What I should be doing is working on another chapter of Mistress of Malice and Mercy, but since Duke's mother Isabel makes an appearance in several chapters, I've been doing a lot of thinking about her. She's not a character I've focused too much on. All that thinking eventually turned out this backstory.
The pounding on the motel room door would not stop. A sliver of unease prickled the back of Viola’s neck. There were only three people she knew in Boca Raton. Two of them were eating overpriced seafood in Miami and the third wasn’t aware she was in town.
Frowning, she grabbed the first item her hands hit and tiptoed towards the door. She tried to peer through the peephole, but the glass was so dirty she couldn’t make out anything but a blurred figure. After a mental count of three, she yanked the door open with one hand and held her book up with the other.
“You’re going to hit me with...,” Duke tilted his head back to read the title of the book hovering over his head. “Matrix Computations, Shortcake?”
Viola’s arm dropped limply to her side. She exhaled noisily as the rush of adrenaline faded. She scowled at her brother’s best friend. “What in the hell are you doing here, Tobias? I thought you were in New Orleans.”
Duke ignored Viola’s question and pushed his way into the room. He dropped onto the edge of the king size bed. He glanced around the bland, dim room. He recognized Viola’s overnight bag shoved against the wall between the dresser and the closet door, but didn’t see any other luggage.
“You’ve got your own room?”
Viola shut the door, locked it. She dumped her textbook on the rickety metal dinette table and perched on top of the long, low dresser. “Yep. Liv and Bas have been bitching at each other for the past three days. I told them if I didn’t get some space I was going to hitchhike back to Houston.”
“It’s not like they couldn’t track you down,” he said, gesturing to the wide leather band strapped to her left wrist. The pewter runes fixed to the band acted like GPS locator. He had designed it to replace the tracking bracelet she’d lost a year earlier. “It’s how I found you.”
She flicked at the chunky silver clasp. “It’s removable.” She was flattered, undeniably so, that he’d bothered to track her, but couldn’t understand why he needed to do so in the first place. “What do you want, Tobias?”
“For you to stop calling me that.”
“I didn’t think so.” He leaned back on his elbows, crossed his ankles. “You’re a real pain in the ass, you know that?”
Viola ran a hand through her shoulder-length hair and tried to mask her irritation. She adored Duke, had since she was a kid, but had never been able to make him see her as more than Bas’ little sister or the annoying brat he couldn’t wait to be rid of. Loving him didn’t mean she was going to waste time listening to the same old insults. Her Ashwood pride wouldn’t allow that.
“Yeah, we’ve had this conversation about a hundred times, To-bias,” she said, purposely drawing out his name. “If you’re waiting for Liv or Bas, you might as well do it in your car. I don’t have time for the same old arguments. I really do need to study.”
“You’re…” Duke slowly sat up. Confusion clouded his eyes. “You’re kicking me out?”
“I know this isn’t usually what happens when you’re with a girl in a hotel room, but try not to die of shock. There has a first time for everything. Think of it as a learning experience.”
“I actually came here for a reason, Vi. I need your help.”
She arched an eyebrow but did not respond. She didn’t expect it to be demon-related. Duke took the Network very seriously and would have gotten straight to the point as soon as she answered the door. Besides, the demon population in the Miami area was relatively small. It was one of the reasons people who hated demons, like Duke’s mother…
Viola groaned, squeezed her eyes shut. She couldn’t believe she hadn’t put the pieces together before. Duke was in Boca Raton. Florida wasn’t part of his region, and it wasn’t the season for a sunny vacation. He was in town to see his Network-despising mother. The same woman whose phone calls never failed to send him into a drunken stupor or depression. Or, if Viola was really unlucky, both.
“Do you still have your fake?”
Her eyes popped open. They narrowed as she considered the consequences of giving a truthful response. “That’s a trick question, isn’t it? I'm going to have to plead the fifth this time around.”
Duke waved a hand nonchalantly. “Never mind. I’ll find out myself.” Diving into Viola’s mind to find the answer took only a second. Her defenses were good, but he was better. “Good, you’ve got it. I need you to go to a gallery thing with me tonight.”
“Gee, last minute much, Tobias?” Her mouth snapped shut as she realized what he’d said. At least it explained his dress pants and shirt. “What does a gallery thing have to do with my fake id?”
He shot her a withering glare. “After spending a few hours with Mom, I’m going to need a drink or seven. I need you in the bar with me to keep me from doing something stupid like starting a fight.”
“Or going to a cheap motel with a hooker and getting gonorrhea.”
She blinked owlishly, unfazed by his growl. A slow, sly smile spread across her face. “Yes, Tobias? You know,” she tapped her finger against her chin, “maybe you should go by yourself. I’m sure there are plenty of single women your mother is just dying to introduce to her only son.”
She laughed. “Oh, calm down before that vein in your forehead bursts.” Stuck in a hotel room studying or a night out with Duke? Of course, she’d choose Duke. She jumped to her feet, glanced down at her flannel pajama pants and wrinkled her nose. “Guess I’d better change clothes.”
As she’d originally planned to go to dinner with Olivia and Bas before they’d gotten too annoying, Viola had a gallery-suitable outfit in her overnight bag. Her black lace pencil skirt and silver cashmere-blend tank top weren’t especially glamorous, but they packed well. After dressing, she hurriedly applied the barest amount of makeup and tied her curling hair back with a silver ribbon.
