Friday, December 14, 2012

Christmas Fluff

This is post-Daughter of Deception and pre-The Chaos Child & Mistress of Malice and Mercy

Tobias Duke stood on the side porch, just outside the kitchen, mouth agape and eyes comically wide.  When he’d left to deliver a dinner package to the team on Christmas Eve rotation, his wife had been firmly ensconced on the couch watching a ‘50s holiday cartoon.  There were a few decorations around the living room, and a massive, needle-dropping tree wedged in beside the fireplace.  He’d expected to come home to a similar sight. At some point in the two hours he’d been gone, his wife had been body-snatched by a twisted Goth Christmas elf, the pages of North Pole Living had exploded all over his house, and someone had taken to torturing dogs on the radio.

“You’re letting all the cold air in,” the Viola-shaped Christmas Demon snapped, brandishing the floppy, gingerbread man end of a spatula.

Despite the lighted, black-and-purple Santa hat, red-and-green striped tights, and holiday sweater, it was his wife’s voice.  Duke shuffled into the house, but kept on his leather jacket.  With his crappy luck, Christmas Demons exploded into showers of tinsel or something.

Finn, a set of reindeer antlers bobbing on his head, ambled through the kitchen and flopped onto the red-and-green bed under the built-in desk. Bells jingled when Finn rested his head on his paws.  For the first time in his life, Duke felt a pang of sympathy for Viola’s mutt.  

The Christmas Demon twirled away from the stove and beamed up at Duke.  Her eyes were twinkling and she smelled like nutmeg.  It was a shame she was a wife-stealing demon.  Duke enjoyed the way Viola’s whole face lit up when she was happy and nutmeg was a comforting scent.  He was going to regret making the Christmas Demon regret invading his house.

“Did Johnny and Juan enjoy the tamales?  Did you give them the pumpkin bread?” The Christmas Demon asked.  “You forgot the salsa, but by the time I found it in the fridge, I figured you were over halfway there.”

Duke blinked.  He closed his mouth, opened it.  He licked his lips before closing his mouth again.

“Tobias?”  The Christmas Demon extended an arm.  Holiday-themed charms dangled from a silver chain.  A small, warm hand tipped with red-and-white nails pressed against his forehead.  “Are you all right?  Did something happen to you?”

“To me?”  He wrapped his fingers around the Christmas Demon’s wrist and tugged it away from his face.  “What happened here?  It’s like someone killed Christmas Cheer, resurrected it, and set the zombie loose in the house.  And then they shoved the spirit of Baldor the Demented Elf inside you.  And then they attacked the Christmas station so that every song comes out sounding like it’s being sung by screaming cats.  I thought we were having a nice, quiet holiday.”

The Christmas Demon - Viola - deflated instantly.  She tugged her wrist out of Duke’s grasp and shoved her hands in the pockets of her green shorts.  The hat slipped down on her forehead obscuring her eyes.  “Sorry. “

“Vi,” Duke sighed, reaching for her.  She scurried backwards, shoulders hunched in and pigtails drooping.

“Run down to the store to pick up another half-gallon of milk, and I’ll take care of it.”

He started to say something, but the screaming on the radio was just too much. He snatched the stereo’s remote off the counter and shut the music off.  The sudden silence was a balm to his ringing ears. 

“Milk,” she repeated, eyes fixed on the Christmas tree mat on the floor.


“Whole milk, please.  I need it for the fudge.”


Her shoulders quivered and her eyes squeezed shut.  He tamped down his irritation.  He was cold, confused, and, thanks to the mouthwatering aromas filling the kitchen, starving.  Was that mulled cider he smelled?  And gingerbread?  And what was that she’d said about fudge?

“Please.”  She swallowed, lifted her head a fraction.  “Just go get the milk, Tobias.  I’ll clean up this and talk to Granny.”

“Granny?”  What did his grandmother have to do with the Christmas Horror Invasion?

“She called while you were out.  Asked if we wanted to have dinner.  I invited her over here.  I ran up to the attic and got my boxes and I guess I went a little overboard.  I just thought that since the holiday is all about family….”  She shrugged, hung her head again.  “It doesn’t matter.  I should have asked you or told her no.”

“Vi, it’s fine.  I don’t mind spending Christmas with Granny.  I usually do.  I was keeping it low-key for you.  You don’t care much for Christmas, so I wasn’t going to force it down your throat.”  That had been his reasoning, but the words sounded wrong.  What was it?  What was he missing?  There had been another reason he’d wanted to spend Christmas alone with his new wife.

She perched on the edge of a stool.  Somewhere along the way, the stool had acquired a big, red felt bow. “It’s my favorite holiday.  At least it was until, well, you know.  Livy tried but we never really celebrated it much because Mom was in the institution and Dad was gone.  Kinda hard to celebrate when almost half your family is gone.  I just thought that now… I don’t know… it would be nice to try again.”

He was an idiot.  The biggest idiot on the planet.   How had he forgotten teasing her about her Christmas obsession?  He’d even helped her hang lights outside her bedroom window one year, and another year he and Sebastian had cut down a small pine tree for her to put in her room.  She’d carried candy canes in her pockets and had been one of the first to memorize his “Twelve Days of Tracking Christmas” song.  Then her father had gone missing, four days before Christmas, and that had been the end of Santa’s gothiest elf.

“What did you do last Christmas, Vi?”


He arched an eyebrow.  His wife was a bundle of perpetual energy.  She never did nothing.  “Come on, Vi.”

“I bought myself a Christmas present or three from the liquor store across the street from the hotel and spent Christmas Eve watching It’s a Wonderful Life.  I don’t remember anything else until Boxing Day.”

He looped his arms around her waist and rested his chin on the top of her head.  “You could have told me you wanted to go all out for Christmas, sugar.  One word, and this place would have made Macy’s jealous.”

“I didn’t know I wanted it until Granny called.  We were talking about tamales and queso and eggnog, and it just hit me.”

Duke leaned back, lifted her chin, and pressed his lips to hers.  She tasted like candy canes and sugar cookies.  Her eyelids fluttered against his cheeks and she sighed happily against his lips.  He pulled back and flicked the fuzzy ball on her hat. 

“The Duke Family Christmas Extravaganza is on.  Hold on to your stockings, sugar.”  He grabbed the remote, hesitated.  “Maybe without the Manic Mutts murdering ‘White Christmas’.”


By the time Granny arrived, there was a gingerbread army lined up on the counter, mulled cider steaming in the crockpot, and a tower of fudge cubes on the table.  Bing Crosby’s crooning was the perfect complement to the laughter and teasing.  Once the tamales were gone and the eggnog had been liberally laced with rum, Duke led the procession to the living room.

