Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Duke/Viola December 2001

December 2001

Duke's backup was late. He'd called sent out a general call for assistance ten minutes earlier, but no help had arrived. He drummed his fingers on the top of the tailgate and assessed the four Xrains across the street. If he could avoid their razor-sharp claws, pointy teeth, lethal venom, spiked tails, and the red fur that always made him itch; he had a shot of taking them down. Since bullets didn't do anything but piss them off, he had to slit their throats. It would be tricky to say the least.

"On the sixth day of Christmas my true love gave to me..." he started quietly, having decided to wait another ten minutes for a Tracker to show.

"Six Gregins growling, five silver bolts, four caged Zizks, three days rotation, two Preas prancing, and a detachable box magazine for my FN Five-Seven."

Duke hung his head at the familiar voice. He'd asked for backup and he'd gotten an overzealous rookie. Just dandy. He would have been better off taking on the Xrains by himself.

"Guess we should change that fourth part, huh?" With one foot on the hitch and the other on the rear bumper, Viola Ashwood craned her neck to see over the top of Duke's truck. "Eh, four snarling Xrains doesn't have the same jingle, you know."

"What are you doing here, Vi?"

"You called for backup. I was just sitting at home watching some stupid, sappy Christmas special on the Lifetime network." She narrowed her eyes, shoved a finger in his face. "Say a word about it to anyone and I'll rip out your spleen."

"Easy there killer. Your secret love for schmoopy romantic movies will be our little secret." Duke paused long enough for her to sigh in relief. "For a price."

"How about I not let the Xrain eat you for a late night snack?"

"You really are a pest, you know that?"

"Yeah. So?"

Duke chuckled and shook his head. She was annoying, but being around Viola was never dull. Her blunt honesty was a refreshing change from the Network politics he'd spent a week buried under. If he never had to attend another National Conference again, he'd be one happy region head.

"I've got a couple javelins in my car. If we use them to sever the... falanca-thingy...whatever it is they call that main artery in their neck," Viola suggested, brow furrowed in contemplation. She shivered when the icy wind shifted and shoved her hands in the pockets of her purple hooded sweatshirt. She regretted not grabbing her leather jacket before leaving the house.

"You shouldn't be here, kiddo."

"And yet here I am." She grinned at him and bumped his shoulder. Though Max Sparks was her Tracking mentor, she loved going out with Duke. Max was great, but Duke didn't give off those 'teacher' vibes. Plus, she'd been in love with him since she was six.

"You're only seventeen, Vi. I'm responsible if anything happens to you. Do you know what your brother would do to me if anything happened to you? And even then he'd be stuck with whatever pieces of me Olivia left behind."

"I'm not," she corrected quietly, smile slipping off her face. She turned her face away from him, blinked rapidly.

"Not what? Going to get into trouble? In case it's slipped your notice, Shortcake, that's all you manage to do."

She didn't know whether she wanted to cry or she wanted to break his nose. She pulled the fleece hood over her head and huddled against the cold metal of the truck. She would have thought that he of all people understood why she was freezing her ass off at one in the morning and willing to help him with the Xrains.

"Not seventeen. Not for a whole sixty-four minutes."

"Oh, Via-mia." Duke's hand found its way to her shoulder. He brushed his lips across the back of her head. He'd forgotten all about the time, but he hadn't forgotten her birthday. Underneath the seat in his truck was a wrapped box with two daggers inside. He'd picked out the carving for the handles with her in mind.

She nodded and smiled shakily. She was glad he'd finally caught on. Her birthday wasn't her favorite day of the year, and she'd rather spend it fighting a demon than at whatever party Olivia undoubtedly had planned for the afternoon. "So, the javelin idea sounded like a good plan, but I'm worried about how much maneuvering space we're going to have."

"That's a fair point." Duke popped open the toolbox in the back of his truck. He had a few weapons he could use, but there was one sure-fire way to put that twinkle back in Viola's eyes. "Check underneath my seat, kiddo. There's something there I think you could use?"

Viola's eyes lit up. She rarely got to touch Duke's weapons. "Really?"

