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Excerpt: City of Souls

Excerpt: City of Souls

Book 4: The Signs of the Zodiac

Contains SPOILERS!

Hanging out in the perfumed, puke-inducing dressing room of an overpriced boutique was hardly my idea of a good time, but right now it was the only place I could get a moment to myself. Olivia Archer – debutante, casino heiress, and lingerie expert – had been my much beloved sister, and while I still mourned her passing everyday , being her was more involved than I’d ever expected . There were benefits to attend, bachelors to date . . . silk negligees to be purchased. And tonight there was a bachelorette party for one of her BFFs. More than two hundred women flitted around at what had mushroomed into one of the social events of the year. That was why I had to escape behind a pink velvet-covered stall door just to send a text message. Though this wasn’t just any text message.

Where the hell are you?

There. Cryptic enough that if intercepted no one would know it was a text sent from one superhero to another. Imploring enough that Vanessa would find me as soon as possible . She knew these über-feminine social events made me twitchy.

As if on cue, the door to the dressing room was flung open wide, banging against the opposite side to rattle the wall mirrors. ” . . . I mean, she can’t just get married like everyone else, can she?”

“Please. That woman lives for attention.”

I came to attention too, because I knew those voices. Lena Carradine and Madeleine Cross, two of society’s finest. And they were talking about one of my mortals, I thought, narrowing my eyes to peek through a crack in my dressing stall.

“No, first she has to celebrate for an entire week here,” Lena said, flipping back a lock of her auburn hair. Extensions, I sneered, getting a good glimpse of the false locks and mentally patting my own back. Six months ago I never would’ve spotted the bonding glue. “Spend more money than has ever been spent on a Las Vegas wedding – “

“Well, it’s not her money, is it?”

My phone vibrated in my hand. I looked down.

where R U

I frowned. Vanessa Valen knew exactly where I was. She was supposed to be with me. And what was with the truncated text? Her work as a reporter might just be a cover, but
it’d been chosen precisely because she had the grammar bug. She hated sloppy texts.

Just hurry. I wrote back. I can’t do this by myself.

I tucked the phone back in my Dior and smiled wryly. As an agent of Light, I could have just as easily been talking about our enemy Shadow agents, paranormal beings who fed off negative energy, manipulating the mortal population in order to stir up dissension and chaos. Or I could have been referencing a recent training session with the rest of our troop, a matriarchal corps based on the signs of the Zodiac. But no, I meant enduring a whole evening surrounded by society women whose verbal sniping made supernatural battles look like sandbox swipes. As if on cue, Madeleine joined in.

“And then fly off for another weeklong Indian celebration. I mean, where is Hindu, anyway?”

“It’s where the guy in your iPhone lives.”

I’d only taken over my deceased sister’s identity, life, and lifestyle a year ago, but I’d already met Lena and Madeleine. Saying they were self-absorbed and vain was like saying Madonna craved attention. It was a hunger without end.

And now they were devouring one of their own. “And talk about tacky. I mean, are we in her native Texas with all these gourmet barbecue sauce party favors?”

Okay, so she had a point there. The hot sauce didn’t exactly fit with the boudoir theme.

“Or some third world country with their barbaric beauty customs?”

Lena was referring to the henna that had been painstakingly applied to our hands the day before, intricate whorls, dots, and swoops that had turned our bodies into eastern art. Mine had been a beautiful mandala, often depicted in sand paintings by Buddhist monks. I’d chosen it because it symbolized the cosmos that – as a member of Zodiac troop 175, paranormal division, Las Vegas – had recently become a very important part of my life. Yet the drawing had washed off in the shower without leaving the faintest trace of red dye. The woman of the hour, Suzanne, had been devastated.

“Or just Vegas, with that gawdy neon runway and oversized disco ball?”

Wait, wait. Texas and India were one matter. But pick on my hometown? Now I’d had enough. Besides, what normal person didn’t like disco balls?