Skulls-and-crossbones, bats, and Goth Gabby ornaments were interspersed between the silver balls and tiny cowboy boots on the tree.  Granny had made Viola a stocking to match the one she’d made for Duke nearly three decades earlier, though hers looked like it had been purchased at the Halloween store.

He was distracted by Finn’s attempt to get a gold bow off his tail and missed the bright red gift bag Viola grabbed from under the tree.  It wasn’t until he heard Granny’s bark of laughter and Viola’s squeal that he turned back around.  Viola’s face was as red as the bag and she was elbow-deep in the present.

“Oh, sweet mercy.”

Oh.  Yeah.  There had been another reason he’d wanted to spend Christmas Eve alone with his wife.  Something about the tree and the fireplace and the lights down low…

“Vi, sugar…”

“Seriously, Tobias?  Tassels?”

Vi’s Fudge Recipe
·   2/3 cup cocoa
·   3 cups sugar
·   1/4 teaspoon salt
·   1-1/2 cups whole milk
·   1/4 cup butter
·   1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Grease an 8” dish.  Combine cocoa, sugar & salt in a large, heavy saucepan.  Stir in whole milk and bring to a rolling boil - STIR CONSTANTLY!!  Boil, without stirring, until you reach soft ball stage (234°F  or if small bit turns into a soft ball in cold water) Don’t stir.  Take off the heat.
Add butter and vanilla to mixture.  DON’T STIR!  Let it cool to until the pan is almost cool  to the touch.  Beat until it gets thick and matte.  Spread in pan.  Let it harden and then cut into squares.


Monday, November 19, 2012


I have to be honest.  For a few weeks I feared that I was never going to get Mistress of Malice and Mercy finished.  I started a new job in June (this was after quitting my job of nearly 11 years in March and working a "transition" job for a few months), and I started taking a few classes in September.  Add to that the volunteer World War II transcriptions I do for my grandfather and a museum here in Texas plus the other side projects I talk myself in to and I was feeling pretty overwhelmed. 

I couldn't give up on it, though.  I love Duke and Viola so much, and they have been a part of my life for almost five years now.  I knew how the story (and the series) were supposed to end, but I couldn't take that final step to get there. 

I am so happy that it is out there for all of you to enjoy that I can't stop grinning.  Fortunately, my coworkers know what a dork I am.  Daughter of Deception and The Chaos Child went through minor revamps to match the format of MMM, as well.

To celebrate, I am giving away 5 copies of the entire series (PDF only) and 10 copies of Mistress of Malice and Mercy (PDF only).  I will randomly draw a name from commenters who can answer this question:  What is Viola's middle name (the answer can be found in the backstories on the blog, especially the one from December 1983.  Hint:  think Greek).

Contest Ends 11/30/12.

If you don't want to comment, you can always email me at

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Mistress of Malice and Mercy

It is a year overdue, but it is up at Amazon and I am working on BN & Smashwords.  If you are having a hard time with it and want it in PDF, just shoot me an email.

Thank all of you for sticking with me throughout all of this.  Y'all are truly amazing.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

A view from the end

Mistress of Malice and Mercy is done.

Yes, you read that right.  It's done.  All I'm waiting on is the cover art (Viola will be on the cover of this one... I'm so excited and nervous I can hardly stand it) and a few final edits.

To celebrate with y'all (since I can't pour you each a glass of the wonderful Texas red wine I'll have tonight), I'm posting a snippet from the last chapter.

But first... I struggled with how I wanted to end this story because it is the end of the series.  I worried about making it dramatic and final, but when the time came to actually write the chapter, it was so much easier than I feared.  It comes back to how it started:  a guy, a girl, and a pack of demons. 

- - -

“Who do we have to kill?” Duke murmured in her ear.

“A pack of Nverns,” Viola said, reading the messages on her screen.

The duvet lifted.  Cold air wafted over her back and chest.  Duke’s head loomed over hers.  “How in the hell did a pack of Nverns get your phone number?” 

 “I think the better question would be how they managed to use the phone,” she countered, wriggling her fingers at him.  “They have crab claws, remember?”

Duke flopped down beside her, shoving her head to the edge of the pillow.  “Who do we know brave enough to interrupt our vacation?”  He scrubbed a hand over his face.  “The vacation we made very, very clear that we earned.”
“Tom.  He says there’s a pack of Nverns nearby.   The Trackers in the area aren’t equipped to deal with them.”
Duke scowled at the ceiling.  “How does Tom know where we are?  I thought we made him promise not to try to locate us?  You even had that ridiculous pinky-swearing ceremony.”

Viola wriggled guiltily.  She and Duke had agreed to limit their access to technology, but she was so behind on her emails that the thought of falling even further into the hole made her skin crawl.  She’d taken advantage of every moment alone and scrolled through her inbox, reading important emails and deleting spam messages.


“There may or may not be a website devoted to  Chaos Child sightings.  It may or may not have been started by that nice Grakken couple we helped in El Paso.  Tom may or may not have emailed me the link four days ago.”

“I may or may not kick your ass,” Duke growled, rolling over to pin her arms to the mattress.

“Pack of Nverns,” she reminded, though she was tempted to let him try.  She ran her toes along the back of his calf, chuckled when his pupils dilated and a growl rumbled in his chest.  “I brought my new pants.”

“And the vest?”

“Yup.”  She reached up to trace the curve of his lips.  “In the unlikely event you manage to kill more Nverns than I do, I’ll show you what it looks like without the t-shirt underneath.”

“You’re on.”

Before she could blink, he was off the bed and headed for the small closet.  Her Giivva hide pants landed on the bed followed a second later by the matching vest.  The soles of her heavy black boots thunked against the wooden floor when Duke set them beside the bed.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

MMM & Vacation

Here's a Mistress of Malice and Mercy snippet before I go on vacation.  I'm spending one day in New Orleans before I head up to my brother's wedding.  Expect to be bombarded with pictures.  Apologies in advance.  :)

I am going on a ghost tour in New Orleans and am staying in a haunted hotel.  I plan on touring several cemeteries.  Unlike Viola, I have no desire to spend time with ghosts, so I expect to get almsot no sleep while I'm there.  If you happen to see a hotel room with all the lights on at three in the morning, that'll be me.

MMM - Chapter Thirty-Nine

“You’re not half wrong.”  She hooked her ankle around his calf and wriggled until she was plastered against his side.  “I could stay here, like this, forever.”


“We’re in a cemetery.”


Soft laughter floated on the breeze.  “J’rain and Temek don’t mind.  They’ve peacefully moved on.”


“I wasn’t worried about them.”


Her fingers skipped across his waist until they reached his belt buckle.  She traced the engraving for a moment before deliberately slipping southward.  “You know, back when I was in high school I had this recurring fantasy.  I’d sneak out of the house and you’d follow me and we’d argue and then you’d…”


He snatched her hand up and tucked it against his chest.  “We are not making out in the cemetery, Viola.”


