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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."