Kicking open the door of the dressing room stall, I had the satisfaction of seeing them both gasp and whirl, hands to chests and mouths. Sure, it was an entrance more befitting Joanna Archer than her perfect socialite sister, Olivia, but I was trying to make a point . . . and, again, I was both.

“You’re forgetting something ladies,” I said, slipping in front of the beveled three-way mirror. I patted the back of my long blond hair. “She’s marrying an Indian prince.”

Madeleine could only respond by lifting her chin. Her face had been long frozen into a permanent expression of surprise. Botulism was so unpredictable. “So what’s next? A friggin’ tepee and a sweat lodge?”

“Indian, sweetie,” I emphasized, pointing to the middle of my forehead. “Dot, not feather.”

“Yes, and one of the most esteemed businessmen of our generation.” The words flowed more smoothly than the silk pooling at Suzanne’s feet as she glided in from the festivities. The notes of Chopin were muted by the shutting of the door as she shot a conspiratorial wink my way. “How I snagged him, I’ll never know.”

I smiled at the well-timed entrance.

I knew how. I’d sent Suzanne and Cher on a trip to Fiji the month before to remove them from the direct line of fire of supernatural enemies who’d see them dead just to get to me. True to form, Suzanne had returned engaged to a high-profile textiles magnate so wealthy he made every
casino tycoon in town look like a pauper. Including Olivia’s father – and the man I’d once thought was mine, too – Xavier Archer.

Of course, the big news on the gossip circuit was the question Suzanne had just voiced. How had a forty-something-year-old widow enticed a younger, infamous bachelor with homes in Bombay and London, a chalet in the south of France, and romantic liaisons on every continent, into suddenly becoming the marrying kind? The announcement of their million-dollar wedding hadn’t only made headlines in Vegas, it’d been blazed across the international press, complete with full accounts of past trysts on each side, and close-up shots of the size of the diamond on her left hand.

The one, I noted, that she lifted now to brush back a tendril of honeyed hair. It was obviously the first time Lena had seen the rock up close since she gaped like an air-deprived guppy, though Madeleine pretended not to notice. Still, the scent of envy wafted from her like fresh-cut grass gone sour.

If there was one thing I had, it was a strong sense of smell.

Suzanne glided to my side and we both turned to the mirror, physically aligned across, and in front of, the other women. I was in the Vegas Girl uniform – designer jeans, expensive heels, and tiny top – appropriate for my socialite cover, though not too ostentatious. I could still move
comfortably and hide my blades. Suzanne, on the other hand, wore a traditional Indian wedding lengha, the full-length blue and gold skirt marrying well with the intricate bindi sparking off her forehead. However, hidden beneath it all was a pair of crystal and sequined-encrusted cowboy
boots, because she insisted on being comfortable. Bless her heart. I didn’t have the heart to tell her she looked like a culturally confused Barbie doll.

“I do so admire your confidence, Suzanne,” Lena finally said, eyes arrowing cruelly on the toes of those sparkling shit-kickers. “I’d be afraid a younger, perkier model would come by and snag him right back.”

“Of course you would,” Suzanne clucked sympathetically. Lena didn’t seem to know how to take that.

“How long does the prenup last?” Madeleine asked, in an overly high voice. “Mine was good for ten years.”

“But those first nine were good ones, weren’t they?” Suzanne shot back, unperturbed. “And you guys did throw the best parties.”

“I still do,” Madeleine huffed.

“Well I wouldn’t know. I haven’t been invited since Harry left.” She tilted her head so that her bindi winked. “That’s very interesting, now that I think about it.”

Realizing the pickle she’d gotten herself into, Madeleine stiffened. I knew that her former husband, like all the former husbands in this social circle, had courted Suzanne for a bit after his divorce, but I didn’t know what Madeleine found more insulting, that or the way Suzanne had quickly, gently, shot him down.