“You’re no fun.”


He kissed her fingertips, moved his lips to the pulse fluttering at her wrist.  “I’ll make it up to you.”


“You’d better.”

Monday, October 8, 2012


She half-heartedly kicked his ankle. “I don’t need you to protect me all the time, Tobias.”


“Oh please,” he huffed, “you’ve been a trouble magnet since the day you were born. Sebastian and I spent most of the ‘90s rescuing you from one scrape or another. At times I swore you went looking for danger.”


Her warm breath tickled his neck when she laughed. She hooked her fingers through his belt loops and blocked out Sebastian’s gagging. “Can you blame me? I had my very own Prince Charming, complete with white horse and faithful sidekick. Besides, you know you enjoyed playing the hero.”


“I did.” He nipped her bottom lip, savored the way she melted against him. “Protecting you is second nature; don’t ask me to stop now, sugar. I don’t think I can.”


Thursday, October 4, 2012

Viola and Sebastian in Mistress of Malice and Mercy

While the relationship between Duke and Viola is undoubtedly one of the most important in the series, the one between Viola and Sebastian is important.  The first incarnation of this series actually focused more on the Ashwood siblings and Duke was a secondary character (you see how well that turned out - sometimes I think he's more of a drama queen than Sebastian).  When their father disappeared and their mother lost her grip on sanity, the Ashwood siblings broke.  They didn't break in the same way, which is something I wanted to explore and I don't think I got a chance to do.  Ah well, who is going to complain about an excuse to write another Ashwood book?

I am probably in the minority, but I adore the relationship between Sebastian and Viola.  Of the siblings, they are the most alike, though there are some marked differences.  Amy's death split them, but there were cracks that started long before Elrachaim killed her.  Viola wanted to break with her siblings before that showdown.  Sebastian wanted to stop searching for their father and settle down to start a life with Amy.  They were drifting apart and poor Olivia was stuck trying to hold them together.

In The  Chaos Child, Sebastian and Viola try to work out some of their issues but things aren't easy because of his Dreamless Sleep addiction and the matter of trying to rescue Olivia.  In the end, she tells him that she knows he'll never trust her again and that they won't have the relationship they once had.  He surprises her by sticking around, and I think he'll surprise you in Mistress of Malice and Mercy

I also adore their teasing - it's not quite the same as her banter with Duke because there is an edge to it, but there is always affection.  This is one of their scenes together in MMM:
Tears stung Viola’s eyes. The lump in her throat hurt and she wanted to bawl like a baby. She flung her arms around Voltnor’s neck and dragged him down into a bear hug. “I love you guys so damn much.”
“Whoa there, little sister,” Sebastian teased. “Let’s not say things like that with Duke around. I’m not sure who I’d pick in that fight.”
She spun around and threw herself at Sebastian. He stumbled back a few steps but quickly regained his balance. Her arms and legs were like vices around his neck and knees. “I love you, too.”
“Hormones?” Sebastian asked an amused Voltnor.

”I would not dare presume to...”

Viola reared back to glare at her brother only to freeze when she caught a glimpse of his black eye and busted lip. His left cheek was puffy. Still clinging to him, she arched an eyebrow and drummed her fingers on his shoulderblades.
“What in the hell happened to you? Sweet mercy, Seabass-the-stupid-ass, who did you piss off this time? I have warned you about getting snippy with the Yvaltas in the cabin across from yours. How many times do I have to tell you that you cannot, I mean cannot, tease them about their horns. Did you just stand there and let whoever it was kick your ass or did you at least try to defend yourself?”
Over her head, Sebastian rolled his eyes at Voltnor. “Hormones.”

Monday, September 24, 2012

Viola in The Chaos Child

My notes for my books aren't always in outline form.  Often I write short snippets of what a character is thinking or feeling at a certain point (which is where many of the back & side stories come from).
This is Viola in The Chaos Child when Duke is impaled:

Viola's life, for the most part, has been spent in flux. Growing up in the Network is never easy, but she's flexible. The motto Semper Gumby serves her well. She clings to a few constants - not many, but enough to get her through endless road trips, abandonment, and rebuilding her life. Her constants are this: her father loves her, Aunt Hattie always has her back, and Tobias Duke exists. She doesn't rely on his friendship or wish for his love (except when she does, of course). It's enough to know he's out in the world somewhere.

A month before her twenty-fifth birthday, she loses a constant. Aunt Hattie's decades of betrayal are revealed.  She repays that betrayal with torture and release.  Vengeance does little for the ache in her heart. Another constant is shaken. Her father isn't a victim but a cold, calculating monster. He loves her but hurts her, and she tries to separate Demon from Daddy. It's hard, though, when the devil wears a beloved face.  She's been Daddy's Girl all her life.  It's a hard title to lose.

The third constant evolves. Not only is Duke in the world, he's in her life. In her head. In her bed. He becomes her rock, her safe harbor, every cliché she can think of, her heart and soul. While her world crumbles around her feet, she wraps her arms around him and holds on for dear life (sanity). Throughout Sebastian's detox, anxiety over her father ( the Daddy-Demon), fearing for Finn's life, and guilt over Granny's injuries, her remaining constant runs through her mind like the chorus of the annoyingly catchy pop songs Olivia used to love (and there's more guilt added to the load). At least I have Duke. At least I have Duke. AtleastIhaveDuke. AtleastIhaveDuke.

Until one bright afternooon, she doesn't. An ambush. Folists (sweet mercy, haven't they done enough damage to the Duke family). A traitor in peril. That damned Duke honor. Before she can blink, he's on the ground with blood pooling around him and static in their link. The third constant wobbles. Flickers.

Viola's fists clench. Her heart stills. The breath catches in her throat. Fireworks burst behind her eyes, and heat sears her skin. Power bursts from its prison.  Without that last constant, her world dissolves into flames. Chaos.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

MMM Snippet

I have started on the last six chapters of MMM (which is poor timing on my part because college football season has started).  I adore this story, but I am worried because this is it for Duke and Viola (for now, at least) and I love them so much that I don't want to let them (or anyone) down.

Dinner was awkward, but not a disaster. Sebastian took pity on his brother-in-law and directed the conversation away from the Network and recent events. It was easiest for him since he was the only one, aside from Isabel, who’d tried to live without demons or ghosts. Fortunately, the Wfsals had agreed to eat their gumbo in Aggie’s bedroom. Sebastian had a feeling Viola’s bribe of pie and cartoons had a great deal to do with their compliance.

Isabel chatted about her latest gallery event but refrained from extending an invitation. She ignored the stab of disappointment when Duke didn’t press for details about her next showing. He’d never expressed much interest in her watercolor landscapes and portraits. She wondered if he’d believe that she had every issue of his comic book series tucked away in a drawer in Florida. She even had the handmade cards and school artwork he’d sent on his father’s prompting. Feeling he was wasting his talent didn’t mean she couldn’t appreciate it.