"Yeah." Duke smiled to himself when she raced around the truck and flung open the door. "And grab my spare jacket. You're going to freeze to death out here. What in the hell were you thinking leaving the house without a jacket? That sweatshirt isn't going to protect you from the Xrain, either. I swear, Shortcake, you'd dash in after a Gragin with nothing but a stick if we let you."

Viola grinned as she pulled a box wrapped in shiny black paper out from underneath the seat. Presents, a demon, and Duke. Maybe it wouldn't be such a bad birthday after all.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Giveaway Closed

Thanks to all who entered!
The winners have been notified.
Stick around for more Duke and Viola coming soon.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Giveaway - Five Copies of The Chaos Child (e-book)

To celebrate being 99.5%** finished with The Chaos Child and it's Amazon.com release, I am giving away five copies of The Choas Child through either Amazon or Smashwords (winner's preference).

Entering is super simple. All you have to do is leave a comment here - no requirements on the comment content - you can tell me what your favorite part of the series has been so far, what you didn't like in the series, which backstory you liked most, what you want to see in a future backstory (or futurestory), etc. The contest will run until Monday, December 20th. I will be e-mailing the winners, so be sure to leave your e-mail address with your comment.

For an extra entry you can drop me a note on twitter (@karahelen).

Ready for another adventure with Duke, Viola, a few new characters, and one old enemy?

After nearly killing herself weakening her demon-possessed father, all ghost-gabbing Viola Ashwood wants to do is relax with new husband Tobias Duke and take care of the demons in their region of the Network.  Her plans are ruined when her estranged brother Sebastian arrives with terrible news:  their sister Olivia’s missing.  Daddy’s not as weak as she’d believed, mysterious gifts keep popping up on her doorstep for no apparent reason, and her brother’s addicted to a Network-banned drug.  When demons start spouting prophecy about the Child of Chaos, Viola isn’t the least surprised.  It’s turning out to be that kind of year.

Haven't read Daughter of Deception yet? Visit Daughter of Deception at Smashwords to get your copy (and use coupon code RV74G for an extra-special holiday/giveaway deal)

Good luck!

(***nothing is ever truly finished, you know - and there's your philosophy lesson for the day)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Christmas 2002 - Viola, Sebastian, Olivia

First Christmas story for Cathy who wanted to see a little Ashwood sibling interaction.

December 2002

“On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me seven Leaud’s swimming, six Gregin’s growling, five silver bolts, four caged Zizks ….,” Viola sang as she pushed the door open with her hip.

“I’m going to kill Duke for teaching you that song.”

Viola stopped abruptly. The plastic shopping bags hanging from her wrists slapped her thighs. She grinned merrily at Sebastian before finishing the song. “Three days rotation, two Preas prancing, and a detachable box magazine for my FN Five-Seven.”

“You don’t even like guns, Vi,” he said, crossing his arms over his chest and leaning against the dresser.

“No, I don’t like to fire guns. I have nothing against them on principle. I can appreciate the shininess.” Viola dumped the bags at her feet and jerked her head towards the parking lot. “C’mon. There’s more in the car.”

“More?” Sebastian’s jaw dropped. He stepped over the small pile of bags and followed his sister to the trunk of his new SUV. Though he preferred driving cars over trucks and SUVs, the vehicle gave them more room during the long trips and the four-wheel drive was handy.

He gasped when he saw the bags piled up in the rear of the SUV. “Sheesh, Vi, what’d you do? Buy out the entire store?”

“Nope.” She pulled a long box free, stood it on end, and shoved it at his chest. “But I gave it my best shot.”

“No kidding.”

It took them four trips to clear out the rear of the SUV. Sebastian lined the bags up along the wall and the edge of the bed so there was a clear path to the bathroom. He tried to peek into one of the bags only to have his hands slapped away by a Santa-hat wearing Viola.

“Where’s the grouch?” she asked, nudging the bag under the bed with her foot.

“Olivia’s doing laundry like you asked her to.” Though he'd agreed that a little cheer was in order, he hadn’t enjoyed listening to Olivia’s ten-minute rant on irresponsible sisters and improperly opened ketchup packets.

“You should join her.”

Sebastian snorted. It was a well-known fact that he and laundry didn’t mix. Left to his own devices, he’d once turned an entire load of white clothes a garish shade of purple. Olivia had exempted him from all future laundry duties but had made him wear the purple shirts and socks as punishment.

