Okay, so it's my birthday, but I thought I'd give y'all the present.
I have been utterly swamped with work, getting ready for my trip, and working on both Mistress of Malice and Mercy and my contemporary romance (which I may start posting snippets of, if you'd like). I did manage to get this very short, early Duke & Viola piece done.
A noisy, crowded outdoor party in The-Second-Wheatfield-Beyond-The-Middle-Of-Nowhere, Oklahoma was the last place Duke wanted to be. Since he’d stopping traveling with the Ashwoods, though, Bert had made it clear that Duke needed to make sure his Trackers remembered his name and his face. Tommy Calhoun, Duke’s eyes and ears in the Oklahoma City area, had invited him to their pre-busy summer season bash.
He took a sip from his plastic cup of warming beer and ignored the sweat trickling down his spine. Though the sun had set over an hour earlier, it was hot even a good distance from the bonfire they’d lit before the first stars twinkled. He nodded at a pair of Trackers he remembered attending one of his database training sessions.
He opened his mouth to start a conversation, when an unforgettable, feminine laugh reached his ears. His jaw snapped shut. Muscles tense, he whipped out his phone and tapped out a text message to his high school best friend Sebastian Ashwood: Where are you?
‘Shreveport,’ came the one word answer.
Duke blew out a sigh of relief. He was always happy to have a six-hour drive between him and Sebastian’s little sister, his nemesis/friend/sorta-trainee. Relaxed, he asked the two closest Trackers about the funniest thing that had happened on their last rotation and forgot all about hazel-eyed, Goth-wannabe imps.
Forty minutes later, he edged closer to the bonfire. The heat was no longer unbearable, and the sweat drying on his back was actually a little cool. He stopped dead in his tracks at the sound of that impossible, unmistakable laugh. His head swiveled around as he tried to find the source of the laughter. If the party hadn’t been so crowded, or full of people with unique abilities like his own, he would have dropped the extra-thick walls surrounded his mind. Her mind was usually the most chaotic in any room, and he knew the feel of her brain as well as he knew his own.
His feet carried him to a grouping of fifteen or so men a dozen feet from the fire. Salsa music, oddly enough, blared from the open windows of the ancient pickup truck that doubled as the bar. A smaller fire had been built specifically for the smokers in the group. The heavy blend of cigarette and cigar smoke made his eyes water, but it was what he saw near the center of the circle that made the breath catch in his throat.
A slim, dark-haired gypsy in a long, gauzy pink skirt, matching halter, and jingling bracelets grabbed the hand of the nearest Tracker and dragged him into her dance. Her skirt whipped around her calves and her loose hair, curling in the humidity, bounced around her grinning, elfin face. When her dance partner planted large, calloused hands on the bare skin between the hem of her skirt and her shirt and dipped her, she threw her head back and laughed merrily.
Duke’s plastic cup crumpled in his hand. He shook off the warm beer and elbowed his way into the circle. It was obvious that every man watching her dance was under her spell. He longed for a water hose or a bucket of ice. A growl rumbled low in his chest.
He expected her to notice him right away. He waited for her eyes to widen with surprise, for her cheeks to flush with shame and not giddiness, and for her to gravitate to his side like she always did. He mentally prepared a lecture on attending parties like this without a chaperone.
Viola Ashwood, lost in the music and the three sweet, high-octane drinks she’d downed earlier, never glanced in his direction. When her dance partner shuffled back to his friend, she simply spun and grabbed the nearest arm. The short, stout man was good for a turn around the fire before he pecked her flushed cheek and slipped out of her grasp.
Freer than she’d felt in over a decade, she giggled to herself and reached out blindly for a new partner. Fingertips hitting skin and coarse hair, she trailed her hands down until she was able to lace her fingers between rough, warm digits and yanked. The palms pressed against hers were familiar, but she chased away that thought as soon as it skittered through her mind. She was at the party to forget about Tobias Duke, not pretend that every man was him.
Her newest partner was surprisingly good. He lacked the awkward reluctance of the others and seemed to anticipate her moves. She smiled beatifically at her partner and lifted her mascara-laden lashes. If she was lucky, it was one of the downright edible Cooper boys who’d been flirting with her all night.