“I’ll make tea,” Viola offered while Sebastian and Duke cleared the table.

“No!” Duke flushed when all eyes fixed on him. It was possible he’d been a little too vehement. “I’ll make it, sugar,” he added in a much softer tone.

She rolled her eyes and followed him into the kitchen. “I’m not going to poison her in Granny’s house. That would be rude.”


“I mean, Granny dislikes her just as much as I do. She’s better at hiding it.” Viola retrieved a tin of mint and chamomile tea from the pantry. Under Duke’s suspicious stare, she measured out scoops of tea, filled infusers, and lined up five mugs. “If I poison your mom by myself, Granny’d feel left out. That’s not fair.”

“Bloodthirsty tonight, aren’t we?”

She shrugged, leaned back against the counter while he set the kettle on the stove. “It was a rough day. I need to go to the office tomorrow afternoon to see Becky, but I’m not going to Burkeholt. We can talk about it in the morning.”

“More bad news?”

“Some. Some of it’s stuff I – we – already suspected.” She snuggled against his side, slipped a hand into his back pocket. “I’m surprised your father isn’t here tormenting your mother.”

“Bowling night, remember? He said he’d stop by tomorrow to see if she was still around.”

“Lucky man,” she muttered. When the kettle whistled, she poured boiling water into each mug. After setting the timer over the stove, she returned to Duke’s side. “We have four minutes. Whatever shall we do with the time?”

His lips were pulled to hers as if drawn by a magnet. He ignored the dull ache in his shoulder and pinned her against the refrigerator door. “I have a few ideas, sweetness.”

The door separating the kitchen from the formal dining room swung open. A frustrated male sigh echoed off the walls. Sebastian slapped his hand across his eyes and spun back to face the door. “That’s it! I’m staying at Burkeholt tonight!”

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Too Much Science Channel

Want to know what happens when I stay up way too late watching the Science Channel?

That happens. 

There are rules she's supposed to follow: don't get close to other time travelers, never give out your name, timelines must be followed. She knows that loving her, getting too close, is dangerous so she tries to protect him. She is, after all, a guardian at heart. Despite her best intentions, she curses him to a fate worse than death. Utter nonsense.

Now it's back to MMM and Rocket Science and a werewolf story that completely came out of left field. 
And maybe I need to put "nap" on my to-do list. 

Hope y'all enjoy your Sunday!

Sunday, August 12, 2012


I listen to music when I write.  Most of the time, what I listen to depends on which part of the story I'm working on or the mood of the day.  Each book has a general theme, though.  For books in the Family Lies series, I listen to a lot of rock and "angry" music and some country music.  For Sometimes it is Rocket Science, it's usually a lot of old love songs (Rat Pack on repeat, much to my husband's consternation) and some Texas country.  I adore Jamie Cullum and have been listening to him for Rocket Science, but this song seems more appropriate for the Ashwoods. 

Friday, August 3, 2012

Family Lies Backstory

In Daughter of Deception, Duke mentions that Viola had a lobotomy, of sorts, shortly after graduation and turns into a Livy-clone for a while.  This is what prompted that change.
Asking Olivia Ashwood to be his date for the swanky, black-tie Network Council banquet had seemed like a good idea at the time.  She wouldn’t expect anything more than a walk back to her hotel room.  She knew enough about Tracking so that most of the conversations wouldn’t go over her head.  She knew which fork to use for salad, which spoon to use for the soup, and when to let her dance partner lead.  That she was a gorgeous blonde hadn’t hurt, either.
 He hadn’t had to ask the Ashwoods to meet him in Washington, D.C.  They were already in Baltimore chasing down a lead on their father’s location.  He’d offered to buy Olivia anything she needed for the last-minute dinner invitation, and she’d accepted.  It wasn’t surprising.  Olivia was a world-class shopper.

Sebastian was waiting in for Duke in the hotel lobby.  Uncomfortable in his tux, Duke perched on the edge of the paisley upholstered chair across from his oldest friend.  The piano music floating in the spacious lobby made his teeth ache, but he supposed he had to get used to it.  It was highly likely that he was going to spend the next four hours hearing the same thing.  Duke eyed Sebastian warily.
“You’re not here to give me a lecture or anything, are you?”

Sebastian arched an eyebrow.  “Do I need to?”

Duke caught himself mid eye-roll.  He’d been spending far too much time with the littlest Ashwood if that was his first reaction to something stupid.  “Livy’s coming with me as a favor.  As a friend.  Trust me, I don’t have any feelings of the romantic kind for your younger sister.”
Olivia glided out of the elevator and across the marble floor.  Pale rose satin fell in a straight line from her shoulders to her ankles.  Her long blonde hair had been curled and pinned back with rhinestone-studded silver clips.  Her jewelry was limited to diamond studs in her ears and a rope of silver around her neck.  The silver stilettos nearly brought her up to eyelevel.  Pink painted lips curved in a smile when she saw Duke.

Duke stood and offered Olivia his elbow.  “ It’s a good thing I have my FN,” he said, “I may have to use it to keep my date from being stolen.”

Olivia giggled.  She glanced back and forth between her stoic brother and tense date.  “All set here, boys?”

“Of course.  I was just assuring Prudeastian that I don’t have any wicked designs on his younger sister.”

Sebastian stared at Duke for a long, hard minute before nodding.  He kissed Olivia’s cheek, squeezed her hand.  “Have fun.  I had Vi brew a cup of Silent Night tea so don’t worry about waking me.”

“Thanks, Bas.”  Olivia returned the squeeze.  Her blue eyes were soft and serious.  “She said she needed another two minutes.  Do you want me to stay?”

Sebastian shook his head.  “No, no go ahead.  She’s been acting weird for two weeks.  I can handle another ten minutes or so.”

Duke led Olivia out of the lobby to where his rented black sedan was waiting.  He whistled at the BMW convertible parked beside him.  He wished he’d had the foresight to rent a convertible.  They weren’t practical for everyday use given his line of work, but he was on vacation.  Of sorts.  Like the gentleman his grandmother had taught him to be, he held open the car door while Olivia slid in the passenger seat.

“What’s up with Shortcake?” Duke asked once they were out of the parking lot and headed for restaurant the Council had rented out for the banquet.

“She’s fine.  That’s the problem.”  Olivia toyed with the strap of her tiny silver purse.  “Ever since graduation she’s been acting funny.  Calmer.  Not so Viola-like.”

“Maybe she’s maturing.”  Duke mentally congratulated himself for getting that out with a straight face.

Olivia wasn’t as restrained.  Gentle laughter filled the car.  “Bas and I are waiting for the other shoe to drop.  It’s driving him insane.”

