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?”
“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…”
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…”