“It wasn’t really a suggestion, Bas. Go keep Olivia company.” When he made no sign of moving off the bed, Viola sighed. She wrapped her arms around her middle and stared out the open curtains at the parking lot. Snow dusted the cars and the walkways. “Look, I know I’ve been a real Scrooge the past couple of Christmases, but I want to make up for it this year.”

“It’s not necessary, kiddo.”

Viola shrugged. She knew it wasn’t necessary; Olivia and Bas understood her reasons for being anti-Christmas the prior years. She needed to get out of her funk, though, and she worked better alone. “I brought my rock and roll Christmas CD.”

Sebastian grabbed his coat off the back of a chair. He pecked her cheek on his way to the door. “I think I’ll take Livy a cup of coffee.” The door slammed shut behind him.

“Works every time.”

While singing along with The Kinks and George Thorogood, Viola transformed the bland hotel room into a bright, festive holiday-spirit-palooza. She hastily wrapped the small presents she’d purchased for her siblings and placed them underneath the fiber optic tree along with the gifts she’d picked up weeks earlier. She hung long strands of metallic garland across top of the burgundy curtains, stuck blue snowflake decals to the bathroom mirror, and set cinnamon-scented flameless candles on every available horizontal surface. Stuffed reindeer, snowmen, and Santa Clauses covered the two queen-sized beds.

When she heard footsteps outside the door, she poured apple juice into plastic cups and stuck a cinnamon stick into each cup. She thrust a glass into Olivia’s hands as soon as the door opened.

“Merry, merry Christmas, Livy-liv-liv!”

Olivia glanced over her shoulder at Sebastian, pursed her lips and arched an eyebrow. “Look, it’s a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Crack.”

Friday, December 10, 2010

Covers, Real Life, Crashed Computers, and Other Annoying Things

Aside from the football story earlier in the week, I know I've been absent lately. I apologize. It's not laziness, I promise. I really do have a few good excuses:
     1) My computer crashed Monday night. It was a momentary scare, but eventually I got everything back.
     2) TCC edits! I finally finished!
     3) WWII interview transcripts - I was given three new tapes at Thanksgiving and I needed to work on them because a) the money is nice around the holidays and b) the interviews were done in June and the museum needed the transcripts
     4) Work. It sucks, but it's a necessary evil.
     5)  I've been working on the SKOW prompt (Twelve Days of Christmas) - it's fun, but a lot of work because I didn't want to use any of my "established" characters.
     6) Cover! The cover for The Chaos Child is finally done (thank you I.D.). It's below. I wanted something fairly simple that would shrink well. I think it's nice. What do you think?

There 's a long list of things I need to do this weekend, but don't worry.  I haven't disappeared.

Also, since TCC is going to be up at Amazon and Smashwords very soon, I plan on doing a contest here for several free copies so I've been working on that.  Look for it sometime after the 15th.
What you can do for me:

I'm going to do a series of holiday-themed Viola/Duke drabbles.  Just leave a comment with something you'd like to see and I'll post them before Christmas.  If you don't want Viola/Duke, that's cool, too.  I can do Aaron in a Santa hat, Sebastian trying to wrap Christmas presents, and Olivia losing her temper in a shopping mall.

Let me know your thoughts on the cover.

Have a wonderful weekend!

PS:  If you're looking for a great holiday read, check out Samantha Hunter's I'll Be Yours for Christmas - racing, characters who don't whine or act like jackasses, and my favorite "frenemies to lovers" type of storyline.  So good, I'm reading it again... at work... on my iphone... shhhh... don't tell anyone!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Duke/Viola - December 2008

December 2008

"Football? Again? I thought I erased the last one off the DVR." Viola froze, eyes wide and lips parted. She swallowed loudly and offered up a sunny smile. "I mean I thought the last game mysteriously disappeared when the power went off last night."

Duke's eyes slid from the television screen to his wife's pink cheeks and guilty eyes. "I was on the phone with the damn cable company for an hour this morning arguing over damn DVR glitches."

"I know." She bit down on her lip and bounced on her toes. Her smile broadened. "I'm sorry?"

He glared at her before a loud cheer from the crowd on the t.v. captured his attention. "You're lucky you’re cute, you know that?"