“Well, there’s my fabulous Christmas fete next month. I’ll make sure my assistant has your current address.”

“Great. Tell her it hasn’t changed.”

I put my hand on Suz’s arm, like I’d just realized some- thing. “And next year her assistant can just forward it to the palace.”

Suzanne tilted her face up to mine. “Oh, that does simplify things, doesn’t it?”

I nodded sweetly.

Madeleine swallowed tightly. “Come, Lena. The Martino girls just got back from Europe. I want to hear all about the Milan shows.”

They left in a cloud of burnt sugar – their pique – and marinated violets – their perfume – and Suzanne said nothing for a moment, studying her nails like they were of great interest. I knew she was mentally rebuilding the wall of morale Madeleine’s and Lena’s words had chipped at. I’d done the same enough times as Olivia that I recognized the need, so I fumbled in my bag and began lacquering my lips in the mirror.

“Suz, can I ask you a question?” I finally said, pulling the gloss wand away.

“Sure, honey.”

I rubbed my lips together. “Well, Madeleine and Lena have a point. Women around the world have been trying to attract Arun for years. So why – “

“Why me?” she asked with a raised brow.

“Why not you?” I said hurriedly, patting her arm. “But . . . why do you think he chose you?”

She thought for a moment, and then smiled. “Well, I’m attractive enough I suppose. And my pedigree is acceptable to his family, even though I’m widowed, and I’m a westerner.”

“There are other attractive, available, acceptable women out there,” I pointed out.

She inclined her head. “But most of them are afflicted. They’re ill. Like Lena and Maddy. Pretty enough, but . . . “

She let her words trail off and shrugged like I should know what she meant. I didn’t. “Afflicted with what?”

Suzanne took me by the shoulders. “Here. Look in the mirror.”

I did so reluctantly. I confess, my exterior sometimes overwhelmed me, and it wasn’t just because I looked like the sister I’d lost and loved. She was just so . . . much. Blond locks, sky blue eyes, breasts that were perkier than a game show host, and a waist that had been so perfectly nipped and tucked I looked like a bendable straw. I was so much.

“There’s this mental illness, right? It’s called ‘anhedonia.’ It means ‘without pleasure.’ You can look it up, though all you really have to do is look around.” She motioned to the door the other women had disappeared through, and to the world at large. “A good deal of people, mostly women, spend their entire lives in this state. It’s a sort of half-death. But if you recognize this, you can fix it.”

“How?” I asked, immediately wishing I hadn’t. I ducked my head, unable to meet either her reflection in the mirror, or mine.

Suzanne smiled, not noticing my discomfort, or pretend- ing not to. “You focus on bliss. Small pleasures. Fill your day with as many as you can fit into twenty-four hours. You devote every possible moment not to fulfilling another person – a man – but yourself.”

I wrinkled my nose. “Sounds hedonistic.”

“But once you can do this, you start attracting everyone to you. You don’t need to compare yourself to some other girl, no matter how young or firm or perky she is.” She smiled at me through the mirror, a better match for Olivia’s sister than I had ever been. The thought didn’t bother me as much as it once had. I was beginning to realize that friends
were actually the family you chose.

“Trust me. A woman like this, one at her best? We’re the color of the world. We’re the light and the beauty. So.” Suzanne straightened. “Focus on your pleasure, and the man you want can’t help but realize . . . “

I waited, but she only sighed, suddenly teary-eyed.

“That he’s incidental?” I finished for her.

“That he may be a prince . . . but you’re a goddess.”

I smiled at that. “Yes,” I said softly. “You certainly are.”

She grinned, then frowned. “This just isn’t right.”

“What? Oh, those women? Don’t worry about them.

They’re just jealous.”

“No, I mean that I’m so happy.” She spread her hands out in front of her, and I noted that her henna designs hadn’t faded. “I’m happier than I’ve ever been, and you’re going through such a rough time.”

