about to subject him to a face-to-face confrontation. “He’s out.”

“Out?” The older blonde woman raised an eyebrow skeptically. She gestured limply towards the truck parked in front of the house. “His truck’s here.”

“He got a ride from someone.” Viola smiled tightly. She knew exactly what to say to make Isabel Duke Carrolton believe the falsehood. “Network business.”

As expected, Duke’s mother recoiled at the mention of the organization she blamed for the dissolution of her marriage, the death of her ex-husband, and her estranged relationship with Duke. “I know you, don’t I?” Isabel squinted tired eyes. “Little Viola Ashwood?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“What are you doing here if Toby’s gone?”

“He’d been helping me with some Network homework when the call came in. I can’t exactly drive myself home, so I’m waiting for my brother to pick me up.” Viola thumped on the side of her cast for emphasis. She blinked twice and offered up the guileless expression she’d spent all summer practicing on Olivia. “Did you want to leave a message for Toby? I’m sorry, Mrs. Carrolton, but I’m not supposed to stay outside too long after dark and…”

“And?”

Viola leaned forward as if sharing a secret. “Because of the reports of a shape-changer in the area, I’m not supposed to let anyone inside.” She shrugged a shoulder and bit down on her bottom lip. “I’m sorry.”

Isabel shuddered. She hated demons. She should have never returned to Houston; they seemed to be around every corner. “T-that’s okay. I’ll call him later.”

Before Viola could respond, Isabel dashed off the porch, across the yard, and into her rental car. Viola waited until the car’s taillight’s disappeared to slip back into the house. In the kitchen, she grabbed a fresh beer for Duke and a bottle of cranberry juice for herself. He looked up from the game he’d been inspecting and cocked his head to the side.

“Who was at the door, Shortcake?”

“Nobody.” Again, there was no guilt. She was sure there would be hell to pay if he ever discovered that she’d lied to his mother and to him, but she’d worry about that later. “What’s next on the Toby Duke List O’Fun?”

“This.” He set the plastic game back on the table and nudged it towards her. As a joke, he’d pulled down a box of his old toys from the attic and made a comment about ‘babysitting’ tools. He had to admit that he’d had fun playing Go Fish and Candy Land with Viola. “I don’t remember this one at all.”

“What? You have got to be joking!” She pressed a hand to her chest in mock surprise. Letting her crutches fall to the floor, she collapsed in the chair next to Duke and propped her foot up on another chair. “Okay, let me re-introduce you to the joy that is Hungry Hungry Hippos. See, the goal is to get your hippo… no! Stop it, you have to be the pink one! Okay, you have to get all the white marbles…”