Monday, December 12, 2011

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Mistress of Malice and Mercy snippet

I know, I know... you'd rather I stopped teasing you and offered up the whole book, but it's not ready yet. This year has been crazier than I expected, but it's coming.

Here's a little to tide you over:

- - -
“Then I have to get ready for my date tonight.”

The rest of the world disappeared as Duke tumbled into the inviting heat of Viola's sultry smile. He propped a foot against the fence and cocked an eyebrow. “Date?”

“Yep. A very hot date with a very married man.” She giggled at his exaggerated gasp. With a little effort, she schooled her face into an expression of contrition. “I know it’s wrong, but I just can’t resist him. I’ve tried, sweet mercy I’ve tried.”

“So you decided to stop trying and just give in?”

“Why fight it anymore? It’s his eyes I think. The way they just penetrate right through to my very soul. Killer. Though it could be his hands. I’ve always been a sucker for strong, steady hands.” She swallowed back a bubble of laughter. From the pinched look on Duke’s face, it was clear he was doing the same. “Then again, it could be the…,” she froze, eyes wide and jaw slack. “Bee. Bee on his shoulder.”

Before Duke could react, she slipped out of his grasp and crept away from him on her tiptoes. “Whatever you do, don’t move or agitate it.”

“It’s just a bee, sugar.” Duke stared at the insect out of the corner of his eye. It was oblivious to the woman quietly freaking out only a few feet away. “You just faced down Elrachaim, but you can’t handle a little bee?”

“I’m not allergic to Elrachaim.” She bit her lip, shrugged. “Well, not in the way that makes me swell up like a parade balloon.”

Thursday, December 1, 2011


Hey y'all, popping in from under a stack of invoices and Mistress of Malice and Mercy notes for a little bit of advice.

I don’t read as much as I used to (or as much as I want to), but I always pick up a Lisa Kleypas book when I see one. Everyone knows I mostly stick to historicals, but she's one of my favorites in all sub-genres. Want to know why? See for yourself: here

--"I am one of "Lisa's Divas" - a group of select fans who share info & content related to Lisa's novels and get sneak peeks & swag in return."

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Secrets, Lies, and Folks in Disguise

Okay, so this is an oldie, but it's one of my favorite short stories. I hope you enjoy a light-hearted break from the Ashwood/Duke drama.

As always, I'd love to hear what you're thinking. Itching for more Duke? Dying to know what's up with Daddy Ashwood? Wondering about Rocket Science? Have a request for an Ashwood backstory?

- - -
Part One:

"Excuse me."

Robert Addison's spine stiffened. He tugged the brim of his black baseball cap lower over his eyes. Being an actor was great but the loss of privacy was killing him. All he'd wanted was to enjoy a beer in a bar before meeting his agent for dinner. Was five minutes of peace and quiet too much to ask for? Hopefully, if he ignored the fan and/or autograph-seeker, she would go away.

"Hey!" The sharp feminine voice barked from behind his right ear. Robert jumped when a finger jabbed him in the shoulder. "I'm talking to you."

He kept his shoulders hunched as he turned his head to glare at the woman. The fluorescent lights overhead emphasized the brightest, and angriest, pair of green eyes he'd ever seen. Aside from her striking eyes, the woman wasn't anything special: medium height, shoulder-length light-brown hair, and a slight build. Even her clothes, jeans and a faded Rolling Stones t-shirt, were average.

"What?" Robert relied on his years of training, and self-preservation, to pitch his voice an octave lower.

The woman arched an eyebrow at his gruff tone. She flattened a slender hand on top of the stool beside him. "In case you didn't notice, it's a little crowded in here. You're hogging two stools."

"What? So?"

The woman blinked rapidly. Pink lips thinned. "You've got your self-absorbed ass on one stool and your foot on another. I'm going to either take the one under your foot or I'm going to take the one under your ass. I'll let you pick."

Robert didn't doubt for a minute that the woman would make good on her threat. He hastily snatched his foot off the rungs of the stool on his right. The woman offered up a tight smile before she yanked the stool off the ground.

"Wait," he called when she was only an arm's length away. She stopped but didn't turn to face him. "Was that all you wanted?"

She pivoted on the heel of her worn running shoes. This time, both her eyebrows had disappeared up into her bangs. "Yeah. That's it. Thanks."

Robert found himself oddly disappointed. Was the woman not a fan? Had she not recognized him? He shook off the feeling, concentrated on being relieved. If she had recognized him, she would have led a gaggle of squealing girls to his side. He should be thankful for his anonymity.

Four hours later, dinner with his agent over, Robert returned to the hotel bar. He told himself that he was not looking for the rude, stool-grabbing woman. He just wanted a nightcap before heading up to his room.

The bar was as crowded as before. He pushed his way through the throng of people, hoping that his hat, scruffy beard, and bulky leather jacket would still be enough of a disguise. There was only one stool open in front of the bar. Robert didn't bother looking at the patrons on either side as he gratefully plopped onto the stool.

The person on his left shifted, placed a beer bottle on the bar. "Oh, it would be you."

Robert flinched at the familiar voice. Rude woman. Of course. "I promise to keep to my own stool."

"Good." The woman idly twirled her bottle. When the bartender glanced their way, she jerked her head towards Robert. "His next one's on me."

"What?" Robert tugged on his ear. He was certain he'd misheard her.

The woman rolled her eyes. "You say that an awful lot." She tapped the side of her beer to signal the bartender for another. After Robert hesitantly ordered his drink, she spun on her stool. A jolt of electricity shot through him when her knees bumped his. She used a white paper napkin to wipe the condensation off her hand before extending it for a hand shake. "Sorry 'bout earlier. Was a beast of a day. I'm Amy."

Mouth agape, Robert stared at the woman. Either she honestly had no idea who he was or she was one hell of an actress. Only one way to find out. He folded his long fingers around her hand. Her skin was warm and soft. He could feel small calluses on her palm. Few women he associated with had calluses. "R-er- Bobby."

Amy's smile, more genuine than anything she'd flashed him before, was hypnotizing. It started with the curve of her lips, put a hint of color in her smooth cheeks, and made her eyes sparkle. Robert had to tear himself away before he did something embarrassingly like drool or ask her for a date. He still couldn't be sure that she wasn't a rabid fan or member of the paparazzi.

He sipped his Scotch. Since someone else was paying for his drink, he hadn't ordered his usual smooth and expensive brand. The alcohol burned its way down his throat to his stomach. He tried to quietly clear his throat. Something must have given him away because when he turned back to Amy, she was chuckling softly.

"So, er, you had a rough day?" He had to take the attention off himself. It was the best way to avoid blowing his cover. Besides, he was curious about the woman who threatened to knock him off a stool and then bought him a drink to make up for it.

"Rough week, actually." Amy shrugged, sipped her beer. "'S'okay. We'll wrap things up tomorrow. Until trial time, of course."

Though it meant potentially opening the door to an awkward conversation, Robert couldn't help but ask what business she was in. She didn't look like a lawyer or a cop. Was she a paralegal?

"I'm a forensic engineer." At Robert's blank look, Amy sighed. She really had to find a better way to explain her job. "Accident reconstruction. Mostly vehicular accidents, but we've done a couple of plane crashes."

"And you work for the NYPD?"

"No. I work for a private company. We get called in by state or city governments and sometimes the feds. A lot of high-profile incidents, too. We pride ourselves on being unbiased and as unobtrusive as possible while maintaining our integrity." Amy broke off with an embarrassed chuckle. "Sorry, I sound like a commercial, don't I?"

"It's okay. I don't mind at all." It wasn't a lie. Robert was fascinated by the judicial system. Like most people, he loved the bevy of fictional and reality forensic shows on television. If he'd had the grades, and the focus, he liked to think he would have gone into a similar field.

When it looked like she was going to ask what he did for a living, he jumped in with, "what made you go into forensic engineering?"

Amy's eyes dropped to the scarred bar surface. She plucked at the label on her beer bottle. "When I was three, my grandmother was driving my oldest sister to a slumber party. They were in an accident. No survivors. Forensics wasn't what it is now. No one could explain why Grandma and my sister were dead."

"And you wanted to know. Have you used your expertise to dig into the case?"

"A bit. It upsets Mom, so I try to keep quiet about it. I don't understand it, but she's almost happier not knowing." Amy shook her head when the bartender gestured toward her beer. It was late and she had a mountain of paperwork to finish up in the morning. "You're a very good listener, Bobby."

Robert flushed at the compliment. After having people constantly pressing him to talk about himself, it was nice listening to someone else's life story. With all his worries about the tabloids and the fans, he'd forgotten that he genuinely liked people. He pressed her for details about her favorite investigation. Though most of the technical details went over his head, he enjoyed the animated way she spoke about her job and her co-workers. He wistfully remembered a time he’d felt that much passion for his work.

"Oh. My. Gawd!" A high-pitched squeal had everyone at the bar, except for Robert, spinning around. A tanned bottle-blonde teetering on spiky heels pressed a hand over her lips. She fanned her face with her other hand. As soon as she regained her composure, she headed straight for Robert and Amy.

Robert's heart sank. This was it. His cover was blown. Bobby, the guy who drank mid-priced Scotch and just talked with people, would soon be replaced by Robert the A-lister.

To his surprise, the woman completely ignored him. She clutched Amy's hands tightly. "I knew it! You're Lily Vaughn! You can’t fool me! The wig's awful and I hate your contacts, but I loved you in Love's Old Song. You are, like, my fave actress. Ever."

Amy wriggled her hands free. She shook her head regretfully. "I'm sorry, but you've got the wrong girl. My name's Amy Lampis. I'm not an actress."

The woman leaned forward so that her nose brushed Amy's. Her breath stank of vodka and, oddly enough, potato chips. "Are you sure?"

Amy bit her lip to hide her smile. "Absolutely positive."

"Oh." Face bright red, the woman slunk out of the bar and into the hotel lobby. Two women, equally tanned and blonde, wrapped their arms around her shoulders and led her to the elevators.

Once the chatter around them resumed, Amy gave into the laughter bubbling in her chest. Giddy with relief, Robert joined in. He playfully bumped Amy's shoulder with his own. "Lily Vaughn, huh?"