"Oh, I think you lucked out in that instance, Tobias."

He grinned, curled an arm around her waist, and yanked her onto his lap. Sparks and dots exploded behind his eyes as she wiggled and writhed until she was wedged in the sliver of space between him and the arm of the chair. He coughed to clear his throat and exhaled shakily. "Viola," he rasped.

"What?" Her smile was all innocence, but mischief danced in her bright eyes.

"Football." He coughed again and pointed at the screen.

She rolled her eyes and flopped her head onto his shoulder. "Married for a month and the romance is gone."

"You want romance, sweetness, I'll give you romance." Duke's lips unerringly found the sensitive spot behind her ear. "After the game, though."

"Ugh." Viola slapped his chest lightly. She watched the uniformed men run across the field for a few minutes before growing bored. She frowned at the clock on the wall. "What time is everyone coming over?"


Lips pursed, Viola grasped his chin and forcibly turned his face away from the t.v. screen. "What time is everyone coming over?" she repeated, over-enunciating every word.

"No one's coming over, Vi."

"You picked up a sandwich tray and that deli platter. There are two twelve-packs of Shiner in the fridge. You asked me to bake two batches of brownies. I assumed there was a New Years' Eve party planned." She shook his chin gently. "I cleaned the entire house for three hours this morning."

"I know." He lightly nipped her fingers. "I’m sorry?"

Her left eye twitched. "You're lucky you have..."

"After the game, sugar."

She counted to ten and focused on her breathing until she was reasonably certain she wasn't going to throttle her husband. "So there's really nobody coming over?"

"The food's so we don’t have to worry about cooking. It's just you and me tonight."

"Aw," she cooed, anger instantly forgotten. "That's incredibly, surprisingly sweet."

"And a couple of bowl games."

Her eye twitched again. "Sometimes I hate your living, breathing guts, Tobias."

He chuckled, tucked her firmly against his side. It didn't get better than a night of food, beer, football, and his girl. Had he been single, he might have gone down to his favorite bar to watch the game, but he enjoyed not having to deal with crowds or girls who wouldn't take no for an answer. Besides, Viola's brownies were better than the dry chocolate cake Joe's wife made every New Years'.

Viola squirmed, resigned to the fact that she was going to spend the next several hours watching football. It was a sport she'd never really followed. She liked baseball because Duke and Bas had played in high school, and she liked hockey because of the violence factor. Besides, the rules were easier to understand in both games.

"What are we watching, anyway?"

"Sun Bowl. They're playing in El Paso."

Viola squinted at the screen. "Neither team is from Texas, though."

"That's not how it works, Vi." Duke groaned and tried to come up with a simple, short explanation for the rather complicated college football bowl system. He gave up after only a few seconds. "Just watch the game. It's almost over."

"Which game is next?"

"The Texas Bowl."

"Who's playing in that one?"

"Navy and Mizzou."

Her nose wrinkled. "They’re not Texas teams either."

"They don't have to be from Texas. Look, it has to do with the conferences and rankings. Different bowl associations take the ranked teams in different conferences. For example, the Sun Bowl Association took a team from the PAC-10 and a team from the Big 12. Since they had fifth pick with the Big 12, they got Oklahoma."


Duke ran a hand through his hair and cursed Sebastian for not properly educating his baby sister. "Okay, teams are ranked in their individual conferences. The bowls match up teams from different conferences. Some conferences get automatic bids, but sometimes the bowl association gets to pick. It's complicated, Vi."

"You don't even understand it." She laughed and playfully dug her elbow into his ribs. She tried to pluck a more coherent explanation out of Duke’s brain, but there was nothing but a jumbled mess.

"I do, too."

"No you don't." Viola laughed harder, tears dripping down her cheeks and sides aching. "I'm inside your head, remember? You're as confused as I am."

"Oh, shut up and watch the game," he grumbled, clamping a hand over her grinning lips. "Pick a team and cheer for them."

She nodded and resisted the childish urge to lick his palm. Knowing Duke, he'd only wipe it across her cheek afterwards. She snuggled against him and watched the last quarter of the game, drawing on the information in his head rather than asking questions aloud. She had to admit that the game was a little easier to understand once she knew all the rules. She still didn't get the whole bowl thing, though.