I wracked my brain to figure out what she was referring to, finally settling on the only subject she’d know about. The one the entire city was talking about: Xavier Archer’s health.

Suzanne looked at me with concern. I lowered my eyes to keep from rolling them. Though I’d once believed Xavier was my father too, we’d never gotten along. I think he’d known from the beginning that he hadn’t fathered me, but he’d fallen so hard for my mother he didn’t let that stop him from raising me as his own. Still, he’d never liked me. Kids can tell that kind of thing from the start. So the image of the last time I’d seen him, frail and huddled under a pile of blankets, didn’t exactly make me want to shed a tear.

However, Olivia would. “The doctors are still hopeful,” I said vaguely.

Suzanne put her arm around my shoulder and gave me a quick hug. After nearly a year of hanging out with her – via Olivia’s best friend, Cher – I knew her scent well. Spiced gardenias and warm vanilla, a sensory telling of her spirit and good health. It was somewhat addictive, and no wonder Arun had fallen so hard. Pheromones tied into a goddess complex? What man had a chance?

“Come on,” she said, pulling my hair to the side and taking me by both shoulders. “Let’s try to take your mind off it for a bit. Ready for a lingerie trunk show? You can help me pick out my wedding trousseau.”

She couldn’t help herself, she was already beaming. It made me feel like the older woman in this relationship, but I smiled, and linked my arm in hers. “That sounds great, my goddess.”

Half turning to me, she pushed open the door. “You’re a goddess too, you know.”

I shrugged and returned her smile, but said nothing as I followed her back into the chaos of her prewedding festivities. I’d go ahead and leave the pleasure and bliss and indulgences to Suzanne. After all, I thought, smiling to myself. I didn’t need to be a goddess . . . I was a superhero.







A male attendant wearing nothing but a white loincloth and a beautiful smile met us just outside the dressing room. “Champagne?”

“Absolutely,” Suzanne murmured, scooping a flute off the silver tray before cutting her way to the center of the ballroom. I lifted my own glass, smiling as I watched her go. The ballroom Arun had rented for the night was decked out like an elaborate Roman temple, with white pillars, busts of forgotten emperors and gods, and mosaics of Apollo and Alexander the Great. Landscape portraits hung along walls draped in silks, and white candles of all sizes pooled off waist-high pedestals, threatening to set the guests afire.

There was a make-it-yourself sachet bar at the back of the room, while more menservants wandered about with expensive lotions and perfumes, others carrying silver trays bearing exotic fruits, fresh vegetables, mini-quiches, and sandwiches. It was, I thought, a brothel and buffet mixed into one.

Snagging a sampling of strawberries dipped in chocolate, I followed Suzanne to the front of the stage, looking to the press row for Vanessa. Eyes stared back at me, a few bright bulbs flashed, but none of them were my ally’s.

I checked my phone for a message once seated, but there was still nothing. Maybe she’d had a breaking story to follow. She usually covered the crime beat, investigating anything that hinted of Shadow activity. Our aliases were carefully chosen so we could search out our enemies and thwart their plans. Or, if really lucky, take them out if it did nothing to impact the mortal population. It had been mere curiosity – the same curiosity Lena and Madeleine exhibited in the bathroom, minus the envy – that’d had Vanessa begging for a ticket to this event.

“These mortals are capricious, aren’t they?” she’d said, glancing over the perfumed and embossed invitation when I handed it to her. She was asking me because while she’d been reared as a member of the troop, I’d been raised as one of the mortals they protected. My metamorphosis last year from normal human being into twenty-first-century superheroine had taken both allies and enemies in the paranormal world by surprise. As for me, up until that point
I’d thought superheroes were pop culture myths. That the emerging glyph on my chest, which now lit under attack, was just a severe case of heartburn.

That the attack that nearly killed me as a teen had been random.

I thought of Suzanne, and her stepdaughter Cher, who had been Olivia’s first and only best friend. “Well, these particular ones are capricious.”