“Maybe that’s part of her plan.”  Duke frowned, merged onto the freeway.  “Though she’s never been one for patience, subtlety  or particularly well-thought out plans.”

Two minutes later, the BMW zoomed past Duke.  He caught a flash of dark auburn hair and bright hazel eyes in the passenger window as the car zipped by.  He shook his head, forced a change of subject.  Too much talking about Viola Ashwood had him picturing her face on every brunette he saw.  It wasn’t good for his blood pressure.

At the restaurant, he handed his keys to the valet and escorted Olivia through the double doors.  The music was as he’d expected.  It was a shock to see so many Trackers, usually dressed in fluid-stained durable clothes, in tuxedoes, dresses, and jewels.  He snagged two flutes of champagne off a passing tray and handed one to Olivia.

“Are your shields up?” he asked, searching her face for signs of strain.  He’d learned from experience that when forced in the company of more than a handful of Trackers it was necessary build a series of think, impenetrable walls to protect his mind from intruders and mute his abilities.  Olivia didn’t have the same experience.

“Yes,” she murmured.  “They’re weak, but it’s okay.  Everyone’s so happy.  It’s infectious.”

Duke circulated with Olivia.  He enjoyed chatting with the region heads and senior Trackers from all over the country.  Though different areas had different demonic populations, there were enough commonalities to keep the conversation flowing.  He didn’t miss the way Olivia’s mouth tightened as the evening wore on or the boredom wafting from her like a cloud of cheap perfume.

He caught her staring off into space, eyes glazed and posture stiff, and frowned.  He only hoped the gentleman from Ohio regaling them with a tale of a Cedda hunt gone bad didn’t notice her inattention and take offense.  He tried shaking her arm to break her out of her daze.

He’d forgotten that while Olivia had grown up in the Network and still Tracked, it wasn’t a lifestyle choice.  She did it because she felt she had to protect her stubborn brother and reckless sister.   He would have been better off inviting an outsider.

“But why didn’t you use a gun?  Most metal alloys work on Ceddas,” a middle-aged, bearded Tracker from Idaho interrupted when the speaker paused to take a breath.

Two figures joined the cluster of Trackers.  Duke couldn’t see them clearly, there were too many heads obscuring his view.  A faint, familiar chaos brushed across the outer edges of his mind.  His fingers tightened around the champagne flute.

“Sure metal’ll kill a Cedda, but you’ll have a hell of a time finding a bullet that’ll penetrate their skin.  It’s like triple-thick Kevlar,” said one of the unseen newcomers, voice slightly smoky and with traces of Dixie stretching along the vowels. 

Duke gulped the rest of his champagne.  He nudged Olivia’s shoulder.  “Vi’s here,” he growled in her ear.

She jolted to awareness, blinked up at him with shiny eyes.  “Yes.  She came with Jeremy Whittier.  They’ve spent most of the week together.”

As a heated discussion on what the best way to kill a Cedda was started, enough people moved out of the way so that Duke could lay his eyes on his part-time nemesis, part-time best friend.  She’d cut her hair again and had arranged the short strands into messy spikes.  It should have made her look like a grubby hobo, but when combined with a dress that floated around her in shimmering shades of purple she looked like an elfin queen.   The strand of lavender pearls wrapped around her neck matched the ones looped around both wrists. 

Duke followed the masculine arm draped across her waist up to a pair of broad shoulders, neat bow tie, and a grinning face.  Jeremy Whittier’s grinning face. He distinctly remembered warning Whittier not to screw around with Viola.

“Hi, Tobias.”  Viola smiled up at him.  Unlike her sister, she’d chosen to wear flat shoes.  The ribbons wrapped around her ankles and twisting to disappear under the hem of her skirt looked fragile, but he wagered the shoes would hold up for a few hundred feet if she had to run.  Given that the girl was a danger-magnet, it was a sure bet trouble was only a heartbeat away.

“Vi,” he greeted gruffly before baring his teeth at Whittier.  “Whittier.”

“Livy, are you okay?  You don’t look well.”  Seemingly oblivious to the tension between the two Trackers, Viola slipped out of Whitter’s grip and laid a hand on her sister’s arm.  “Come on, let’s get you a glass of water or something.”

Thick, awkward silence filled the gap between Whittier and Duke.  “My father has pneumonia.  I flew in from Egypt last week when he was first hospitalized.  He’s home now, and I didn’t feel right leaving my family without a representative given that this is our region,” Whittier offered.  “Viola was kind enough to step up as my date.”

Duke snorted.  “A room full of Trackers talking about nothing but the Network.  You could have been a slimy Betzenal and she would have jumped at the chance to be your date.  This is her idea of heaven.”

“She does seem to be in her element doesn’t she?”  Whitter’s indulgent smile made Duke want to punch in those perfectly straight, perfectly white teeth.   Whittier leaned forward as if sharing a secret.  “The sister you came with may be the prettier one, but I think I got the better deal, my friend.  Beautiful and a Tracking-junkie.  The perfect combination.”

Duke set his glass on a nearby table and shoved his balled fists in his pockets.  “She’s only eighteen.”

“Which makes her perfectly legal in all fifty states.” 

Whittier straightened.  Duke didn’t need to turn around to know that Viola and Olivia had returned.  He could feel Viola despite the walls he’d set up.  She brushed by him and was immediately anchored to Whittier’s side. 

“Can we swing by and talk to Victor Reza from the So Cal region?  I want to ask him about that pack of Evvaboes they discovered last week,” Viola asked her date.

“Your wish is my command, milady.” 

Duke’s eyes burned holes into the back of Jeremy Whittier’s head.  He was inordinately grateful when he realized that he’d been seated two tables away from Whittier and Viola.  His relief only lasted through the soup course.  As plates of mouthwatering steak and fragrant vegetables were being served, Sawyer, a large man ten years older than Duke and the head of the Pacific Northwest region, jerked his head in Whittier’s direction.

“He’s a smart man keeping hold of that pretty little thing.  She saunters up looking like a goddess in that dress then spouts off about gutting Plankas and using their intestines as Warsaf bait.  I nearly dropped to my knees and asked for her hand right on the spot.”  Sawyer’s guffaw echoed off the walls.  Duke’s hand tightened around his fork.  “If she was in my region, I’m not so sure I’d have brought her here unless I was confident I could keep her from being lured away.  She’d be wasted on just any old Tracker.  That girl will make some region head a very happy man someday.”

“She’s an Ashwood.”  Duke bit out the name, letting the weight of its implications sink in.  Ashwoods were renowned for being self-absorbed, power-hungry, back-stabbing bastards.  He felt a momentary pang of guilt when Olivia inhaled sharply at his side.  Okay, so the three Ashwoods he hung out with weren’t like that – all the time – but it was the best way to derail the unmarried Sawyer’s train of thought.