"I know!" Amy wiped a tear from the corner of her eye. Her cheeks ached from smiling so much, and her ribs, sore from a fall she'd taken earlier that afternoon, throbbed, but she hadn't been this happy in weeks. "It's flattering, at least."

Robert studied his companion critically. He was willing to alter his original opinion of her. She wasn't one of the drop-dead gorgeous actress or models he worked with, but, with pink cheeks and laughing eyes, she was stunning. And real. He'd worked with Lily on two pictures and knew for a fact that Lily'd had her lips artificially plumped and her hair was not naturally platinum blonde. "Oh, for Lily Vaughn, definitely."

"You're so full of it!" Amy glanced down at her watch. It was after midnight. If she was going to get all her work done in time for her three o'clock flight, she had to be up at the crack of dawn. "I should go."

"Oh. Okay." Robert didn't want her to go. He didn't know if it was because he wasn't used to dates, did this count as a date, leaving him or because he really enjoyed Amy's company.

"It was really great talking with you. Thanks for letting me babble." Amy slung her purse strap over her shoulder. She impulsively leaned forward and kissed his cheek. "I'm glad I met you, Bobby."

"Pleasure was mine, Amy Lampis." Like the gentleman his mother raised him to be, he held out a hand to help her off the stool and held the door open for her. To his surprise, she stayed with him all the way to the bank of elevators. He thought for sure she'd stay in the lobby, but she stepped onto the elevator.

"Fifth floor, please."

"You're staying here?" Robert couldn't keep the incredulity out of his voice. The boutique hotel was one of the most exclusive in the city. Accident reconstruction had to pay better than he expected. Was her client footing the bill for her stay?

"Yep. With a suite, my partner and I can stay together and use it as a temporary office. Saves the cost of two hotel rooms."

The way Amy's eyes wouldn't meet his had Robert believing there was more to the story but he wasn't going to press. He didn't want to ruin what had been a pleasant evening. "Will you be here in the morning?"

"Oh yeah. I'll be slaving away at my laptop long before the sun is up."

"Have breakfast with me." At Amy's arched eyebrow, Robert deflated somewhat. "I mean, will you please have breakfast with me? The restaurant here is great."

"Have you had the blueberry granola pancakes?" Amy's mouth watered at the memory. She'd had to add an extra half-hour to her daily workout thanks to the delicious food in the hotel's restaurant. If she didn't have to fit into a bridesmaid's dress in a matter of days, she wouldn't have worried about it.

"No. I'm more of a bacon and eggs guy myself." Fortunately he was six months from his next project and could afford to eat what he liked. His personal trainer would make him pay for it later, but he'd worry about it then.

"Seven-thirty okay with you?"

"What?" Robert tore himself out of horrific thoughts of all the lunges and cardio workouts he had to look forward to.

"You really need to find a new word. That one makes you sound like a moron." Amy smiled to take the sting out of her comment. "Is seven-thirty okay for breakfast? I know it's early, but I've got a ton to do before my flight."

"Where're you going?"

"Texas. My sister's wedding."

"How many sisters do you have?" Robert restrained himself from asking where in Texas she was going. He was headed to the Lone Star state for a wedding as well. Though it was highly unlikely they were attending the same wedding, it was a nice wish.

"I had three. Only two now. Both older. I'm the baby."

Robert grinned. "Spoiled rotten, too, I bet."

"Not in my family. There was no such thing as a favorite. We all pulled our weight and we were all treated equally." It was one of the things she loved most about her family. Despite all the pressures her parents and siblings were under, they remained close and as down-to-earth as possible.

"If they're anything like you, I'd love to meet them."

Amy dropped her chin to her chest and fought the giggle threatening to burst from her chest. "I'm sure they'd love to meet you, too."

Robert walked Amy to her door. On the way back to the elevator, he kicked himself for not kissing her goodnight. There was no guarantee she would really be there for breakfast. What if this was the last time he saw her? He should have asked her for her phone number or e-mail address.

Worried about being stood up, Robert was pacing outside the restaurant at quarter-to-seven. On his fifth circuit past the amused hostess, he ran, literally, into Amy. He grasped her forearms to keep her from falling to the floor. Her bare skin was damp with sweat and the tendrils of hair that had escaped her ponytail were matted to her forehead. He'd never seen a lovelier sight.

Finally steady on her feet, Amy pulled earbuds from her ears. "I'm so sorry! It's a book on tape. I get so caught up and I am such a spaz."

"It's okay. Really. Are you still hungry?" Robert mentally slapped himself for sounding like such a dork. He hadn't had to try this hard with a woman in years. He'd gotten used to being the pursued rather than the pursuer.

"Worried I was going to ditch you?" Amy teased. She sobered when Robert flinched. Had he really been afraid she was going to skip out on him? "Give me twenty minutes to shower and change. I'll be back in a flash."

"We can eat now. I don't mind."

"R-er-Bobby." Amy sucked in a calming breath. "I just spent an hour on the treadmill. My clothes are absolutely soaked. I stink. I am not doing anything until I have a shower."

Robert backed off quickly. That was the same tone she'd used when taking the stool last night. "Okay."

Amy bit her lip as she considered another option. It was an offer she never made, but she liked Bobby. Trusted him. "Or, I dunno, you could come up to my suite. My partner is sleeping the sleep of the dead and will be out for at least another hour and a half. We could order room service and eat up there."

A minute later, Robert was in the elevator beside Amy. He ordered the food then flipped through cable channels while she showered. He anticipated the wait to be longer than her estimated twenty minutes. The women he worked with never spent less than an hour getting ready. To his surprise, she emerged from her bedroom with five minutes to spare.

He wished breakfast could have lasted all day. Once again, he'd encouraged Amy to dominate the conversation by asking questions about her sisters. He heard humorous tales of three girls sharing a bathroom on family vacations and how they still gathered once a year to remember their late sister's birthday.

When it was time to go, he had a plane to catch and she had work to finish, he was reluctant to leave. He lingered at the door, asking for her phone number and e-mail address, for as long as possible. He made a show of slipping the plain white business card into his wallet. This time, he didn't forget the kiss. She tasted like blueberries, coffee, and syrup. Like forever.

Part Two:

"What's gotten into you, man?"

Robert glanced over at his close friend and fellow actor Nick Rudd. He understood the reason behind Nick's question. He'd had a silly grin on his face all day. Meeting Nick's future in-laws, the Vaughn's, had been a treat. Lily Vaughn was the typical nervous bride, but her younger sister and parents were refreshingly down-to-earth.

He even enjoyed being relatively isolated in the Vaughn compound on the Guadalupe River. The view was perfect and the water, though cool, looked inviting. As a bonus, the private road was guarded by a well-known security company.

"I met a girl." Robert's cheeks flushed as he made the admission.

"Oooh! Come here, Lil, and get a load of this. Our boy's met a girl."

Lily laughed at the deer-in-the-headlights expression on Robert's face. She slung an arm across his shoulders and pinched his pink cheek. "A girl like that Swedish model two weeks ago or a girl like that Australian pop singer last week?"

"Neither. She's... she's nobody."

"Robert!" Lily slapped his arm. She couldn't believe a friend of hers would say such a thing.

"I didn't mean it that way." Robert rubbed his stinging arm. For someone as delicate looking as Lily, she slapped pretty damn hard. He’d seen a news report about one of the three Vaughn sisters punching a notoriously pushy actor in the nose. Had it been Lily? "She's not in the biz. She's a forensic engineer."

Lily leaned around Robert's back to raise her eyebrow at Nick. Nick shrugged his shoulders. This was the first he'd heard of Robert's forensic engineer. He quickly tried to remember where Robert had been hiding out for a week and where...

"Her name's Amy. Amy Lampis," Robert continued, oblivious to the wordless conversation going on behind his back. "She's wonderful. Brilliant. Dry sense of humor, but I like it. Doesn't take any crap from anyone, either. She berated me in the middle of a bar for hogging an extra stool."

Lily forced a bright smile. The only thing keeping her from racing back into the house and grabbing her cell phone was knowing that the person she wanted to call was currently on a plane. "She sounds great, Robert. Is she a fan?"

"No! That's the best part about it. She has no idea who I am. I told her my name was Bobby." Robert blew out a heavy sigh. He missed Amy already. He should have asked her to be his date for the wedding. "You're taking this very well, Lily. I knew you and Rose were hoping I'd hit it off with your youngest sister."

"It's okay. Probably best this way. The old best man and maid of honor cliché never works out well. Trust me, I’ve been in those movies." She linked her arm with Robert and led him down the worn path to the water. She jerked her head towards the house, hoping Nick would get the hint and share the gossip with her sister Rose.

"Tell me more about Amy," she prompted.

"We were at the bar in the hotel and a woman walked in. She swore Amy was you. Poor girl was embarrassed." Robert chuckled at the memory.

"How did Amy take it?"

"She found it funny. Strange thing is, it seemed like she'd done that before." Robert paused to ponder that thought before dismissing it. It was a one-off. Amy just had more patience than most people.

"Oh, I'm sure," Lily muttered under her breath. She was definitely going to have a long, long talk with her sisters.

"You don't want to hear me go on and on about another woman, though. I know nothing about the bridesmaid I'm going to be teamed up with for the week. What's your sister like? I think I've only seen a few pictures of the three of you out in public." Robert congratulated himself on a smooth topic transition. He could go on for hours about Amy, which was amusing considering he'd only known her for a few hours, but didn't want to bore or offend his dear friend.

"She's made it a point to stay out of the papers as much as possible. Most of the mags forget about her. The Invisible Vaughn, she's been called. It's good for her, though. She never liked the spotlight." Lily stopped a few inches from the edge of the water. She slipped off her flip-flops, brushed off the concrete ledge, and sits with her feet in the cool river. She absolutely adored growing up near New Braunfels. She and her sisters used to run wild up and down the incline to the river. Afternoons and weekends were spent floating and soaking up the sun. She missed those lazy days so much it was a physical pain.

"What does she do, then?"

Lily waved a hand airily. "Something science-y. She's a nerd. Always was. Rose and I would be trying on Mom's make up while she'd be analyzing it with her junior chemistry set. Lissie liked to break things down."