She gasped at the furious blue eyes blazing back at her. The hands twined with hers tightened until they were almost painful. Her heart sped up and her knees turned to jelly momentarily. Courage, bolstered by alcohol, stiffened her spine when Duke dragged her out of the circle. She dug her heels into the soft, red clay.
“Wait a minute, Tobias!”
He didn’t pause for a second. She twisted her hands quickly and pulled herself backwards with surprising strength. Before Duke could grab her again, she disappeared into the crowd. Bewildered, Duke rubbed the back of his neck. It wasn’t like Viola to run away from him.
He found her an hour later slumped on a hay bale next to a dozing, behemoth of a farm boy. The man’s thick, tanned arm was wrapped around Viola’s waist and his beefy bicep acted as her pillow. Four empty cups were piled near her feet; she’d lost one of her delicate, silver sandals and her pink-painted toes were dusted with red dirt.
“Knew you’d fin’ me,” she slurred, peering at him through half-lidded, bloodshot eyes.
He exhaled slowly, reined in his temper. If he came across too harsh, she’d only run. Or get the behemoth to break his jaw. She was unpredictable when mad or drunk.
“I will always find you, Vi,” he responded, not sure whether he meant that as a threat or a promise. Given the rollercoaster of emotions she evoked in him, it was a fifty-fifty split.
“Now who’s th’ stalker?”
Duke perched on the edge of bale in front of Viola. He leaned in close only to pull away at the alcohol fumes wafting off her. “Woah! You’re plastered.”
Her head shot up at the accusatory tone. Her nose crinkled and she kicked half-heartedly at his shins. “’M legal,” she reminded him archly. “Nothin’ you can do ‘bout it now.”
The behemoth’s arm snuggled her back against his chest. Duke’s hackles rose. He stuffed his fists in his pockets to keep from knocking the farm boy away from Viola. “What are you doing here, Shortcake?” He hoped the old nickname would get her to open up. He wasn’t used to not being able to read her thoughts or have her babble on about every idea racing through her mind.
“I,” she started, voice quiet but resolved, “am getting over you.”
Duke’s stomach twisted. He tried to tell himself that he was glad Viola was finally going to stop pestering him with her crush, but something like disappointment settled heavily in his heart. “Vi, sweetheart…”
“And Mikey here’s gonna help me,” she continued.
“It’s Gil.” The behemoth didn’t even open his eyes as he corrected her.
“Whatever.” Viola reached up to tickle the short hair at the nape of Gil’s neck. “Gil is gonna help me f’get all about your stupid face and your stupid hero’sm and your stupid smile and your stupid…”
“Eyes?” Duke suggested helpfully when she floundered.
“Everything,” she seethed.
Duke’s patience was wearing thin. He surged to his feet and grabbed her arm. “Come on, Vi. I’m driving you to Shreveport.”
“Wha’s in Shreveport?”
She shuddered. “He and Amy are cel’bratin’ their ann’versary.”
Viola shrugged. “I dunno.”
Duke sighed. He was glad his hotel room had two beds. He’d drag Viola back with him, but she was going to have to deal with the hangover on her own. His charity only extended so far.
Gil slowly opened an eye when a Viola disappeared from his grasp. He stared at the swaying, sleepy girl and the angry, blond man holding her up. He recognized the regional head and scratched his chin speculatively. “She yours, boss?”
Duke hesitated. If he said no, there was the potential for jaw-breakage. Saying yes meant… a lot of things he didn’t want to think about surrounded by drunkards and cow patties. “In a way.”
“Am I going to regret letting her go with you?”
“Not as much as I am,” Duke groaned. “Trust me, not near as much as I am.”
The next morning, Viola awoke to a dark, quiet room. A bottle of Tylenol, a bottle of water, and the keys to her rental car were on the nightstand. The trash can was on the floor beside her head. Duke wasn’t in the room, but the faint scent of his soap lingered in the air. She clamped the pillow over her face. Her plan had been a complete failure. She didn’t remember much of the party, and she was dirty, nauseous, sore, and as in love with Duke as she’d ever been.