Sawyer paused, chewed a bite of steak.  “No one’s perfect.  She’s young enough.  Habits can be broken.”

Duke viciously stabbed into his steak.  “She’s two tons of trouble stuffed in a hundred pound sack.  She’s impulsive and obstinate and too damn clever for anyone’s good.”  He fixed blazing blue eyes on Sawyer.  “Any smart man would run like hell in the other direction.  She’s an ulcer-in-waiting.”

When he glanced away, he caught a sharp, hazel gaze.  Viola glared.  Duke tensed, worried that she’d overheard.  He started to tear disassemble his walls and probe her mind when she stiffened, leaned back as if listening to someone no one could see.  Her lips moved but her voice was too quiet for him to hear over the cacophony of conversations.  She patted Whittier’s arm, slipped out of her chair.  Duke followed her to the alcove just outside the dining room.

“What’s wrong, Shortcake?”

Small hands darted under the hem of her skirt.  Duke averted his gaze.  When the rustling stopped she had two daggers, the ones he’d given her for her 18th birthday, in her hands.  “Jim used to be the valet here.  He got hit by a jackass in a Rolls a few decades ago.  Anyway, Jim hangs out in the parking lot.  Likes to mess with the ones he can tell are going to be bad tippers – change the radio stations or the volume and adjust the seats.  He’s friends with the ghost of a bellhop at the hotel two blocks down.”

“Point, Vi?” Duke interrupted.

“There are about a dozen Swesas headed this direction.”  She waved a hand toward the diners.  “Get Liv somewhere safe.”  She shook her head, made a grumble of disgust.  “I told her she’d never be able to do any fighting in that dress.  It’s too confining.”

“You dressed expecting an attack?”  Duke had to admit that the wispy skirt did allow for a full range of motion.  He was concerned about the thin straps holding up the bodice of her dress.  If one of them popped, there were a whole lot of eyes he’d have to gouge out… in defense of her honor.  In her brother’s stead.  As a friend.  He couldn’t get Sawyer’s voice out of his head.

“It’s a building full of Trackers from across the country.”  She shrugged.  “If I was evil, it’s what I’d do.”

Duke bobbed his head in agreement.  “You take care of your sister and hide.  I’ll sound the alarm.”

Viola rolled her eyes, slunk away.  Toward the doors.  Duke bit back a growl.  He didn’t have time to waste chasing after her.  He raced back into the dining room and right up to the head table.  In a matter of seconds, the atmosphere went from elegant and relaxed to heavy with charged energy and anticiptation. 

Duke, leading a group of ten Trackers, headed for the front door.  He caught sight of Viola’s back, curved with the strain of lugging something heavy, as she slipped out the doors.  A moment later, she raced back inside and threw the bolt to close the door.  Her dress was damp and her face was flushed but her smile was happy.

A loud boom rocked the building.  Smoke curled under the door.  Viola’s laughter followed it. 

“What’d you do?” Duke demanded.

“Took out the advance party.” 

She unlocked the doors and yanked them open.  Duke stuck his head out and spotted two charred corpses a foot away.  Smoke poured out of a large stockpot.  Three topiaries had been blown to smithereens.  Branches and clumps of green leaves littered the walkway.

Though the Swesas were outnumbered, the fight was hard.  The demons were large and refused to go down easily.  As the battle moved inside the dining room, Duke lost sight of Viola.  It wasn’t until the last Swesa had been beheaded and the nasty job of hauling bodies out the back started that he saw her again. 

She seated on the table with the melting ice sculpture, holding court over eight battered Trackers.  There was a bruise on her right cheek, a scratch across her collarbone, and blood streaked across her forehead, but her dress, fortunately, was intact.  His feet automatically moved in her direction, but stopped when Whittier appeared at her shoulder with a damp cloth and gently dabbed at the scratch on her collarbone.

A long, slender arm wrapped around his waist.  In contrast to his ripped tux and stained shirt, his date looked as immaculate as when they’d arrived.  Not even Olivia’s lipstick had smeared.  He was willing to bet she’d stayed barricaded in a bathroom stall until the fight was over.  Pink, perfect, passive and anti-Network, she reminded him of his mother.  Sebastian didn’t have to worry about Duke trying anything with Olivia.  He wouldn’t make his father’s mistake.

Olivia’s keen blue eyes followed his stare to a grinning, effervescent Viola.  She smiled knowingly, leaned in to whisper in his ear.  “Bas warned you off the wrong sister, I see,” she teased.  “Perhaps he should have given you the lecture he had planned for Jeremy.”

Duke turned, his lips almost brushing hers.  His mouth was twisted in a snarl only she could see.  “She’s… she’s Viola,” he said, as if that explained everything.

It did.  Olivia’s eyes twinkled.  “Yes.  She the headache-inducing,  demon-befriending, Network addict who just so happens to be in hopelessly love with you.”  Her long, manicured fingernails dug into his side.  “She’s also my baby sister.  You hurt her in any way and I will kill you.”

Neither noticed the wounded hazel eyes fixed on their huddled heads.  Neither noticed the tears that shimmered in those eyes before resolve stiffened Viola’s spine and squared her shoulders.  Neither saw Whittier’s wince as a wave of sorrow and jealousy hit him like a freight train.  Neither saw the way he helped her sneak out of the dining room.

 Three weeks later, the Ashwoods were back in Houston.  Duke dropped by the house to check in with Sebastian.  Viola answered the door.  At least, he assumed the girl in a pink sundress with pink painted nails and rose lipstick was Viola. 

“You’re a few months early for Halloween, Shortcake,” he teased as he stepped into the cool, dark house.

She giggled.  Giggled.  “You’re so funny, Toby.”  Her voice was light and completely devoid of sarcasm.  Completely devoid of the biting snark he expected.  Of everything that made her Viola.  She sounded like Olivia.

He paused, studied her for signs of injuries or possession.  His eyes narrowed as he remembered what Olivia had said in D.C. about the pod-Viola behavior.  “I’m on rotation tonight.  You want to tag along?”

Something in her lined-and-mascaraed eyes sparked.  He knew that spark.  It was the sort of anticipation only Trackers felt.  The spark died.  She shook her head, lips still curved in that plastic smile.  “Thank you,” she said politely, “but Olivia and I are going shopping and then we are going to a movie.  I appreciate the offer.”

She turned on her heel and disappeared down a hallway.  Duke stared after her.  He didn’t understand women.  Never would.  Teenage girls were even more of a mystery.  He shook it off and went in search of Sebastian.  As the summer continued, Viola morphed into a terrible amalgamation of Sebastian’s arrogance and Olivia’s cool detachment.  Duke forgot, for a while, why she’d been his favorite Ashwood and Sawyer’s words.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Mistress of Malice and Mercy Chapter 32

Chapter 32 of Mistress of Malice and Mercy is one of my favorites for several reasons - a fight, a turning point of sorts, and it starts out bloody but ends so sweet. 