Robert joined Lily on the ground but pulled his knees up to his chest. He didn't want to go through the hassle of pulling off his socks and shoes then rolling up the cuffs of his trousers. "Lissie, huh? I suppose your mother ran out of flower names."

"Oh no. No one was spared. Poppy, daughter of BellaDonna, gave birth to Dahlia, Lily, Rose, and Amaryllis." Lily laughed and tried to splash Robert. "It's a tradition that ends with my generation. The girls and I have vowed to give our children normal names."

The sound of the back door swinging open then slamming closed had Lily pulling her feet out of the water. She scooped up her sandals and rose to feet. "We should head back in. I need to iron out the final details for tomorrow afternoon with Nick before going in to pick up Lissie."

"Can I go? I flew into San Antonio. I've never been to Austin before."

"No!" Lily winced at her own vehemence. "I mean, no. Rose and I are going to go. We haven't seen Lissie in a couple of months and..."

"I get it. You want to spend time together. I think it's great that you three have stayed close. I know Rose's tour keeps her busy, and you've got the most amazingly busy shooting schedule I've ever seen." Robert thought of his own family and how rarely he saw them. He'd bought his parents a mansion, new cars, and anything else they desired but that didn't make up for never visiting.

"That's what you get when you've got a family full of entertainers and workaholics."

"Don't be so hard on yourself, Lil. You're not a workaholic."

"I wasn't talking about me." Lily patted Robert's cheek before going off in search of her fiancé. She hoped he'd had a chance to speak with Rose.

Robert wandered through the dining room and into the kitchen. He liked the house's open floor plan. All the rooms flowed together and maintained a universal cheeriness. Not even a lack of family photos detracted from the warmth. He hoped his own house, whenever he decided to settle down, was just like it. It helped that he had an in with the 'designer to the stars' Poppy Vaughn.

"So, Roberto. I hear a slip of a girl in New York City has stolen your heart. Don't you know there's going to be thousands of heartbroken teenage girls?" Rose Vaughn popped her head around the open refrigerator door. A bottle of water in each hand, she kicked the door shut with her bare foot. She handed one bottle to Robert then perched on top of a padded stool.

"News travels fast in this family."

Rose's lower lip jutted out in a pout. "Not always true. Someone's been keeping secrets." Catching Robert's confused look, she dismissed it with a flick of her delicate wrist. "Never mind. Sister thing. You wouldn't understand."

Knowing she was probably right, Robert leaned back against the kitchen island and crossed his ankles. He'd heard of Rose, hard not to have heard of the former teen TV idol turned pop princess, before he'd met Lily. He was delighted to discover that, despite the media's portrayal of her, Rose was just as levelheaded as her older sister.

"Rose, you'll have to forgive me, but I've been dying to ask you -."

"Do I really go out to parties without panties on?" Rose chuckled at the fierce blush that darkened Robert's face. He really was too cute for words. "Hate to break it to you, but that was a doctored photo. My mom would kill me if I ever did that for real."

"Yes, I would," Poppy Vaughn agreed, amusement coloring her tone. She bestowed a warm smile on Robert as she lightly smacked the back of her daughter's head. "You'd better not forget that, young lady."

"Of course not, Mom. Is Lils done playing kissy-face with Nick? We've got to get a move on. You know how Lissie gets if she has to wait for too long." Rose twisted the cap back on her empty water bottle before tossing it in the recycle bin.

"Oh, Rose. She was ten when she did that. Your sister's matured since then."

"Not much," Rose snorted. She beamed at Robert. "When Lissie was ten, she spent a week with friends in D.C. She flew home by herself. We were fifteen minutes late picking her up, but she was nowhere in the airport. Dad practically had the place shut down. I think they were ready to call a state-wide manhunt."

"Did you find her?" Robert knew that David Vaughn, a wealthy fourth-generation real estate mogul and state politician, had the clout to pull off such a thing. He imagined he would do something similar if a child of his ever went missing.

"Yep. She was about two miles from the airport dragging her suitcase. She'd gotten tired of waiting and decided to walk the entire way home." Rose shot her mother a scowl. "She got ice cream afterwards."

"She was grounded for a week," Poppy protested.

"After you bought her ice cream."

"What're you two arguing about now?" Lily appeared in the doorway with Nick at her side. She was dressed in the same floral sundress from earlier but had slipped on a pair of high-heeled sandals and tied her hair back with a ribbon. Her soft, feminine appearance was a startling contrast to her sister's vamp-ish tight pleather pants and halter-top ensemble.

"Nothing. Geez, Lils. Mom and I don't always argue." Rose grinned impishly. "We were just telling Robert about the time Lissie tried to walk home from the airport."

"Oh! Everyone was so mad and she couldn't understand why. She just asked for ice cream because she was hot. You guys took her out for sundaes!" They joked about it now, but Lily could still remember that terror-filled hour. Her mother had been so sure that she was going to lose another daughter.

"See!" Rose laughed at her mother's indignant frown.

"That's enough girls. Go on and pick up Lissie. She's smart enough now to try hitchhiking rather than walking."

"Yes ma'am," both Vaughn girls chimed. They each dutifully kissed their mother's cheek.

"I know you're going to have a good time tonight, but please don't stay out too late. And call your father if you need a ride. The last thing I want to do tomorrow is bail any of you out of jail. I'd be tempted to leave you there. Please keep the embarrassing photos to a minimum. You girls get to fly off when this is over, but your father and I have to live here." Poppy watched her daughters nod in agreement before dashing out of the house while arguing over who got to drive and betting on which wig Lissie had chosen to wear for the evening. They'd grown up so fast. It seemed like only a few years ago she'd been baking cookies for bake sales and pitching a tent on Girl Scout camping trips. Where had the time gone?

Nick crossed the room and slapped his friend on the shoulder. "Come on, man. You and I have dinner reservations."

"But, I thought -." Robert glanced back and forth between Poppy and Nick. He'd assumed they were going to have dinner at the house. He'd actually looked forward to a big, boisterous family meal.

"Tomorrow night. Triple Trouble won't be in until late. Girls' night or something like that," Nick explained.

"Oh, Triple Trouble. I like that," Poppy commented. She was grateful that she had daughters who got along so well, but she could attribute every gray hair on her head to her girls.

"See you in the morning, Mrs. Vaughn." Robert grabbed the keys to his rental car off the hook near the door. Rose and Lily had undoubtedly taken the car Nick had rented.

"It's Poppy, please. You boys have fun!"

By the time Nick and Robert returned, the rental car was back but the lights were off. Robert slipped between the crisp sheets on his bed and was asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow. He'd worry about meeting Lissie Vaughn in the morning.

Robert woke to bright sunshine streaming through the window over the bed. He blinked, rubbed his aching eyes, and swung his feet to the floor. Pulling on a pair of drawstring pants, he stumbled out of the bedroom. Where had Lily said the bathroom was? Taking a guess, he pushed open the first half-open door he came to.

It wasn't a bathroom. The walls were painted a soft yellow color. A laminated periodic table was taped to the back of a closet door. A sleek laptop rested on a cherry desk. The queen-sized bed wasn't made. Clothes were strewn all over the floor.

"That's Lissie's room," Rose spoke up. She lightly grasped his shoulder and turned him around, pulled the door shut. "Bathroom's over there."

"I'm sorry."

"It's okay. Lissie's down in the water, and I won't tell anyone. Dad bought doughnuts this morning. Grab one and some coffee then join us down by the river. Mom gave us most of the morning for fun time." Rose opened the bathroom door then, with a cheeky wave, thundered down the stairs.

Robert treated himself to a long, hot shower. He'd had a few more drinks than he should have. Nick had toasted everything from his upcoming wedding to his in-laws, to the color of the bartender's tie. Hair still damp, Robert dressed in red swim trunks and an old white t-shirt.

He stuffed two chocolate glazed doughnuts in his mouth before grabbing a third and a soda out of the refrigerator. On the countertop, the newspaper was folded so that a large color photo was prominently displayed. He instantly recognized two of the women in the picture. He assumed that the third woman, face turned away from the camera, with blonde hair a shade darker than Lily's platinum blonde and without Rose's red highlights was the infamous Lissie. A glance at the caption confirmed his suspicions. The Vaughn girls are back in town! Pop diva Rose teamed up with Oscar-nominee Lily and camera-shy Lissie for a bachelorette party to remember. Along Sixth Street, there's sure to be a trail of broken-hearted admirers and well-tipped waiters.

Chuckling to himself, he followed the chattering voices down the slight hill. Poppy and Rose were sprawled out in lawn chairs on the water's edge. Lily had her toes in the water. David and Nick were in the water facing the house. A thin woman with light-brown hair pulled back in a ponytail stood, wobbled, on an inner tube held in place by the two men.

Robert swallowed the sugary pastries clogging his suddenly-dry throat. Though last time he saw her she'd been wearing a conservative blue blouse and pinstriped pants, he recognized the woman in the denim cutoffs and pink bikini top.

The woman slowly, carefully, turned around to face Robert. A wide grin split her face. Green eyes twinkled merrily. She wriggled her fingers in greeting. "Hello, Bobby."

Part Three:

Robert blinked to clear his vision. When he looked back at the river, he still saw Amy Lampis, his favorite forensic engineer, standing on a tube surrounded by his best friend and the rest of the Vaughn family. What was she doing here? How had she figured out his identity?

Poppy, ever the peacemaker, swiftly rose to her feet. "Get off that tube before you break your fool neck, Amaryllis Clover Vaughn."

Amy gestured for her father to move out of the way. She shuffled towards the edge of the tube until her heels hung over the edge then fell backwards into the water. She popped up, sputtering and spitting water out of her mouth, on the other side of the tube.

"I'd introduce you to my Lissie, Robert, but I have a feeling the two of you have already met." Poppy grabbed a folded up chair and set it up for Robert. She hoped he'd take a seat and not rush off. From the anger clouding his face, though, it was a good bet that he'd be dashing off shortly. What had her youngest done this time?

"Bobby and I were staying at the same hotel in New York. We ran into each other my last night there." Amy dunked her head back under the water, came up grinning. "It was fate, I guess. Kismet."

"You don't believe in kismet. It’s not scientific enough for you," Rose pointed out drolly.