“Oh, not them. I think your friends are great.”

I didn’t correct her about the women being “my” friends, as I might have in the past. Like everything else that had been Olivia Archer’s – her luxury condo, her car, her cat, and her wardrobe – what was hers was now mine. This had been difficult at first, and I was a bit thrown by how quickly people had forgotten me – Joanna Archer – and the tragic circumstances of my “death.” But I had a new life now, and all these women were a part of it.

But I was interested in what Vanessa thought of my mortal playmates. They were flighty, weak, shallow when the tide was out – everything she was not. So what could she possibly find likable? “How so?”

“Well, first of all, they didn’t have the advantage of growing up in a matriarchal society. I’d hate to be seen as the weaker sex.” She shuddered, and I half smiled, knowing what she meant. Zodiac women enjoyed an elevated status the rest of the world’s women couldn’t fathom. “They also have to deal with lessened physical abilities, so they rely more on their minds and feminine skills to get what they want.”

Which reminded me of Cher’s unwritten motto: Flirting – it’s a tool, not a weapon.

I shook my head. “They just don’t know any better. It’s the ignorance of being mortal.”

And before enduring an attack that had broken my body and spirit, I’d been gleefully ignorant. But all of that – mortality, injury, getting by in a man’s world – was well behind me. I had powers that enabled me to heal from man-made weapons, run faster, leap higher, and be stronger than any human could ever conceive. I could materialize walls from thin air and conjure plant life amid the most arid of terrain. My lungs had expanded like wings in my chest, and my every sense soared with each inhalation. It was like giving sight to someone who’d been blind since birth.

Mortality, I knew now, sucked.

Vanessa shook her head, like I’d said it aloud. “Not for your mother. She knew what she’d be giving up, and she chose mortality.”

“She did it for me.” And that was why and how I had all my powers. Zoe Archer had given hers over to me to save me from that long ago attack. But then she’d disappeared.

“But it’s her very humanity that keeps her safe. That fragile flesh is as strong an armament as an Amazon’s shield. She has the power to totally disappear. Becoming one of these capricious humans is her supernatural legacy.
Now that’s power.”

But power and legacy weren’t the words that came to mind as I sipped my champagne and looked around now. I wished Vanessa were there so I could see what she’d make of the male attendants in oversized diapers, and the sparkling white runway soon to be filled with bridal lingerie.

At least I didn’t have to be in the show this time, I thought, staring up at the runway. Maybe I was actually getting better at navigating the world as Olivia Archer.

“I’m sorry again about the henna,” Suzanne said, settling next to me in a puff of scent and silk and crystal embroidery. Lightbulbs flashed like mad from the photographer’s row as Cher joined us. “I know how long you waited as it was applied.”

“It wasn’t exactly a hardship.” I’d been massaged and served finger food and drink the whole time. I patted her hand, careful to keep the printless pads of my fingertips – the one true giveaway of my Zodiac status – from touching her soft hand.

“Well I, for one, am extremely disappointed,” Cher said, sending a little finger wave to Madeleine and Lena just behind us. She was dressed similarly to her stepmother, having gotten fully on board with the whole “ethnic thing,” as she called it. Her lengha had gold threads and
colored gems handcrafted throughout, and revealed her navel, where another bright gem winked merrily. “I was test-driving a real tattoo. I wanted to put a butterfly right behind my right earlobe.”

Suzanne settled the fishtail of her gown around her legs. The shimmering jacquard winked elegantly in the pooling candlelight. “You mean for when you and your old man move into the double-wide?”

“Mama, your southern Baptist roots are showing! Tattoos are not trashy. They’re mainstream now. Just ask Angelina Jolie.”
“I will, next time Arun and I vacation with their clan in St. Moritz.” She made sure to say that loudly enough for Madeleine to hear. I smiled and sipped my wine. “And these weren’t just random designs or tattoos. Arun helped me assemble the collection, explaining each one’s signifi-
cance in his culture.”

