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.