"Shut up, Rosey-posey."

"No, you shut up, Lissie."

"Why don't both of you shut up?" Lily shouted to be heard over her bickering siblings. What was it about a warm morning by the water that turned her sisters into screaming five-year-olds?

Rose arched an eyebrow at Amy. Amy nodded, smothering a grin. Before Lily could react, Rose leapt off her chair and shoved Lily forwards. Amy grabbed Lily's hands and yanked her sister into the water. Lily's outraged shrieks echoed off the stone cliff on the other side of the river.

"Good job, sis." Amy held a hand out so Rose could help her out of the river.

"Thank you, sis. You did your part beautifully." Rose handed Amy a folded beach towel. Once Amy had the towel wrapped around her shoulders, they stood side-by-side to face Lily. Teaming up on the oldest was still one of their favorite pastimes.

"I hate you both. A lot."

“Was that you in the picture from last night?” Robert blurted. Now that he was over his shock, he could see the similarities between the blonde woman in the newspaper picture and his brown-haired Amy. He could also see why she’d been mistaken for Lily Vaughn. The sisters had their mother’s nose and their father’s chin. He should have seen it before.

Amy’s eyes went wide. Rose shook her head furiously. Lily made shushing noises. Poppy quelled them all with a single glare that was a blend of disappointment and resignation. Her only consolation was knowing that Rose had been wearing pants and her girls hadn’t come home in the back of a police cruiser. Once was enough for any mother.

“Mom, it wasn’t that bad. I promise. It was only one photo. We behaved ourselves,” Amy did her best to reassure her mother. Turning her head, she smiled softly at Robert. “That was me. When I go out as Lissie Vaughn, I wear the blonde wig. Helps with the whole Vaughn Sisters celebutant thing. It also keeps people from hounding me when I want to stay under the radar. Most people don’t look at me twice when I’m just Amy.”

Ignoring the half-curious, half-chastising scowl her mother was giving her, Amy stood beside Robert. She reached for his hand but stopped before making contact. She didn't want to be rejected outright. "We should talk."

Robert nodded sharply. He followed Amy along the bank of the river. He waited until they were far enough from her family to speak. "You lied to me."

"I lied to you?" Of all the things Amy expected to hear from him, that wasn't one of them. So what if she hadn't explained the whole bit about his BFF marrying her sister? She'd been honest about everything else. He'd been the one to keep her completely in the dark about everything.


"When? When I was telling you all about the job I love? When I was telling you about my childhood and about my family?" Amy clenched her fists until her nails drew blood in her palms. "Tell me just when I lied to you, Bobby."

"You knew who I was."

"Well, yeah. I did." Amy shrugged, fought to control her anger. Yelling at Robert would just send him packing. "I didn't know you were staying there. I didn't follow you. Hell, when I first saw you in the bar, I didn't recognize you."

"But you did the second time around." Regret left a bitter taste in Robert's mouth. All his plans for a life with ordinary, normal Amy Lampis dissipated before his eyes. She hadn't been ignorant about his identity, she'd just been good at hiding it.

Amy rolled her eyes. He really was as moody as the papers made him out to be. "Yes. I figured you were incognito and thought it best keep my mouth shut." When all Robert did was grunt, she lost her grip on her patience. "Let's be honest, Bobby."

"Are you sure we should even bother at this point?"

Amy's lip curled back in a sneer. She pictured herself shoving Robert into the water. Hopefully it would cool him down. "If I'd given you any indication that I knew who you were, how fast would you have been out of there?"

That gave Robert pause. He had to admit that if Amy had shown any signs of recognizing him, he would have spent the rest of the night holed up in his room. "You never told me you were Lissie Vaughn. You introduced yourself as Amy Lampis."

"And you told me your name was Bobby." Amy squatted down to pick up a flat rock. With a deft flick of the wrist, she sent it skipping along the surface of the water. "Did you ever think that maybe I like my privacy, too? Before Rose and Lily made it big, we’d been famous because of Dad and Mom and then Dahlia’s accident. My sisters and I spent most of our childhood under the microscope. I changed my name when I graduated from high school. I wanted out of the spotlight. Amy Lampis could be anonymous. Lissie Vaughn could not."

When they reached the edge of the Vaughn property, Bobby dropped down to sit on the concrete ledge. He stretched out his long legs so that his feet hovered over the water. The hot sun felt good on his bare legs. Amy'd made several good points, and they'd stung. He can't say that he would have done much different if their situations had been reversed.

"I liked that you didn't know who I was. I liked thinking that we could just be a guy and a girl out on the town."

"Then quit acting and move to a remote village somewhere in the rain forest. Stop whining about it. Stop bitching. Just learn to deal!" Amy threw her hands up in disgust. “Do what the rest of us have learned to do: pretend it’s just another role you’re playing. Give the media something to print, and keep the parts you want private. Why do you think the three of us paint LA red sometimes? We’re just as happy having a quiet movie night, but if every now and then we let them publish a few photos of Rose dancing on a bar or Lily buzzed or me punching grabby Dahl Rosini in the face, we get left alone for the other nights.”

“And that works?”

“Has for us. You just have to separate it in your head. Kinda like Lily and Nick having the small family-only wedding here at the house this afternoon. That’s personal. That's the real wedding. Thursday’s church wedding with the four-hundred person guest list and dozens of photographers and expensive finger foods is the show for the public.”

“I just… want my life back.” Robert tugged at his earlobe. What Amy was saying made sense, but he didn’t know if he could do that. Should he have to hide who he was or live a double life? Why couldn’t people just leave him alone? Things were so much easier when he was making low-budget movies and only guest-starring on sitcoms.

"I've read a few of the interviews you've given. You make it sound like being famous is such a burden. You hate it. Listen up, you skinny, freckled, floppy-haired prima donna, there are plenty of people who have been more famous than you and lived somewhat well adjusted lives. Get over it or get out of the business."

"You don't understand."

This time Amy acted on her impulse to shove him into the water. One good push to the middle of his back sent him face-first into the river. "Oh yeah, I wouldn't know the first thing about fame."

Robert wiped the cold water out of his eyes. He stared up an indignant Amy in disbelief. "You shoved me in the water!"

"Damn skippy. Come on out of there and I'll do it again, you big whiny baby."

"No one's done that to me in years."

"Yeah. I can tell. You were overdue." Amy draped her towel across a tree limb before lowering herself into the river. She hissed out a sharp breath. No matter how many years she'd had to get used to it, that first icy touch of water always shocked her.

Robert studied the woman in front of him. Yes, she'd deliberately deceived him, but he was also guilty of lying by omission. She'd known his real identity but hadn't treated him any differently. In fact, she'd behaved around him the same way she behaved around her family. His 'star status' didn't impress her in the least, and she wasn't going to fawn all over him. Even knowing who he was, she'd shared large chunks of her life and her past with him. Did he really want to let her slip through his fingers just because he'd had his pride stung?

Making the decision only took a couple of seconds. He stuck out a hand. "Hi, my name is Robert Addison. You may have seen me in movies like Daughter of Deception and The Chaos Child. Perhaps you caught last summer's box office flop Just the Atmosphere. I'm an actor with privacy issues and an over inflated sense of paranoia. I've been called mercurial, diva-ish, and bland. Apparently I need help dealing with a sudden burst of unexpected fame. Would you like to have dinner with me one night?"

Amy shook his hand, a smile curving her lips. "Hello, Robert. I'm Amaryllis Vaughn, but I prefer Amy. My Dad owns most of Central Texas and has his eye on the governorship. My mom was a model when she was a teen but now it’s her designs that can be seen in magazines. I have a sister who is considered America’s latest sweetheart and another who sings bubblegum pop music so sugary it makes my teeth hurt. I spend my time investigating car accidents and am more familiar with the laws of physics than I am with fashion of any sort, but sometimes I have to play dress up and act like the stereotypical carefree rich girl for the tabloids."

"And?" Robert prompted.

Amy's brow furrowed. Was there something she'd forgotten? When Robert's hand started to go limp, she squeezed it tightly. Oh! "And, I'd love to have dinner with you."

Robert tugged her into his arms, swooped down for a celebratory kiss. There were no blueberries or syrup, but he could still taste forever on her tongue. Once the need for oxygen had him pulling back, he cocked his head at her. "What do you mean 'skinny, freckled, floppy-haired prima donna'?"

Monday, October 31, 2011

Halloween fluff with Duke & Viola

Happy Halloween, y'all.
I have my devil horns headband, the tail that attaches to the back of my jeans, my black cat socks, and a big bowl full of Snickers. Tubular Bells and the theme from Psycho have been playing on my computer speakers all day. It's like Christmas round one. My co-workers don't necessarily share my enthusiasm (though they don't mind the candy or the pumpkin cupcakes).

Here's a little Duke and Viola backstory to celebrate the Wfsals' favorite holiday.

October 2001

The Ashwood house wasn't on his way home, but Duke veered off course just to check. He'd been stuck helping Sebastian and Viola clean up after the two little McClary bastards down the street had papered and shaving-creamed the entire house. If a five-minute detour meant he didn't have to waste an entire morning picking up soggy toilet paper, then he didn't mind in the least.

Of all the things he expected to see when he drove by the red, two storey house, the blazing porch light wasn't one of them. Sebastian had been bragging about his invitation to some fancy Halloween party for weeks. Olivia lived on the Rice campus and rarely returned to the house during the week. The littlest Ashwood hadn't said much about her plans, but he'd assumed she had a rave or party or séance penciled in her date book.

He parked his truck in the driveway, grabbed his leather jacket to fight off the early fall Canadian cold front, and jogged to the front door. A grinning skeleton pointed a bony finger at the doorbell. He rolled his eyes at Viola's obvious handiwork and rang the bell. A tone that reminded him of the Addams Family echoed from inside the house. He heard the slap of bare feet on a tile floor seconds before the door opened.

"Happy Hallo-- oh, it's you." The orange melamine bowl of Snickers and M&Ms was replaced by a cotton-candy pink frown and pale, wrinkled nose. Silver-lined hazel eyes studied him critically. "Nice costume. Almost didn't recognize you. Tracker was a good choice. I especially like the authentic Mokiis stench."