"How many bowls are there?"

"Over thirty."

Viola whistled. "It's sorta like t-ball, huh? Everybody gets a trophy."

Duke's head thumped against the side of the chair. "This is worse than trying to watch pro football with you."

"Aww, that's just because you were happy the Texans were beating the hell out of the Colts." She ran the pads of her fingers across his jaw. "You'd be happier if a Texas team was playing in one of these stupid bowls."

"The Cougars were playing earlier," he pointed out, neglecting to mention that they'd lost to the Air Force football team. He was a proud University of Houston alumnus, as was Viola, and didn't want to reflect too long on the loss.

Viola wasn't listening to him. She stared at the television screen with brow furrowed and shoulders tense. After a moment, she let out a small squeal and kissed Duke's cheek happily.

"Sweet mercy, I finally understand what a safety is! Where were you during all those awful high school football games? This is awesome!"

Thursday, December 2, 2010

My Fakeccino

Now, I love a good, hot drink as much as anybody, but I don't always have time (or money) to stop and buy one.  Especially when I'm at work.  As I've undoubtedly complained about before, I am chained (once, literally!) to my desk for ten hours every day.  It gets downright frigid in my office during the winter and I can't turn the heater on because I work in a very dusty office.  I can't wear gloves because I need to use my keyboard and calculator all day.  My solution to the problem?  Hot drinks.

I've got a little Melita two-travel mug coffee maker on my desk.  I never make coffee in it.  I've forgotten how much coffee I'm supposed to use in it.  I either make instant coffee (thank you Starbucks VIA and Tasters Choice) or hot tea (again, yum).  During the really cold days, I can drink up to four or five hot drinks a day and even though I use a variety of different teas it gets to be a little boring.

My cheap, easy solution?  A fakeccino!  I keep milk in the mini-fridge in my desk in a plastic water bottle (I tried leaving a half-gallon in there but the power went out one time and... it was nasty the next day).  All you have to do to make the fakeccino is shake up the milk (it works best if the small bottle is half-full) vigorously for about twenty seconds and pour over your brewed tea or coffee.  For a little extra "special", I sprinkle cinnamon or cocoa over my drink.  It's easy, nice, and much cheaper than buying drinks all the time (plus, it's lower in calories since I use 2% milk and artificial sweetner).

The fakeccino  also makes a great mid-day treat.

So, I'm not always spot-on with the cinnamon.  See the nice layer of foamy milk on top?  Yum!

I had to restrain myself - wanted to take a sip before I snapped the picture!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

May 2005 - Duke/Viola

May 2005

Duke swirled the heavy glass hoping to discover a hidden measure of whiskey underneath the melting ice cubes. No such luck. He didn't bother asking the bartender for a refill. Joe, who usually indulged his favorite customers, had made it more than clear that the drink in Duke's hand was the last for the night. With a sigh, Duke squinted bleary eyes and sucked a whiskey-flavored ice cube in his mouth.

"You want me to call a cab for you or someone else?" Joe asked as he pulled the glass out of Duke's lax grip. As his bar was a popular hangout for Network Trackers, Joe knew all about demons and Duke's responsibilities. He also knew why Duke had staggered through the doors with an unshaven face, wrinkled clothes, and the burning desire to drink himself into unconsciousness.

A phone number tumbled out of Duke's dry mouth. Body numb and brain fogged, Duke slumped in his stool and rested his hot cheek against the damp, slightly sticky bar top. The racket around him went in one ear and out the other. He kept his open, bloodshot eyes glued to half-empty bottle of Crown Royal on the shelf behind the bar. He hadn't slept in over thirty-six hours and, though exhaustion seeped out of his pores, he wasn't in any rush to drift off to dreamland. Having witnessed the autopsy, he knew what horrific nightmares would plague him.

God, he needed his father. He'd gladly give up decades off his life and everything he owned for five minutes with Paul Duke. He needed to know how to keep his head up at the next Tracker meeting and where to find the strength to meet the eyes of the freshly widowed Jamie Sparks. He wanted to ask his father how he was supposed to keep going in spite of the guilt tearing his heart apart. How had his father gotten over losing his first Tracker?