“They were beautiful,” I said, thinking again of the assorted mandalas. The delicate whorls and dots of the one I’d chosen had been almost mesmerizing . . . all the way up until they washed down my drain.

“Arun says they’re magic,” Suzanne replied, edging close, her tone dreamy at the magic of the man. Short courtship or not, she truly appeared to be in love. “They establish a sacred place on the body.”

“Oh, well that’s probably why they washed off,” Cher said, waving the whole issue away. “There are no sacred spaces left on our bodies.”

I snorted before I could help myself. At some point in the last year my acute grief over Olivia’s death had lessened to the point that my mind skipped more to the memories of her happy life, much of which included these two women. I’d even begun thinking of my impersonation of her as a sort of tribute, a way to keep her memory alive. Cher and Suzanne had been her greatest friends, and for that alone I’d be ever grateful, but their friendship helped cloak my real identity now, and that added weight to my gratitude.

So as the lights dimmed to low, I smiled as one of the biggest weapons in my undercover arsenal began clapping her hands excitedly. “Oh, goodie!” Cher giggled. “Here we go.”

The elegant notes of a violin filled the hall, the notes of Pachelbel’s Canon swelling as the chiffon curtains at the runway’s entrance slowly parted. Every smiling face turned Suzanne’s way. There was a smattering of applause and a delicious surge of anticipation, an emotion I could now pick out by scent. It was sugary and light, like softened vanilla and whipped cream. I inhaled deeply of the collective emotion . . .

And a big cake rolled into the room.

I tilted my head, sniffing. Shit, I couldn’t tell the difference between the anticipation and the cake?

“Is it someone’s fucking birthday too?” Madeleine muttered under her breath, as the giant cake slowly made its way down the runway. It was frosted entirely in white with red roses, giant chunks of glitter sparking from each bloom’s center. Madeleine’s remark was too low for Su-
zanne and Cher to hear, but I had no such problem. I turned and she sunk back in her seat at my glare. One word from me and she’d be sitting out the wedding of the decade. She smiled weakly, and I turned back around.

The music altered, the Canon disappearing beneath a low, techno throb, like a heartbeat picking up pace, and the genteel society women were suddenly sitting straight in their seats, straining to keep their eyes on the cake as it glided down the forty foot catwalk. Maybe it was the lowered lighting, maybe the free-flowing champagne, maybe the cake itself amidst a group who allowed themselves to lunch only on lettuce and white wine, but the emotion I now scented was a growing hunger, the biting hook of cinnamon and allspice and a small dusting of pepper. The cake began a slow rotation too, and the music swelled.

“That’s not a birthday cake,” Lena cried next to Madeleine, standing to clap her hands with everyone else.

“It’s – “

“Beefcake!” Cher jumped to her feet as the top of the cake burst open, sparkly icing flying, music pounding, women screaming, and a shirtless man suddenly gyrating like his hips could power a vehicle.

“That’s some filling!” Suzanne, the forty-something-year-old blushing bride, squealed in my ear.

Cher clapped madly on my other side.

I took one good look at the man’s face and spewed champagne all down the front of my enhanced bust line.

Coughing, I wiped the tears from my eyes, and made brief eye contact with the dancer, still humping air, his pelvis doing things that were illegal in Suzanne’s home state.

He paused in his dance of love long enough to locate me. Thank God superheroes didn’t have the power to kill with looks alone. Because my ally and onetime lover – Hunter Lorenzo – shot me a look so wilting I would have keeled over in that moment. Instead, I swallowed hard, and
set down my champagne glass, excusing myself to little notice. Hunter kept dancing, Cher pulled out some bills, and Suzanne headed to the stage to cop a feel. I didn’t laugh.

Vanessa hadn’t shown. Hunter had just burst from a cake. I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but like another superhero spotting the bat signal against the night sky, I knew that whatever it was, it couldn’t be good.