"What are you doing home, Shortcake? Would have thought you'd be out somewhere with the rest of your kind. Isn't this your national holiday or something?"

Pearly white fangs peeked out from under Viola's lips. "Bite me."

Duke took a step back to take in her short, pink skirt, matching t-shirt and the tiny pink flowers clipped in her short, dark hair. The light, pink-themed makeup and long, pink fingernails were something he expected to see on Olivia and not the normally Goth-centric Viola. "Vampire cheerleader?"

"Bunny the Brainless Vampire," she corrected with a fangy grin. She pulled the door all the way open and jerked her head inside in a wordless invitation. "You're scaring away all the trick-or-treaters."

"Seriously, what are you doing home?" Duke's eyes fell to her feet. Neither of her ankles looked swollen and the scratches that had covered her a week ago seemed to have faded. "Still sore after the Graca attack? Bas didn't say anything about you hurting."

Viola waved a hand dismissively. She let the door swing shut and led the way into the living room. "I'm fine. Spent four days in the training room and three days getting my ass chewed by Coach, but I'm fine. Bas grounded me, that' s all."

Duke arched an eyebrow. She'd never let a little thing like being grounded stop her from going out when she wanted. She was sneaky as a cat-burglar. He couldn't count the number of times he'd caught her slipping in or out of the house past her curfew.

Her grin broadened. "It suits my needs to be at home tonight."

"I don't even want to know." He sniffed the air as the mouthwatering aroma of freshly baked cookies wafted from the kitchen. His stomach grumbled. "Are those Granny's snickerdoodles?"

"Yup," she said, popping the p and bouncing on her toes. "She dropped 'em off this afternoon."

"What was she doing here?"

"A favor for me." The smug twinkle in her eyes made it more than clear she wasn't going to expand on the type of favor or the details of his grandmother's visit.

Two minutes later, Duke was in the Ashwood breakfast nook seated across from Viola with a plate of his grandmother's warm, buttery cookies between them and an ice cold glass of milk by his elbow. Every time the doorbell rang, she popped up like a sparkly, demented jack-in-the-box and he stole another cookie.

"So what are you in for this time?" he asked when she returned from yet another doorbell run. He brushed stray crumbs off his lip and nudged the half-empty plate towards her.

"Nothing, yet. Do you know how utterly unfair it is to have a psychic as your guardian?"

Duke chuckled. He did, in fact, know what she meant. His future-seeing grandmother had often punished him for transgressions he hadn't committed. "What'd the wonder weenie see?"

"A's girlfriend is going to dump him in the quad next week. She's been seeing Frankie behind A's back. For weeks. Apparently, I'm going to kick Miranda's ass in the parking lot after track practice."

"Sounds like something you'd do, Via-mia." If this Miranda really was cheating on the nice but freaky dude with the Mohawk, Duke felt sorry for her. He'd watched a nine-year-old Viola verbally emasculate a boy who'd slighted her sister. The girl who’d broken up with Sebastian in college had wound up with slashed tires and a car filled with creepy clown statues.

"Yeah. 'Cept now Miss Miranda and I are going to have a long talk after school tomorrow. I'm not going to wait for her to humiliate A in front of the entire senior class."

"Grounding you didn't do much good, did it?"

"Nope. But double jeopardy means I can't get grounded twice for the same ass kicking. Captain Justice can’t argue against that, can he?"

They shared a laugh. Had Duke been in Sebastian's shoes, he would have kept the details of the vision to himself and punished Viola after she got in trouble. Sebastian still didn't understand how his baby sister's devious mind worked. He kept trying to treat her like she was a carbon copy of himself or Olivia.

Just as they were set to battle over the last cookie, the sound of a bell chiming came from the vicinity of Viola's waist. Small fingers wriggled under the waistband of her skirt and retrieved a small, rectangular box. She shushed Duke with a glare and waited for the bell to chime a second time.

With a manic, gleeful grin, she pressed the button with her thumb. Twin howls filled the air. Duke dashed to the front window. Viola followed at a more sedate pace. Two soaked sheet-clad figures raced off the Ashwood lawn in the direction of the McClary house. Clumps of sodden toilet paper trailed behind them like breadcrumbs.

"Granny warded the yard and I grabbed the remote for the sprinklers." She bumped his hip with hers and dangled the remote under his nose. "Told you I had a good reason for staying home. Wanna make fun of that Ghost Gabbers Halloween special?"

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Mistress of Mercy and Malice preview

Do you know how hard it is to write with a cat in your lap? Especially one who digs her little claws into your leg if you stop petting her for too long? I am busy finishing up Mistress of Malice and Mercy as well as Sometimes it is Rocket Science inbetween work headaches and actual headaches (who knew a toothache could be so bad??)

Now for what you really came here for: a MMM preview

- - -

Six of Bert’s bullets bounced off the demon’s scaled chest. One ricocheting bullet narrowly missed Viola’s thigh. The streetlamp and telephone pole weren’t as lucky. Struggling to resist the temptation of Viola’s black energy, Duke covered the older man while Bert reloaded. He aimed his gun between the Aspisia’s eyes, but the demon’s yellow gaze was locked on Viola’s scarred arm. He took advantage of its distraction and slipped inside its mind.

“It wants to rip you apart because you killed its mate,” he said once he translated the demon’s thoughts. He slowly inched towards Viola careful not to make too much noise or move too swiftly.

Viola tilted her head. She recalled setting ablaze several Folists. “I’m familiar with the feeling.”

“It’s torn between tearing off your head and taking you to Elrachaim. Right now its fear of Elrachaim is trumping its need for vengeance.” Duke eased out of the Aspisia’s mind. He glanced down at Viola’s discarded knife. The mustard-yellow blood dried onto the blade would be nearly impossible to clean off. “How’d you kill the male, Vi?”

“Slit its throat from ear to little ear.”

Duke grimaced. There was no way he was letting her get that close to the female. He struggled to remember the best way to kill a fully-grown female Aspisia. There was a weak spot, but since they rarely ventured out into heavily populated areas he couldn’t…

“Under the chin!” Bert called out from the other side of Viola.

Duke fired first. Three bullets pierced the thin, pale blue skin beneath the demon’s chin. Two of the bullets exited through the top of the demon’s skull. The third took out the Aspisia’s left eye. Brain matter and bone fragments splattered across sedan parked behind the demon. Duke ducked to avoid the stream of thick, yellow blood. It smelled worse than the venom and would make him break out into a rash if it touched his skin.

Drenched in Aspisia blood and skin, Viola jogged to the downed demon’s side with her gun in hand. She checked for signs of life, but the Aspisia was dead. With a sigh, she holstered her gun. She shook her head the same way Finn did after a bath. Yellow liquid splashed Duke’s shirt.

“Thanks, sweetness.”

She opened her mouth to apologize, but snapped her jaw shut when she got a good look at her grinning, almost completely dry husband. “How is it I’m soaked and you don’t have a drop on you?”

“Better reflexes?”

Her left eye twitched at the jab. There was no way his reflexes could be better than hers. She eyed him coolly before breaking out in a beaming smile. Arms flung open, she stalked towards him. “Aw honey, you killed the big, bad demon for me. Let me show my… appreciation.”

He didn’t trust her sugary tone of voice or the mischievous glint in her hazel eyes. As soon as he picked the word ‘hug’ out of her jumbled thoughts, he hastily backed towards Bert. The other man’s dry chuckle implied Duke would get no help from that corner.

“Lady Viola!” Pip’s high, clear voice cut through Viola’s laughter and Bert’s chuckles.

“Saved by the munchkins,” Viola said, stopping an arms’ length from Duke. “This time.”

“Phew,” Pip moaned, waving a hand under his nose. He and his brothers had returned to their normal size but regretted the action. In their natural state, their senses were more sensitive than when they were transformed. “That’s nasty, Lady Viola! It’s worse than Finn farts!”

Duke scooped the three Wfsals off the ground and settled them on his shoulders. He fished his cell phone out of his pocket. Even with his truck and Bert’s, there was no way they could haul two Aspisia corpses and two blood-drenched Trackers. Calling in a team to pick up the second corpse took less than a minute.

“Nicholls and Spitzer are on their way. Spitzer’ll take the female to the work shed. Spitzer will drive Bert’s truck with the male to the house, too.” He braced himself for the explosion his next statement was sure to cause. “I’ll drive you two to the nearest car wash for a quick rinse before we head home. I’ve got a few towels and a bottle of shampoo left over from the last time I had to give Finn a bath.”

Rather than jumping all over him like he’d expected, Viola shrugged and scrubbed at the thin layer of blood dried on her cheeks. “Is it that rosemary flea stuff or the mint shampoo Granny made?”

“Mint, I think.”

She shrugged again. “Works for me. The flea shampoo makes me itch.” She narrowed her eyes at Duke as she remembered the last time he’d taken her to the car wash to clean up after a demon attack. “I’m controlling the hose this time, Tobias.”


“You nearly peeled my skin off last time!”

“Oh? Now who’s exaggerating, sugar?”

Viola stomped towards Duke, lifted the hem of her wet shirt, and pointed to thin, pink line parallel to her navel. “That’s where I hit the muffler of your damn truck when I fell because you hit me so damn hard with the water.”

“Oh no, sweetness. I’m not taking the blame for that one. You slipped because you refused to take off those ridiculous boots and then you insisted on prancing around like an idiot. You’re lucky you didn’t break your neck.”

“Some days I’d like to break yours.”

“And I’d like to see you try.”

“Children!” Bert grasped the squabbling couple by the elbows and dragged them towards the cars. Abelardo owed him at least a case of beer for forcing him to take on the Dukes by himself. A rotation with a coughing, phlegmy partner would have been a less irritating experience.

“Sorry, Bert.” Viola craned her neck to stick her tongue at Duke behind Bert’s back. “We get a little carried away sometimes.”

Bert grunted in agreement. He supposed it could have been worse. They could have been an overly affectionate couple. He’d rather listen to a quarrel than watch the mating habits of adrenaline-hyped Trackers.

“Karma will get you both,” he said. “Good Lord willing, y’all will have a passel of kids to drive you up the wall like you’ve done to the rest of us.”