A slender, smooth palm gently caressed his scruffy cheek. Delicate fingers brushed the hair off his sweat-dotted forehead. The crisp scent of mint mixed with sharp rosemary was a pleasant respite from the combined odors of cigarette smoke, beer, and perspiration. He slowly loosened his grip on his mental shields and braced himself for contact with warp-speed, disorganized thoughts. When he wasn't immediately bombarded by chaos, he dropped his shields completely and basked in the unexpected, soothing warmth of the other mind.

"Can you stand up?"

Duke rolled his head towards the familiar feminine voice. He could almost taste the salty residue of tears on her cheeks. Sorrow thickened her slight Southern accent and elongated her vowels. Under any other circumstances, he might have appreciated the unintentional sultriness of her tone. He couldn't though. It was his fault, in a way, she'd been crying. Taking advantage of that would make him an even bigger bastard. There were other reasons he was supposed to keep her firmly in the 'friend' category, but with the alcohol clouding his brain, he couldn't remember what they were. Something about his parents and her brother…

"C'mon, Tobias."

"V'la?" He blinked his gummy eyelids and tried to make two of the three Violas he was seeing disappear. He succeeded only to have the one Viola blur around the edges. It made her look like an angel. The thought of Viola Ashwood as an angel was almost enough to make him smile.

"Wha're y' doin' here, Vi?"

"You called me, bud."


"Okay, technically Joe called me, but I figure you had to give him my number so it's the same thing. Essentially."


Viola smiled tiredly at Duke and slid her hands down to his biceps. Thankful she'd taken advantage of the gym in the last twelve hotels she'd stayed in, she tugged him off the stool and onto his feet. When his knees weakened and he wobbled unsteadily, she slipped underneath one of his leaden arms and propped him up with her shoulder. After tossing a grateful smile and several bills at Joe, she helped Duke stagger out of the bar into the muggy Houston air.

"Thought y' were in Ok'homa," he said as they slowly made their way across the parking lot. He closed his eyes to protect them from the bright street lights only to open them when the ground beneath his feet dipped and spun. The slim arm around his waist tightened and a hand dipped into one of his front pockets. Keys jangled, but he didn't have the energy to call her on her poor pick pocketing skills.

"We headed here as soon as we heard about Max. Patrick and Olivia dated for a couple of months in college and Stephanie was a year between you and Bas. Mrs. Sparks called Bas while we were on our way to ask if he'd be a pallbearer. I spent some time with her earlier and will go over again in the morning."

Duke winced. He'd let Abelardo and Bert do most of the notifications when they'd offered, but he'd forgotten about the Ashwoods. He wondered who had made the call and which sibling had been forced to break the news to the other two. He hoped like hell Viola, who had more ties to Max Sparks, hadn't been the one to answer the phone.

"'M sorry, Vi. Should've called y'first."

She swallowed down a lump of misery, her heart breaking for him. She wanted nothing more than to ease even a fraction of his pain and guilt. "No, you shouldn't have. You had a ton of more important things to do than worry about me."

"But Max..."

She stopped abruptly, steadied him when he lurched forward, and glared. "Yes, Max was my mentor, but he was also your Tracker and Granny's friend and Tim's partner. You had enough to deal with, okay? Bert's the one who called. He was very kind about it."


Duke let Viola maneuver him into the passenger seat of his truck. He batted her hands away when she tried to buckle his seatbelt. Bitter laughter spilled from his lips when she moved his seat forward. "Y've got short legs."

"I do not," she protested hotly, slamming her foot on the gas pedal and backing out of the parking space. "They're perfectly normal for my height. You're the one with freakishly long legs, Tobias."

"How come y' don't call me 'Duke' li' ever'one else? 'S always T'bias."

Viola's fingers clenched the steering wheel tightly. She couldn't very well tell him that she did it to piss him off enough that he'd never forget her or mistake her for one of his floozies. They never learned his first name. She liked being set apart from the plastic, blonde Barbie dolls he went through like water. Even Olivia, who swore she hadn't encouraged Duke's flirting a few years earlier, called Duke by his last name.

"I don't know. You got all huffy when anyone besides Granny called you 'Toby' so I went with 'Tobias.'"

"'S annoyin'."

She grinned. "Then I must be doing something right."

"I hate you."