- - - 

“Sugar,” Duke started, voice gravelly and low.

A tendil of longing skittered down her spine; she imagined hooded blue eyes and strong, welcoming arms. She’d lived like a gypsy for years while hunting her father and had started her business because it allowed her the luxury of travel, of never being tied to one place. Homesickness, not for the house or her apartment but for Duke, the only home she ever needed, made her throat tighten and her knees wobble.
“Yeah, Tobias?"

“Come home.”

 - - -
And we also get to see Viola offer up some wisdom... of sorts... to a demon in a similar situation

Orili remained silent. With a grunt, Viola studied the reticent Grimadore. The stony face and compressed lips didn’t give much away, but the combination of sorrow, anger and guilt swirling in his eyes was familiar. She saw it in the mirror whenever she thought of her father. Sympathy temporarily trumped dislike.

“You know him.”

Orili jerked like a puppet on a string. Encouraged by the reaction, Viola continued. “Not in the mortal enemy way, either. You know him. Looking at him right now hurts you. Not just because he’s been your oppressor but because on the outside he looks like the guy you knew but on the inside he’s a stranger. A monster.”

Orili nodded slowly. “You are truly wise, Lady Viola. He is my mother’s first son. We are half-brothers.”
Viola awkwardly patted his shoulder. “Family sucks.”

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Family Lies short - 8 years before Daughter of Deception

A gift for a friend who wanted a jealous and confused Duke.  This is an incident mentioned in Mistress of Malice and Mercy and features a main character from an eventual Network-verse book.

- - - - - 

Duke has always considered himself a fairly laid back person, all things considered. As long as his Trackers follow the rotation schedule, take care of the demons, and turn in their paperwork in a reasonable amount of time, he's content to let them be. When Max Sparks, his late grandfather's friend and a former member of the Network's elite International Threat Response team, says he's going to bring in Jeremy Whittier, son of the head of the New England region, for additional training during the summer, Duke doesn't think twice. He's actually a little pleased. People are coming to his region for training.

He does his region head duty and meets Whittier at the airport. The kid, only a year younger than Duke, is older than he'd imagined. Whittier’s cool and standoffish on the way to short-term parking, but warms up quickly when discussing his impending transfer to the ITR and defending his beloved Patriots. Whittier doesn't want to join the ITR to get away from his jerkwad father, but because he genuinely wants to help areas that do not have a permanent Network presence. By the time Duke pulls his truck into Max Sparks' driveway, Duke's thoughts have blossomed into full-fledged respect for the younger man. Despite his terrible taste in football teams.

Max is waiting for them on the front porch. So is a familiar, sulking black-clad girl. With school out, they've created a rotation of their own. Sebastian Ashwood calls it "Viola-watch." Duke has a few other names for it he'll never speak aloud. The theory is that if they keep the teen occupied she won't get into trouble. Into much trouble. Max, bless his masochistic heart, has volunteered for most of the daytime shifts. Whittier and Duke walk up to the porch just in time to catch the tail end of an argument.

"But he had a broken ankle," Viola protests, tone edging towards a whine.

"Yes he did, but you know better than to rush a wounded creature. You're lucky all he did was crack a rib and dislocate your shoulder," is Max's patient response.

Duke's eyes snap to Viola’s torso. Nothing looks out of place, but he doesn't miss the way she holds herself so straight and still. Duke has a thousand adjectives he uses to describe the littlest Ashwood, but 'still' isn't one of them. Once he's certain she's not going to die - the paperwork for that is terrifyingly complicated and her brother would be a pain in the ass to deal with - his eyes drift to the young Igral dozing by the toes of her combat boots. Ace bandages are wrapped around the hairless, goat-sized demon's left ankle.

"What'd you do, Vi?"

"I just wanted to help."

Her lower lip juts out in a pout that never fails to have her brother and sister falling over themselves but only makes Duke arch a blond eyebrow. He’s immune to most of her tricks. "Admirable, Shortcake, but stupid. How's the shoulder?"


It's a lie. Dislocated shoulders hurt like a bitch, but he'll let it slide and won’t wound her pride. He knows Max, ridiculously overprotective of his jeopardy-friendly mentoree, would have marched her to the doctor if the injury was serious. He offers Viola a ride home, shrugs when she declines, and moseys back to his truck while Max makes introductions. With his rotation schedule thrown off by Trackers taking summer vacations, he gets so busy he forgets all about Whittier being in town.

Two weeks later, he's at the Ashwood house doing paperwork in the kitchen with Sebastian. He'd prefer to do the reports on his own, but this is the best way to make sure Sebastian fills out everything correctly and doesn't skip over sections. Viola, dressed in a pair of bike shorts three inches too short and a size too small and a t-shirt that looks like it shrank in the dryer, breezes into the kitchen. Her face is flushed and damp with sweat and her smile could light up half the city.

"Hey, Bas." She ruffles his hair affectionately as she passes on her way to the fridge. After twisting the cap off a bottle of orange sports drink and taking a swig, she sags against the counter. "It's hot out. I mean hot. Should have gone for a run earlier, but we were up way too late. I think it's going to rain later. Good thing you're not on rotation tonight, huh? Sucks for me and Max and Fred and Jeremy, though. It's okay, I guess, a little rain never hurt anyone. Unless you’re a Lhba. Max says that he's considering telling Fred to stay home. He plans on letting Jeremy and me do most of the work anyway. Which is just awesome. You should have seen the way Jeremy handled that Rigalin on Monday. He... I mean it was gorgeous."

Duke knows his mouth is gaping, but he can't help it. Viola isn't usually a chatterbox. Since her father's disappearance a year earlier, she's grown angrier and difficult to talk to about anything but Tracking. He starts to dip into her mind, braces himself for the defenses she's annoyingly adept at building, and nearly falls out of his chair when he finds the gates thrown wide open. Who did she let her guard down for? He glances at the thoughts zipping around at light speed and retreats.

"Are you high?"

Viola jolts, smiles sheepishly at Duke. "Sorry, Toby. Didn't know you were there."

Duke blinks. Not know he was there? Viola always knows when he's within a ten-mile radius. He's accused her of having a special Duke-radar because she's constantly in his face. How had she walked into the house without knowing he was already inside? "Are you drunk?"


She pauses, starts to say something else, but the trill of her cell phone cuts her off. She checks the display. The way her eyes brighten and giddiness practically rolls off her skin makes Duke's stomach churn. As soon as she's out of the room, he's going to beat the hell out of Sebastian for neglecting to tell him that Viola had been possessed.

"Jeremy? No, I made it home just fine. Told you I would. You're so sweet. It was a good run. I’m glad you could keep up with me." Phone tucked between her ear and her shoulder, she skips out of the kitchen with her bottle of sports drink. Bubbly laughter trails in her wake.