Monday, September 5, 2011

Duke/Viola - Spring 2001

Spring 2001

Muscles tense and right palm curled around the gun tucked into the waistband of his jeans, Tobias Duke ran his left thumb along the front door’s deadbolt. Tiny scratches in the silver finish made it clear that someone had picked his lock. Recently. The wards his grandmother updated quarterly were still intact, so the intruder was human. He reluctantly took his hand off the gun.

Slowly and silently, he unlocked the door. He pushed open the door and crept inside the foyer. The lights were off downstairs. He started towards the safe kept in his office when the sound of running water over his head stopped him in his tracks. Someone had broken into his house to take a shower?

A long, black ribbon curled around the banister caught his attention. He pinched the ribbon between two blue goo stained fingers and held it up. Tiny white skulls dotted the wide ribbon. His jaw tightened as the faint hint of rosemary and sweat.

When he was on rotation, he tended to keep his mental barriers up. The last thing he needed was to be distracted by foreign thoughts when tracking a demon. In the safety of his home, he let his barriers slip and concentrated on the showering intruder. He caught a glimpse of familiar chaos before a wall slammed up between his mind and the intruder’s.

Feminine laughter echoed in his head. “Stay out, you big perv or I’m gonna tell Granny.”

“Viola,” he growled, taking the stairs two at a time. The upstairs guest bath was empty. He rolled his eyes at his own naiveté. Why would Viola bother to use a guest bathroom when his was free?

His bedroom light was off, but the lights in his bathroom were on. He dropped his Tracking pack on the floor beside his bed and stalked to the bathroom doorway. The shower curtain was pulled to one side and two damp towels were piled on top of the closed toilet lid. The back of a purple tank top and a dark auburn ponytail greeted him.

“You’re home early,” Viola observed mildly, not bothering to turn around.

“What are you doing, Vi?” Duke folded his arms across his chest and leaned against the doorjamb. He winced when the door hinge dug into the fresh bruise on his right shoulder. The thought of a hot, steamy shower had kept him going for the last hour of a rough rotation. He wanted nothing more than to pick up Viola by her ponytail and toss her out of his bathroom.

“Cleaning up. I was with Max when the call came in about the four Irgins in the Heights. Since you and Bas were busy with the demons in Conroe, Max and Vic went after the Irgins. Max thought it would be good training for me so I tagged along.” There was a pause as Viola splashed water onto her legs and rinsed her soapy hands. “Man, no one said anything about how foul Irgins are. I don’t think Max is ever going to get the stench out of his truck. I offered to set it on fire for him so he could get a new one, but all that got me was a ten-minute lecture on insurance fraud.”

Duke mentally counted to thirty. It did nothing to soothe his mounting anger. “Viola,” he snapped, “what are you doing here?”

“Cleaning.” She bit her tongue to stop the duh that wanted to follow. Regardless of what her brother and sister thought, she did have a few self-protective instincts. She swiveled her shoulders, careful to keep her face out of view, and pointed at the tattered tights near Duke’s boots. “Turns out I’m not as fast as I’d like to think I am. The cuts are shallow, but the blood was sticking to my tights and it was driving me crazy.”

Duke inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly. He reminded himself that his grandmother was inordinately, unexplainably fond of the littlest Ashwood and would slap him silly if he wrung the girl’s neck. He had only himself to blame for his frustration, anyway. He’d forgotten that one had to be very, very specific when dealing with Viola.

“What. Are. You. Doing. In. My. Bathroom?”

“Oh!” Viola chuckled, reached for one of the towels. She spun around and dried her pale legs. Streaks of red criss-crossed her shins. She ducked her head down, refused to meet Duke’s furious stare. “Well, Bas doesn’t ‘xactly know about my little trip with Max and judging by the radio chatter I heard, tonight’s not a good night to tell him.”


“Sooo,” she bit her lip and flashed him a quick grin, “I couldn’t go home. I thought I’d pop in here real quick to clean up and then head out to the rave on Scott.”


She coughed. “I mean the study session at Aaron’s. Study party. Promise. Do you have a pair of black socks I can borrow? My boots are downstairs.”

Duke pivoted sharply, stomped into his bedroom. He yanked open a drawer, retrieved a pair of black socks, and tossed them at Viola’s head. “Out, Shortcake.”

“No problemo. Just give me a sec to clean up.”

“I’ll clean up.” Duke’s eyes narrowed suspiciously when she started folding one of the towels. He recognized a stall tactic when he saw one. “Now, Vi.’

She winced at his sharp tone. “Okay. Okay. No need to bite my head off.” She dropped the towel, grabbed her ripped tights, and tugged down the hem of her black-and-silver skirt. “See ya, Tobias.”

Lips pursed, Duke’s arm shot out to block the doorway when she started to brush past him with her face firmly pointed towards her pale toes. “Hold up, kiddo.”

She blew out a heavy sigh. “Talk about bipolar. Stay or go. Which is it?”

“Look at me.”

“Uhh… no. I’m not feeding your ego tonight.”

“Look at me, Viola.”


Duke grasped her chin between to fingers and forced her face up. The entire right side of her face was red and swollen. Her lip was split and the bruise had already started to turn purple. “A little slow, huh?”

“Okay, way slow.” Viola shrugged. “I shouldn’t have had that second burger for dinner. Or the shake.”

“How were you going to explain that shiner to Bas?”

“Raves are dangerous. He’d have been pissed and grounded me, but he wouldn’t have banned me from Tracking.”

Duke released Viola’s face. He silently kissed his plans for an early night goodbye. “You need to ice that or your eye will swell shut. Go downstairs and put an ice pack on that. Don’t leave.”

Viola knew better than to challenge the angry glint in his eyes. Duke was one of the few people capable of tracking her when she tried to disappear. She nodded, slipped past him and scurried to the hallway. “Want me to make you a sandwich or anything?”

“Just get the ice and park your ass on the couch. I’ll be down in a minute. We’ll watch SportsCenter and then I’ll have a look at your legs. They should be disinfected. I’m too tired to drive you home, and I don’t trust you with my truck. You can crash here tonight.”

“Thanks, Tobias. You’re the best.” Viola beamed at Duke before skipping to the stairs. The smile slid from her face when his next words reached her.

“First thing in the morning, I’ll call Sebastian to pick you up.”

Sometimes it is Rocket Science snippet

I know, I know. Mistress of Malice and Mercy is what everyone is waiting for, but I've been working like a fiend on Sometimes it is Rocket Science, and I do hope that y'all love this project as much as I do.

Here's a snippet from a mid-book chapter:

“Is Ken sleeping?”

Georgiana whirled around with a hand pressed to the fluttering pulse in her neck. She hadn’t heard Robert’s approach. “Jesus,” she panted, “I’m going to put a bell on you.”

“I’ll leave the collar to the four-legged residents, if it’s all the same to you.” Robert stuffed his hands in the pockets of his jeans and leaned against the doorjamb across from Georgiana.

“I was thinking more along the line of elf shoes.” Her lips twitched. Her eyes fell to his bare feet. “You know, the pointed, floppy ones with the big bells on the curled ends?”

“Perhaps you should get some sleep, Georgiana.”

“Can’t. Things to do.” Georgiana scrubbed at her gritty eyes and rolled her tense shoulders. “Monday and Tuesday I’m booked up with meetings. I need to discuss Hayes with the board. I haven’t looked over Ken’s physics project like I promised. Dan’s coming home soon, and I want to make sure everything’s perfect for him.”

“You need to take a break before you burn out.” Robert crossed the width of the hallway with one step. He cradled her jaw with a warm hand and brushed his thumb across the dark shadows under her eyes. “You won’t do Ken or Dan any good if you make yourself sick. Besides, a fresh mind will allow you to see things with a new perspective.”

Her eyelids drifted closed. She instinctively leaned towards his warmth. The spicy tang of his possibly-pheromone laden aftershave wrapped around her like a thick, downy comforter.

“Take a break with me, doll.” Robert’s voice dropped in pitch and lost the smooth veneer of refinement. The gravelly tone with its slight twang was the voice she remembered from their childhood. “Relax a little. Unwind. I’ll open a bottle of wine. We’ll watch a movie or one of those science shows you set NORA up to record. Whatever you want.”

“Mmm.” The tension built up at the back of Georgiana’s neck and across her shoulders melted like butter in a hot frying pan. Her palms itched with the need to pull him closer and bury herself in his arms. It was easy to understand why he never lacked for female companions.

“What do you say?”

“I say…” Georgiana reluctantly slipped out of Robert’s light embrace and inhaled sharply to clear her muddled head. “I say I need a small glass of Baileys and a slice of chocolate cheesecake.” When Robert’s face fell, she sighed and linked her fingers with his. “There’s enough for two.”

“Thanks, doll.”

In the kitchen, she filled two glasses with ice while Robert retrieved the Irish cream from the wet bar in the formal living room. Rather than divvy up the cheesecake and dirty plates, she left the quarter cheesecake on its plate and handed Robert a fork. The cool, sweet Irish cream was perfect with the firm, decadent chocolate cheesecake.

“Not usually how you spend a Saturday night, huh?” Georgiana dragged a forkful of cheesecake through a puddle of chocolate sauce. She hooked a foot under the rungs of her barstool and scooted closer to Robert. She spun the tablet computer near his elbow around and pressed the button to turn it on.

“It’s no charity gala or champagne-soaked soiree, but it has its perks.” Robert winked, popped a piece of crust in his mouth. His toes slowly brushed across the sole of her left foot. “Especially when it comes to the company.”

- - -
Hope y'all have a great (short!) workweek!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Football party snack

2 parts herb & garlic goat cheese + 1 part cream cheese (both softened) blended & piped in celery stalks = yum. Now I won't feel so guilty for eating a bowl (or two) of chips!

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Mistress of Malice of Mercy teaser

Viola snatched the sleeping bag out of his hands and tossed it on the couch. “I’ve had my Goth Gabby sleeping bag since I was fourteen. There is nothing wrong with Goth Gabby.”

“She’s creepy,” Sebastian said, panting and sweat-soaked. He dropped a handful of bags onto the floor by Viola’s feet and collapsed on the recliner. “It’s those big, black eyes. I hated the posters you used to have in your room.”