Back in the bedroom, she dumped her pajamas on the bed and slipped on a pair of silver snake-embossed leather ballet flats. Like most of her dressier clothes, they had been a gift from Olivia. She handed Duke her fake id, room key, and credit card.
“No pockets in the skirt and my purse doesn’t match,” she said, not sounding the least bit apologetic. She yelped when his cold knuckles brushed the inside of her knee. She jumped backwards and slapped at his hands. “What are you doing?”
“Your skirt is way too short, Vi.”
She rolled her eyes. Sometimes he was worse than Sebastian. “No it’s not, you overgrown hypocrite. Now, let’s get this over with.”
She left a message on Olivia’s voicemail so her siblings wouldn’t freak out when they returned from the restaurant and found her gone. Any attempt she made at small talk on the drive to the gallery was met with one-word responses or distracted grunts. After a few minutes, she gave up and stared at the cloudless sky. It was going to be a long night.
At the art gallery, Duke reluctantly handed the keys to his precious truck to the valet and reached for Viola’s hand. The strength of his grip bordered on desperate. She bit her lip to keep from whimpering and moved closer to his side.
“I’m not going to abandon you, you big baby.”
The pressure on her hand eased marginally. She resigned herself to the loss of feeling in her hand for the duration of the evening. Both flinched when they stepped inside the gallery and were immediately assaulted by elevator music. Forced laughter and chuckles along with the clink of glass did little to cover up the music.
“You owe me,” she muttered as they weaved in and out of the crowd in search of Isabel Duke Carrington.
“Suck it up, Shortcake.”
She briefly considered slipping free from his grasp and letting the crowd swallow her up. His thumb twitched. She huffed. Stupid paranoid telepath.
Duke froze. Viola’s nose slammed into his arm. She didn’t need to see Isabel. There was no mistaking the heavy rose-and-gardenia perfume the older woman used as her ‘signature’ scent. It burned the back of her throat and deadened her sense of smell.
“Hello, Mom,” Toby greeted politely. When his mother wrapped both arms around his neck, he didn’t relinquish his hold on Viola’s hand. The awkwardness of the embrace made it possible for him to break it sooner than his mother intended.
“Oh darling, you look wonderful.” Isabel patted his cheek. Tears sparkled in her pale blue eyes. The pastel pink gown that seemed to be nothing more than layers and layers of silk and chiffon reminded Duke of a tiered cake.
“You look great, too, Mom.” Floundering for something to say to keep the conversation going, he glanced around for his step-father. “Where is Pete?”
“I bent one of my wings. He’s off getting a replacement.” She giggled girlishly, swept an arm towards two watercolors on a nearby wall. “This is my fairy collection, so I chose to dress in character.” She patted the sparkly, diamond-studded tiara secured to her blonde head.
Viola popped up on her toes to reach Duke’s ear. “She knows fairies have fangs, right?”
“Oh?” Isabel gasped, pressed a hand to her heart theatrically. “Who’s this? You brought a date, Toby?”
“Mom, you remember Viola, don’t you?” Duke gave Viola a small shove in his mother’s direction.
“The Ashwood girl?” Isabel’s bright smile dimmed. She eyed Viola speculatively. “It is good to see you again, dear.”
“You too, Mrs. Carrington.”
“Toby, darling,” Isabel turned her attention back to her son, “whatever happened to that lovely Candace? I enjoyed our lunch together last spring.”
Viola snorted. She slapped a hand across her mouth to contain her laughter. Duke’s warning growl went ignored. “Candi? Fake tan, bleach blonde hair, blindingly white teeth?”
Isabel nodded dumbly.
"Candi!" Viola shook her head in disgust. “I can't believe you took a stripper to lunch with your mother.”
“Is that true, darling?” Isabel frowned. Viola was certain her forehead would have wrinkled had it not been recently Botoxed.
“I’m not seeing Candi any more Mom. It was a phase.” He squeezed Viola’s hand to keep her from giving anything else away. A plan sparked in his head. There was a way to get his mother off his back with a minimal amount of fuss. He smiled adoringly down at Viola. “I’ve moved on to better things.”
Viola was as confused as Isabel. Pretending to be a couple hadn’t been part of the plan. Before she could drag Duke aside to ask him what the hell he was doing, Isabel latched onto Viola’s free arm. Her smile was as false as half the breasts in the room.
“Oh, darling, I’m so glad that you’re settling down. Peter and I have been worried about you.” She tittered brightly. “Just remember that I’m too young for grandchildren.”
Viola paled. Duke kissed the top of her head. He’d have to alter his mother’s memory before he left the gallery, but it was a small price to pay for a night of peace. Fortunately, Viola was easily bribable.
“Come along, Viola, dear. I want to introduce you to a few of Peter’s associates and hear all about what you’ve been up to. How is your poor mother, by the way? Such a tragedy about your father. You know…”
Duke released Viola’s hand as his mother dragged her into the swarm of people. She craned her neck to glare fiercely at him. “You owe me for this, Tobias.”
He grinned, tucked his thumbs into his belt loops. “I know, sweetheart, I know.”