Her heart sank. There were days she feared he meant that. She loved him fiercely, had since she was a kid, but was afraid he saw her as nothing more than irritation he was better off without. She'd remain his friend for the rest of their lives if that's all he ever wanted, but sweet mercy she wished for more.

Duke rested his head against the seat and studied the woman behind the steering wheel. Did she realize that she was the only girl to have ever driven his truck? He was even reluctant about letting Bert or Abelardo drive his vehicle. In the faint greenish light from the dashboard, he could see that her eyes were red and swollen. Pain, whether from Max’s death or his harsh words he couldn’t be sure, was written all over her pretty face.


"Yeah?" She tried to tamp down the hope that colored her tone. She mentally kicked herself. He was mourning the loss of a colleague and she was dreaming about declarations of devotions. God, her mother was right: she was a selfish bitch.

"Viola, I..." Duke broke off on a sigh. He wasn't sure what he wanted to say. 'I didn't mean it,' was the first thing that came to mind. 'Thank you' warred with 'I need you' and in the back of his mind lurked words too complex and terrifying to even contemplate.

"What, Tobias?"

He sighed again, shifted his head and stared out the windshield. "Where are we going?"

"Your house." She let the disappointment roll off her back. Duke needed her to be a friend and not a lovesick fool. "I didn't figure you wanted to be around Bas or Olivia. Granny's not real sympathetic when you're drunk, either. I'll stay with you, if you want."

"Just like old times," he muttered, remembering the nights she'd driven him home from the bar on the anniversary of his father's death. It was odd, but he trusted her, more than anyone else, to care for him when he was blitzed.

"Eh. If you could not throw up on my shoes this time, I'd appreciate it."

"Will do my best." He belched, gagged at the fumes burning his nostrils. “But no promises.”

"Thanks." She dropped one of her hands to the seat and wrapped her fingers around his. She gave his hand a small squeeze.

Duke reluctantly disentangled himself from her grip. Her skin felt good, almost too good, against his and he was starting to remember a few of the reasons she was on the forbidden list. "Hands at ten and two, Vi."

Viola growled at him but put both hands back on the steering wheel. The rest of the drive to Duke's house was silent. After parking the truck, she jumped out of her seat and ran around to the other side to help him out. Though he protested, she kept an arm around his waist during the walk to the porch. On the second porch step, he stumbled over his own feet and sent them both crashing to the ground.

She dodged his falling body, but scraped her palms and bare knees on the rough wooden porch. Flat on his back, Duke cackled like a hyena. Viola rolled onto her back beside him and picked splinters out of her right palm.

"You're not going to win any gracefulness awards, Tobias." She whimpered as she dug out a particularly deep splinter. A bead of blood welled up from the wound. "Give me a sec and we'll get up and in the house."

"Nah," he panted, trying to control his laughter. "We'll stay here."

"Okay." She whimpered again, cursed softly. As soon as the funeral was over, she was going to make Sebastian and Duke spend a day sanding and resealing the porch. It was too damn dangerous the way it was.

"Let me see that." Duke grabbed her wrist and dragged her towards him until she was lying across his chest. He held her wrist up to the dim light and squinted at the splinters. "I keep causing people pain."

"Hey!" She thumped his shoulder with her free hand. "Max's death sucks beyond belief, but it wasn't your fault. It's a risk we all take every time we go out on rotation. You can't blame yourself. That's just stupid and a waste of time. I promise that no one blames you at all for what happened. It was supposed to be a regular Digaion hunt and there was an accident. It's terrible, but it happens."

Duke gently pulled a thin splinter of wood out of her palm. He soothed the pain with a chaste kiss to the abraded skin. "Thank you, sugar."

Giddiness welled up inside, but she kept her face impassive. "It's nothing, Tobias. Really. It's what friends do."

Duke nodded. He tilted his head back and closed his eyes but kept Viola's hand sandwiched between his. He tried to keep his eyes open, but they drifted shut. The tension he'd carried around since Max's death melted away. Viola was warm and soft against him; her slightly irregular heartbeat lulled him to sleep.

"Just so you know, Tobias," she whispered in his ear as her own eyelids grew heavy, "even if I had been in Oklahoma or Maine, for that matter, nothing would have stopped me from coming when Joe called. It's what people in love do."