“Big baby.” She stuck her hand in the nearest bag and pulled out a package of rapid-dissolving toilet paper. Her eyebrows disappeared under her bangs. “Really? Seriously, Tobias? That’s it. You are not allowed to shop when you’ve been drinking. I’m instructing Wiff to confiscate your wallet next time.”

Duke's cheeks turned a bright pink. He wished his father were around to offer up an explanation. “Just in case there’s poison ivy or something like it in Wylan.”

She leaned across the canyon of purchases between them and pressed her lips to his scratchy cheek. “Aww, that’s very sweet, honey.”

Buoyed by her kiss, he wrapped his good arm around her waist and hauled her onto his lap. “Well, you’ve got delicate skin, skin I happen to be very fond of, and I’d hate for something to happen to it while I’m not there to care for it.”

Sebastian gagged. “I think I liked it better when you two were fighting. Ow!” He rubbed the side of his head and tossed the throw pillow back at his grinning sister. “I like the pink water bottle best. You’ll look like a pretty, pretty princess, sis.”

“Hey!” Wiff scaled Sebastian’s leg and poked him in the belly button. “I picked that out.”

“And it’s lovely,” Viola declared, glaring her brother into submission. “I’ll think of you every time I use it, Wiff.”

“So does that mean you’ll think of Duke every time you use the toilet paper?”

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Soundtrack Tuesday - Both Sides Are Even

Good Tuesday morning! I hope everyone recovered from the weekend.
This next song fits in with the third book. Without wanting to give away too many spoilers, here it is:

Both Sides Are Even from The Boxer Rebellion.

Later this week, I'll post another snippet from Mistress of Malice and Mercy. Progress has been great on Somtimes it is Rocket Science, too.

Here's hoping it's another great week (heat index be damned!).

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Mistress of Malice and Mercy previews

It's Sunday. It may mean the end of the weekend and time to get ready for work again, but fortunately it's meant a day of writing. To celebrate, I'm offering up two previews of Mistress of Malice and Mercy.

Now, I've already mentioned that we'll see Duke's mother. And you thought Viola had the only dyfunctional family in the series...

There was an unfamiliar car parked in his driveway. Duke motioned for Wiff to crawl into his front pocket. The wards around the house hadn’t gone off, so the uninvited guest wasn’t a demon or a person with malicious intent. The small, nondescript sedan was empty. He took note of the sticker on the back bumper. The car was a rental.

After parking the truck, Duke dropped the tailgate and managed to get Finn onto the ground without tearing his stitches or injuring the dog. Duke’s hand inched around so that it rested on his FN Five-Seven USG. Rather than race towards the house, Finn remained pressed against Duke’s legs. When they neared the porch, Finn’s lips curled back to reveal sharp, white teeth. He growled warningly at the figure in red reclining on one of the wrought iron chairs.

The tension slipped off Duke’s shoulders. His hand fell away from the gun. The intruder was going to ruin the rest of his day, but she wasn’t going to hurt anyone. He sent a quick alert to Viola letting her know that he was going to have to skip their lunch. When Finn tensed, he patted the dog’s head. “It’s okay, boy.”

Finn growled again. He lifted his large head and snapped his teeth at the blonde, middle-aged woman. Duke huffed, swatted Finn’s ears. “That’s enough. You really are Vi’s mutt, aren’t you?”

Finn sat on Duke’s foot to prevent him from moving any further.

“I didn’t know you had a dog, Toby,” the woman on the porch said. She gracefully rose and walked to the edge of the first porch step. She curled her hands around the painted beam and leaned against it.

In the attic was a picture of the woman in a similar pose. The artist, a local talent who’d done the painting as a birthday present, had captured the blonde’s soft facial structure and ivory skin. Dressed in a flowing, butter-yellow sundress, she looked like the goddess of the dawn caught in a moment of quiet reflection. Paul Duke consigned the painting to a dusty corner of the attic the same day his wife of thirteen years presented him with divorce papers.

“What are you doing here, Mom?”

- - -
And this one takes place a little later. I just love Duke and Viola.
- - -

The pressure and anxiety that had settled on Viola’s shoulders dissolved like fog in the sun when she saw Duke waiting on the steps of his grandmother’s front porch. As soon as the car rolled to a stop, she flung open the door and raced up the driveway. Duke stood up, opened his arms in invitation, and braced for impact.

“No, no, that’s okay, Vi. I’ll get the door. It’s not like I’m going to have my hands full or anything.” Sebastian avoided the sight of his friend and baby sister making out like teenagers under the bleachers after a football game. He didn’t want to ruin his appetite for Aggie Duke’s gumbo. After kicking shut the door Viola had left open in her haste to greet Duke, he grabbed the two boxes of chocolate meringue pie from the backseat.

He deliberately bumped Duke’s shoulder as he passed the kissing couple on the way up the stairs. Neither broke for air. “If you’re not inside in two minutes, I’m going to get the garden hose,” he said. Viola stopped holding the back of Duke’s head long enough to flip Sebastian off; Duke did the same with the hand that had been gripping his wife’s hip. Sebastian rolled his eyes and stalked into the house.

At the slamming of the screen door, Duke unglued his lips from Viola’s. “Wait…,” he panted, glancing around for Sebastian. He’d been on the porch watching for them for a reason. Not that getting to enthusiastically greet his wife wasn’t good enough motivation all on its own.

“What? Why?” Viola scraped her short nails across his skull, tugged on his left earlobe when he didn’t immediately turn back to her. She unwound her legs from around his waist and dropped lightly to the ground.

“Never mind, I can’t remember.” Duke dipped his head to kiss the sharp jut of Viola’s collarbone. The unexpected tickle of soft, short hair thwarted his plans to kiss every inch of skin exposed by her v-neck shirt. He ran the tip of a finger from the point of her chin to her navel. It was a good thing he wasn’t allergic to cats, demonic or otherwise.


Her arms tightened around his neck. The gravelly way he murmured endearments weakened her knees and set her blood on fire in the most delicious ways. “Yeah, Tobias?”

“You’re covered in Chaisan hair.”

Viola glanced down at her shirt. She hadn’t noticed the white and brown fur stuck to the front of her gray shirt. No wonder Tom had been reluctant to hug her when she’d left Burkeholt.

“One of the little monsters took one of my bracelets. I had to get it back.” She held her wrist up and flicked at the small charms dangling from the sturdy silver chain. The ghost-themed bracelet had been a graduation present from her Network mentor. “After wrestling with Finn for over a year, it was like taking candy from a baby.”

Duke tucked a wisp of dark hair behind her ear. Catching something off in the symmetry his mother had pointed out earlier, he took a small step back to get perspective. It only took a second to pinpoint the source of the imbalance. She had two holes in each ear but only three earrings. “You’re missing one of your hoops.”

Her hand flew to her ear. She’d worn cheaper earrings because of the Chaisans, but having been so easily duped still rankled. She slumped forward and thumped her head against Duke’s shoulder. “I hate cats.”

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Sometimes it is Rocket Science snippet 2

I hope everyone had a wonderful weekend.  It was hot here, of course, but we made it through just fine.  I dragged JT to garage sales looking for the perfect piece of furniture to go in my newly redecorated living room.  After three hours, we went to WalMart and I picked up a pretty, cherry cabinet.  Now if only I could keep the Terrors off it!

I have been busy, busy working on Mistress of Malice and Mercy (half-finished, yay!) and Sometimes it is Rocket Science (also half-finished, another yay!).  Here is another snippet of SiiRS:

Georgiana paused in the doorway to Yvonne’s office to let her assistant know she was giving Robert a tour of the building. The elevator ride to the lobby was uncomfortable. Despite his earlier laughter, she was afraid he was still hung up on her comment about trust. The orange indicator light switched from 12 to 11. She slammed her hand on the emergency stop button.

“Dan has joint custody of Ken,” she blurted, throat tight and eyes fixed on the closed doors. “Not his stock or trust, that’s all on me, but over Ken’s wellbeing. It’s how Dad set it up. Dad trusted your father with one of the most important things in his world. I’m following Dad’s example.”

Robert was silent, but she knew he was listening. She exhaled shakily and, glad she’d worn heels that made their height difference negligible, met his inscrutable stare. “Daniel was there when Mom died and again for Dad’s death. Trusting him is like breathing because he’s always been there. I’m sorry, Bobby, but I just don’t know you that well any more.”

“I know you would have wasted away your freshman year if I hadn’t dragged you out of the library for meals.” Robert held up a hand to stave off the impending rebuttal. “You would have been late to every one of your classes if I hadn’t given you that tour or drawn you a map.”

Her lips curved upwards at the mention of the last time she and Robert had spent quality time together. Her first year at MIT had been his last. He’d taken time out of his busy schedule wowing professors and seducing undergrads to show Georgiana around. As children, they’d bonded over the isolationism of being the children of wealthy, famous parents and the tribulations that went along with genius. In college, they’d commiserated about expectations and overprotective fathers. After Robert’s MIT graduation, he’d gone to Oxford for an additional year of study. Their friendship rapidly faded to polite nothings at social functions and impersonal holiday cards.

I also know you wouldn’t have passed that Elements of Software Construction class without my help,” he continued.

Georgiana shook off the melancholy to glare at him. “Oh? And who was it that helped you with that Statistical Physics class when they were, oh I don’t know, in high school?”

Robert’s rumbling laughter bounced off the elevator’s metal walls. “You are aware that when you say ‘high school’ it does not mean the same as it would for anyone else, aren’t you?”

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Sometimes it is Rocket Science snippet

I know I've mentioned this often enough, but I am working on a contemporary romance/romantic suspense story.  It's a challenge trying to avoid demons and magic, but that's what science is for!  I had contemplated publishing this under a different name to avoid confusion, but nixed that idea (though I have posted a draft under a different name).  Since I love family dynamics, Georgiana's relationship with her younger brother features heavily into the story, as does Robert's relationship with his father.  This is also set in Houston and features talking houses, robots, and quirky assistants.

Sometimes it is Rocket Science
(working title, natch)
Already overwhelmed by responsibilities, robotics whiz Georgiana doesn't have time to deal with traitors, murderous CEOs, or Robert's persistent seduction.