As soon as she's out of earshot, Duke slugs Sebastian in the shoulder. "What's wrong with your sister?"

"There's nothing wrong with Vi."

"She just giggled, man. Giggled." Duke doesn't point out that she didn't notice him. As much as he complains about Viola's crush on him, he knows he'll never hear the end of it if he complains about the lack of attention.

"Oh, that." Sebastian shrugs, twirls his pencil. "She's been like that since Jeremy came to town. She's over at Max's all the time, which I don't mind, honestly. When she comes home, it's always 'Jeremy-this' and 'Jeremy-that.' I don't mind that much, either. She seems happier, which let me tell you, is something we never thought would happen."

"Who is Jeremy?" Duke's voice drips with ice.

"Jeremy Whittier. The kid from Boston."

"He's not a kid! He's twenty-one! She’s seventeen."

When Sebastian only shrugs again, Duke flings himself back in the chair and crosses his arms over his chest. Whittier has no business getting involved with Viola. He's leaving the country at the end of the summer. The ITR is dangerous and he'll be out of touch for months at a time. He shouldn't be messing around with a teen girl's heart only to shatter it later. Especially considering that heart belongs to the girl who... Duke shakes his head, stops that thought before it can fully form.

Duke tries to let it go. Viola isn't his sister or his partner. She’s just a friend, sometimes, when she isn’t driving him up the wall. He tells himself that he should be glad she's following someone else with those puppy eyes and undisguised adoration. He tells himself that he's glad she isn't dogging his every step and pestering him with questions or contradicting him. He goes out with long-legged, blue-eyed Pauline, who never argues with a word he says, and spends his whole night trying to pick a fight. When he drops her off at her doorstep and ignores the come-hither look in her wide eyes, he can't help but wonder what a certain hazel-eyed girl is doing at that moment. The next morning, he invites her out for a quick sweep of an area that's teeming with activity, but she turns him down. Flat. For breakfast with Jeremy. Duke very nearly throws his phone against the wall.

The same thing happens four days later. He's not used to Viola saying no. When he subtly questions Sebastian about Viola's pod-behavior, his friend cheerfully relates that Viola has taken to spending every waking hour, and a night or two, at the Sparks residence. Olivia, taking a break from summer classes to do laundry and cook a week of meals for her culinary-deficient brother, adds that she'd been surprised when Viola didn't cancel a planned shopping trip. She'd even had to talk the tomboyish Viola out of an indecently short leather skirt, though they had picked up a "cute" sundress. A pastel sundress. Duke chokes on his beer.

Six weeks into Jeremy Whittier’s stay in Houston, Duke's had enough. Max's annual summer barbecue seemed like the perfect time to quietly watch Viola and her Jeremy, but Duke can't hold his tongue anymore. Whittier and Viola haven't been apart from each other's side since the party started. Duke's jaw twitches every time she flutters her eyelashes or smiles that wide grin that used to be reserved just for him. He'd like to throttle Olivia for letting Viola buy that sundress. The skirt may not have looked short in the store, but the light summer breeze lifts it so that it twirls high above her knees with irritating regularity.

Muscles tense, jaw clenched, and spine stiff, he stalks across Max's backyard towards the laughing duo. Viola's eyes flick up to him, but the delight that sparkles in them is only a quarter of its usual luminescence. "Hey, Toby."

"Vi. Whittier." Duke inclines his head at the younger man, pinning him in place with his glare. "Max was looking for you, Shortcake. He said something about running out of potato salad."

Having taken over as hostess for her widower mentor, Viola frowns. "Damn. Thought I bought enough. Thanks, Toby." She pops up on the toes of her sparkly silver sandals to peck Whittier's cheek before prancing off.

"She's a good kid," Duke starts.

"She's wonderful," Whittier corrects, eyes following an auburn head as it bobs through the crowd.

"She's a good kid," Duke repeats, making sure to put the emphasis on the right word.

"She's not a kid. You'd better not let her hear you say that. Not only would she kick your ass, but it's wrong. The law may say she's just a kid, but she doesn't Track like one. I've seen guys twice her age with about half the level of training or competency she has."

Stung by the reprimand, Duke's glare intensifies. "That doesn't give you the right to toy with her. A summer fling may sound like fun, but when you run off to join the ITR, you're going to break her heart. If she's as wonderful as you say, she doesn't deserve that. She’s been through enough. I know it can be intoxicating having a pretty girl flatter you and cling and hang on to your every word, but - ."

"Is that what you think this is?" Whittier interrupts firmly, voice as cold as Duke’s and eyes hard as stone. "That I'm letting the attention go to my head? I admit I was flattered at first, but it's more than that. You know what my ability is, don't you?"

Duke nods. Olivia Ashwood is your run-of-the-mill empath - she can read and often feel others' emotions. Whittier's abilities are light-years beyond that. People like him taste emotions, can manipulate them. It's one of the reasons for Duke's concern. Who is to say how much Whittier is amplifying Viola's crush to suit his own needs.

"Viola feels so much. All the time," Whittier continues.

"Olivia's said that."

"And while not all of it's pleasant, there's a fair amount of anger and pain there, it's all honest. She doesn't cover up her emotions or try to change them to fit in with anyone else. They're big and bold and in your face. You can't escape them even if you wanted to. Which I don't." Whittier stuffs his hands in his pockets and rocks back on his heels. "When you cover up emotions, it sours the taste. Makes you want to gag. Back home, with Dad, everything tasted like spoiled milk and moldy bread. Viola's a palette refresher, for lack of better comparison. She’s a gourmet meal after years of gruel."

"So you're using her." Duke's fists clench at his sides. It's all he can do not to pound Whittier into the ground. If Sebastian won’t pull his head out of the sand and defend his baby sister, Duke’s more than willing to stand in as a substitute. No Yankee with a smug smile and pretty words uses Viola Ashwood while there’s still a breath in his body.

"Yes. But she needs a friend, so it's not completely selfish. She knows I'm leaving in August. She won't be as heartbroken as you think."


Whittier's lips curl up in a sly smile. "If you only knew how much I've heard about her precious Toby these past weeks. I figured there was something between you two that first day when you were so worried about her shoulder. The way she talks about you and the way you try to eviscerate me with your eyes every time we see each other only confirmed that. I know better than to poach someone else’s territory."

"Viola and I aren't... there's nothing... she's a kid." An annoying, reckless, brilliant, compassionate, loyal, strong, amazing, pain-in-the-rear,best-friend's-little-sister, kid. It's embarrassing how often he has to remind himself of the last two items on his list.

"Okay, sorry," Whittier claps Duke on the shoulder as he wanders toward a potato-salad carrying Viola. "Your jealousy tastes like dill pickles, by the way. Very heavy on the vinegar."