Vicki Pettersson

The Taste Of Night

The second book in the Sign of the Zodiac series, 2007

For Becky Brahma-

sister, confidante, friend.


It’s funny how a name can change the world’s perception of you. Your perception of yourself. My mother used to stroke my cheek with her fingertips, calling me her Jo-baby-my earliest identity; a child both loved and cherished-though obviously that was before she abandoned me. And while the man I’d once thought was my father just called me Joanna, the way he said it was telling as well, all the syllables crisply clipped and pronounced, like he was biting them off between his teeth before spitting them out. Like being Joanna, like being me, was a bad thing. And then there was the love of my life. He’d called me Jo-Jo, and that was the name I missed most of all.

Because for the past six months everyone had called me by my sister’s name, and it was the one I used on myself now, fluffing my blond hair as I stood in a makeshift dressing room in one of Las Vegas’s most opulent resorts, the Valhalla Hotel and Casino.

“Olivia Archer,” I muttered as I straightened my Chanel pencil skirt, my feet screaming in heels as high as flagpoles. “What the hell were you thinking?”

Of course, she couldn’t answer. The real Olivia was six months dead, and while I still mourned her every day and every minute, even if she’d been here I doubt her answer would’ve made sense to me. I mean, how did one even come up with the idea of selling women to raise money for charity? Much less entering herself in the bidding?

I’d been asking myself this ever since I received the phone call from City of Light Charities two months earlier, asking if the bachelorette auction was still on in spite of “recent events.” I’d then scrambled to make sure it was, as Olivia would’ve done. Because that was one thing I needed to do.

Be Olivia Archer. Or be dead.

And so I stood, staring in the mirror at skin that was supposed to be mine, buffed, fluffed, and shellacked to aesthetic perfection, about to auction myself off to the highest bidder.

“Livvy-girl!” The screech-another of my new names-could be heard above the emcee’s cheery voice as yet another debutante was sold out front. “Olivia! No, no! Get away!”

I whirled, images of honed blades and demon faces assailing me, but there was only Cher, Olivia’s best friend- now mine-waving frantically as she danced from foot to foot. She breathed a theatrical sigh as I picked up my Dior handbag and clicked over to her in my medieval torture devices. Yanking me to her side, she whispered harshly, “That’s the suicide mirror, remember? Leave that for the other hags…er, contestants.”

She batted her thickened lashes when I glared at her. I needed this event to be a success. Which meant cheering on all the other hags. Er, contestants.

“It’s true,” added Madeleine Cross airily, mistaking my annoyance for disbelief. I recognized her from her photo in Vegas’s equivalent of Page Six, and it turned out she was just as vain and self-absorbed as reported. She flipped back a lock of recently streaked auburn hair and ran her finger across a perfectly waxed brow. “Two socialites, sharing that mirror, were brought down by bad press after last year’s event.”

“Social homicide,” Cher said, and both women shuddered.

I wanted to say, But it was for a good cause, and only just managed to keep my mouth shut and face straight. “Oh. Well…thanks. For saving me, I mean.”

“’Course, darlin’! We’re BFFs!” Cher gave my shoulders a squeeze before her gaze strayed over my shoulder and she gasped. “Oh my God! Don’t look!”

We turned, and a squeaky sound from Cher whipped us back around. Madeleine leaned forward to peer at the offending contestant through the critical lens of our mirror.

“She’s using M·A·C lipstick in…” She squinted before drawing back, chin lifted. “Vegas Volt. At least two coats. The whore.”

I leaned over and joined her in study of the woman now perched obliviously in front of the suicide mirror. She was dressed in high-class hooker wear and dripping diamonds, just like the rest of us. “I think she looks good.”

“Olivia!” Cher looked at me like I’d just told her I wore press-on nails. “Priscilla Chambers is her own object of desire!”

“Truly,” said Madeleine, applying more mascara as she rolled her eyes, nearly stabbing herself in the eyeball. “Watch, she’ll bid on herself.”

Olivia had lined up the bachelorettes months before-thank God-and clearly I was missing out on some social nuances. So under the guise of polite inquisitiveness, I probed for more information. “Well, what about her? In blue?”

Cher and Madeleine jostled for mirror time, but neither glanced in the direction of the woman about to take to the stage. “Lena Carradine. Puh-lease.”

Madeleine executed another perfect eye roll. “Queen of the facelift tribe.”

“See where her brows are tattooed? Those used to be her cheeks.”

Tough crowd.

“Ladies?” Oh, thank God, I knew that voice. We all turned to find a reporter standing so close she’d easily copped every word. She smiled. “Could I get a couple quotes for the Las Vegas Sentinel?”

Cher and Madeleine launched into a litany of cliches about charity, peace on earth, and the quest for a good man, and the reporter pretended to jot it all down, an expression of carefully vacuous cheerfulness on her honeyed face. Meanwhile I studied Vanessa Valen; naturally bronzed, exotic as a hothouse orchid, and a woman who had the art of camouflage down to a science. Though I’d seen her do it a hundred times now, it was still mystifying how easily she disappeared in a crowd. She was beautiful, but more than that, she had a rock-solid presence and a will to match. She also had a steel fan with viciously curved claws resting somewhere beneath her tidy reporter’s guise, and was my only real ally at this whole bubble-brained affair. It was all I could do not to latch on to her leg and hang there.

When Cher and Madeleine unexpectedly took a breath at the same time, Vanessa managed to shoehorn in a request. “Perhaps I could have a one-on-one with the chair of the”-here she glanced down at her pad-“Cheesecake for Charity Auction?”

The smirk was slight, but it was there, and I discreetly shot her the bird as I pretended to brush back my hair. Then Cher pushed me forward, amusing Vanessa all the more, and we waited in silence until we were alone.

“Tell me I’m your hero,” Vanessa finally said, tawny eyes twinkling when I turned back to her. “That’s all the thanks I need.”

A heroine’s hero. Yeah, that’s funny. I reached down and rubbed the sole of one foot, wincing. “I’ll repay you with backstage gossip from Vegas’s most famous glitterati. You wouldn’t believe how catty this crowd can get.”

“Please. I may be a superhero, but I’m still a woman.” She glanced around the room with distaste before arrowing back in on me. “Nice shoes, by the way. And quite an event. Even the mighty Henshalls are here. Didn’t

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