Here's a snippet from Chapter Two:

Robert spotted Georgiana seated on the hood of his hired town car chatting with the chauffeur. As soon as he was within earshot, Georgiana shook her head and slid off the hood. He was disappointed to note that her slight smile had disappeared and her face was once again closed off.

“Are you staying at Dan’s or at a hotel?” she asked.

“Mmm,” Robert hummed. “Angling for a dinner invitation, already? I will admit that I am not used to dining solo.”

Georgiana rolled her eyes, shoved her hands in the pockets of her hoodie. “I don’t know why you bother flirting with me. It’s never going to work.”

Robert leaned forward so that the tip of his nose grazed her cheek. The citrusy tang of her perfume was light and intoxicating. “I never say never, Georgiana.”

He was rewarded by a shiver and the dilation of her pupils. Despite what she claimed, she wasn’t completely immune to him. He rocked back on his heels and grinned rakishly. “I’m in the mood for a nice, juicy steak. You look like you could use the iron.”

“I don’t need… I’m not…” Georgiana’s cheeks were red. Irritation sparkled in her eyes. Her face scrunched up a moment before smoothing. “I wasn’t asking you to dinner.”

“That’s a shame. Now I’m heartbroken and hungry.”

She snorted. “You’d have to have a heart first.” She leaned against the town car and jerked her pointed chin towards a blue Audi sports coupe parked nearby. “I’ll follow you to the house. Dan changed the locks last year, and I should explain about NORA.”

“Who is she? I wasn’t aware Dad had a housekeeper on staff.”

Georgiana’s lips twitched. “Oh,” she said, “I think this you’re just going to have to see. NORA is something you need to experience to understand.”

Soundtrack... Thursday? "Spectacular Girl" - Eels

Oh, I know I'm very late with this. Blame it on the pre-vacation craziness, the vacation itself, and the post-vacation laziness. This is just a sweet song that fits perfectly for Viola and Duke.

I am still working furiously on Mistress of Malice and Mercy and my romantic suspense. More Duke and Viola to come soon. I hope y'all have a wonderful holiday weekend.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Birthday Present

Okay, so it's my birthday, but I thought I'd give y'all the present.

I have been utterly swamped with work, getting ready for my trip, and working on both Mistress of Malice and Mercy and my contemporary romance (which I may start posting snippets of, if you'd like). I did manage to get this very short, early Duke & Viola piece done.


A noisy, crowded outdoor party in The-Second-Wheatfield-Beyond-The-Middle-Of-Nowhere, Oklahoma was the last place Duke wanted to be. Since he’d stopping traveling with the Ashwoods, though, Bert had made it clear that Duke needed to make sure his Trackers remembered his name and his face. Tommy Calhoun, Duke’s eyes and ears in the Oklahoma City area, had invited him to their pre-busy summer season bash.

He took a sip from his plastic cup of warming beer and ignored the sweat trickling down his spine. Though the sun had set over an hour earlier, it was hot even a good distance from the bonfire they’d lit before the first stars twinkled. He nodded at a pair of Trackers he remembered attending one of his database training sessions.

He opened his mouth to start a conversation, when an unforgettable, feminine laugh reached his ears. His jaw snapped shut. Muscles tense, he whipped out his phone and tapped out a text message to his high school best friend Sebastian Ashwood: Where are you?

‘Shreveport,’ came the one word answer.

Duke blew out a sigh of relief. He was always happy to have a six-hour drive between him and Sebastian’s little sister, his nemesis/friend/sorta-trainee. Relaxed, he asked the two closest Trackers about the funniest thing that had happened on their last rotation and forgot all about hazel-eyed, Goth-wannabe imps.

Forty minutes later, he edged closer to the bonfire. The heat was no longer unbearable, and the sweat drying on his back was actually a little cool. He stopped dead in his tracks at the sound of that impossible, unmistakable laugh. His head swiveled around as he tried to find the source of the laughter. If the party hadn’t been so crowded, or full of people with unique abilities like his own, he would have dropped the extra-thick walls surrounded his mind. Her mind was usually the most chaotic in any room, and he knew the feel of her brain as well as he knew his own.

His feet carried him to a grouping of fifteen or so men a dozen feet from the fire. Salsa music, oddly enough, blared from the open windows of the ancient pickup truck that doubled as the bar. A smaller fire had been built specifically for the smokers in the group. The heavy blend of cigarette and cigar smoke made his eyes water, but it was what he saw near the center of the circle that made the breath catch in his throat.

A slim, dark-haired gypsy in a long, gauzy pink skirt, matching halter, and jingling bracelets grabbed the hand of the nearest Tracker and dragged him into her dance. Her skirt whipped around her calves and her loose hair, curling in the humidity, bounced around her grinning, elfin face. When her dance partner planted large, calloused hands on the bare skin between the hem of her skirt and her shirt and dipped her, she threw her head back and laughed merrily.

Duke’s plastic cup crumpled in his hand. He shook off the warm beer and elbowed his way into the circle. It was obvious that every man watching her dance was under her spell. He longed for a water hose or a bucket of ice. A growl rumbled low in his chest.

He expected her to notice him right away. He waited for her eyes to widen with surprise, for her cheeks to flush with shame and not giddiness, and for her to gravitate to his side like she always did. He mentally prepared a lecture on attending parties like this without a chaperone.

Viola Ashwood, lost in the music and the three sweet, high-octane drinks she’d downed earlier, never glanced in his direction. When her dance partner shuffled back to his friend, she simply spun and grabbed the nearest arm. The short, stout man was good for a turn around the fire before he pecked her flushed cheek and slipped out of her grasp.

Freer than she’d felt in over a decade, she giggled to herself and reached out blindly for a new partner. Fingertips hitting skin and coarse hair, she trailed her hands down until she was able to lace her fingers between rough, warm digits and yanked. The palms pressed against hers were familiar, but she chased away that thought as soon as it skittered through her mind. She was at the party to forget about Tobias Duke, not pretend that every man was him.

Her newest partner was surprisingly good. He lacked the awkward reluctance of the others and seemed to anticipate her moves. She smiled beatifically at her partner and lifted her mascara-laden lashes. If she was lucky, it was one of the downright edible Cooper boys who’d been flirting with her all night.

She gasped at the furious blue eyes blazing back at her. The hands twined with hers tightened until they were almost painful. Her heart sped up and her knees turned to jelly momentarily. Courage, bolstered by alcohol, stiffened her spine when Duke dragged her out of the circle. She dug her heels into the soft, red clay.

“Wait a minute, Tobias!”

He didn’t pause for a second. She twisted her hands quickly and pulled herself backwards with surprising strength. Before Duke could grab her again, she disappeared into the crowd. Bewildered, Duke rubbed the back of his neck. It wasn’t like Viola to run away from him.

He found her an hour later slumped on a hay bale next to a dozing, behemoth of a farm boy. The man’s thick, tanned arm was wrapped around Viola’s waist and his beefy bicep acted as her pillow. Four empty cups were piled near her feet; she’d lost one of her delicate, silver sandals and her pink-painted toes were dusted with red dirt.

“Knew you’d fin’ me,” she slurred, peering at him through half-lidded, bloodshot eyes.

He exhaled slowly, reined in his temper. If he came across too harsh, she’d only run. Or get the behemoth to break his jaw. She was unpredictable when mad or drunk.

“I will always find you, Vi,” he responded, not sure whether he meant that as a threat or a promise. Given the rollercoaster of emotions she evoked in him, it was a fifty-fifty split.

“Now who’s th’ stalker?”

Duke perched on the edge of bale in front of Viola. He leaned in close only to pull away at the alcohol fumes wafting off her. “Woah! You’re plastered.”

Her head shot up at the accusatory tone. Her nose crinkled and she kicked half-heartedly at his shins. “’M legal,” she reminded him archly. “Nothin’ you can do ‘bout it now.”

The behemoth’s arm snuggled her back against his chest. Duke’s hackles rose. He stuffed his fists in his pockets to keep from knocking the farm boy away from Viola. “What are you doing here, Shortcake?” He hoped the old nickname would get her to open up. He wasn’t used to not being able to read her thoughts or have her babble on about every idea racing through her mind.

“I,” she started, voice quiet but resolved, “am getting over you.”

Duke’s stomach twisted. He tried to tell himself that he was glad Viola was finally going to stop pestering him with her crush, but something like disappointment settled heavily in his heart. “Vi, sweetheart…”

“And Mikey here’s gonna help me,” she continued.

“It’s Gil.” The behemoth didn’t even open his eyes as he corrected her.

“Whatever.” Viola reached up to tickle the short hair at the nape of Gil’s neck. “Gil is gonna help me f’get all about your stupid face and your stupid hero’sm and your stupid smile and your stupid…”

“Eyes?” Duke suggested helpfully when she floundered.

Everything,” she seethed.

Duke’s patience was wearing thin. He surged to his feet and grabbed her arm. “Come on, Vi. I’m driving you to Shreveport.”

“Wha’s in Shreveport?”

“Your brother.”

She shuddered. “He and Amy are cel’bratin’ their ann’versary.”

“Where’s Olivia?”

Viola shrugged. “I dunno.”

Duke sighed. He was glad his hotel room had two beds. He’d drag Viola back with him, but she was going to have to deal with the hangover on her own. His charity only extended so far.

Gil slowly opened an eye when a Viola disappeared from his grasp. He stared at the swaying, sleepy girl and the angry, blond man holding her up. He recognized the regional head and scratched his chin speculatively. “She yours, boss?”

Duke hesitated. If he said no, there was the potential for jaw-breakage. Saying yes meant… a lot of things he didn’t want to think about surrounded by drunkards and cow patties. “In a way.”

“Am I going to regret letting her go with you?”

“Not as much as I am,” Duke groaned. “Trust me, not near as much as I am.”

The next morning, Viola awoke to a dark, quiet room. A bottle of Tylenol, a bottle of water, and the keys to her rental car were on the nightstand. The trash can was on the floor beside her head. Duke wasn’t in the room, but the faint scent of his soap lingered in the air. She clamped the pillow over her face. Her plan had been a complete failure. She didn’t remember much of the party, and she was dirty, nauseous, sore, and as in love with Duke as she’d ever been.