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WHILE THE NEWSROOM BUZZED, clattered and even
swirled around her, Zoe Aberdeen sat at her desk with her head in her hands. Her chin was three inches above the oversize calendar blotter she used as backup to her BlackBerry and spiral-bound notebook. If she didn't pull herself together, she'd drool on December ninth, where she'd written Caballero y Salsa @ La Casa in red marker. With two exclamation points.
"Need some hair of the dog?" asked a sympathetic British voice from behind her.
Zoe didn't swivel. Even shaking her head was too daunting to attempt. Her pickled brain would slosh around in her skull like the jar of dills that had sat at the back of her fridge for two years, ever since she'd settled in San Diego.
"Mmmph." She sucked her lower lip. "Got champagne?"
"There's no sense checking the kitchen. We only have hazelnut creamer and Red Bull." The rasp of Ethan Ramsey rubbing his jaw magnified to sandpaper on wood in Zoe's ears. "I can try to get a mimosa from Zanzibar."
"Good luck," Zoe mumbled. The local bar and grill delivered, but not alcohol and not so early in the day.
"Drinking on the job will get you fired," said another familiar voice. A concerned Kathryn Walters peeked over the edge of one of the cork-lined partitions that enclosed the colorfully decorated cubicle. At five eleven, she didn't have to stand on her toes to do it.
Zoe squinted to lessen the riotous glare of her dance club invitations, glitter-encrusted fairy wand and pink straw cowboy hat. "Never mind that drinking is my job."
She exaggerated. A major component of her work as a gossip columnist for the San Diego Times was to attend every club opening, charity ball and yacht launching that floated down the pipe. Despite her reputation as the Times columnist most likely to dance on tabletops, she tried to be mindful of overimbibing at the affairs she attended in a professional capacity. Even when she was off the clock and out with her friends, her high spirits didn't come from alcohol. Not completely.
The past night had been something else altogether.... "Where were you last night?" Kathryn asked. "A very select holiday benefit for the symphony. They decorated with gold-leaf branches and twinkle lights and served the most expensive, delicious champagne I've ever tasted. But the evening was so dull, I—" Zoe stopped and swallowed the sour taste in her mouth. After she'd made notes about the chichi guest list and the dazzling decor, she'd had nothing left to do at the zero-exclamation-point-worthy soiree. Other than fend off questions from a pair of transplanted Bostonians who had known Zoe's family when they were prominent, accomplished and alive.
She pried her tongue off the roof of her mouth. "I overindulged."
"Clearly." Kathryn's voice was crisp.
"I can get you a headache remedy," Ethan said as he stepped into the cubicle. He was the Times" top crime reporter, a raffish Englishman who hadn't lost his taste for Inspector Dalgliesh and MI-5 despite an intense working knowledge of the somewhat less urbane San Diego legal and penal systems.
"Thanks, but I already popped a couple of pills." Zoe wagged a finger toward the variety of cure-alls she kept at hand in a brandy snifter on her desk. M&M's and breath mints mixed with one-dose packets of ibuprofen and NoDoz.
Kathryn sent a look toward Ethan. "What kind of pills?" Zoe's eyeballs rolled. Luckily they kept to their sockets. "Strictly over-the-counter, if that's what you're thinking."
Kathryn's reputation was as arrow-straight as Zoe's was loosey-goosey. That is, until the buttoned-up book editor had reviewed an erotic thriller, fiddled with a counterfeit lust potion and gained the attention—to say the least—of Coyote Sullivan, a former coworker so overtly and indecently sexy that he could unsnap women's bras with merely a look.
Zoe's smile made her head wobble. Coyote was almost worth wearing a bra for. Lucky Kathryn. "Steady on, Zoe," Ethan said. "Keep your profile low for the next few hours. Barbie—" Barbara Bitter-man, their managing editor "—is on the warpath, looking for chinks in the staff's armor."
"If you can hold out, we'll treat you to lunch," offered Kathryn. "Food will help."
"Lunch seems a lifetime away." Zoe took a deep breath. With an effort, she shifted her head, balancing it very carefully until the room stopped whirling.
"But I will survive," she added, wincing inside at the retro familiarity of the phrase. She'd been to too many discos and experienced too much loss for one lifetime. Barbara Bitterman was only a mosquito of annoyance in the dark, tangled jungle of Zoe's psyche.
Nine years ago, Zoe's parents and older brother had been killed in a car accident on the way to her college graduation ceremony. She'd been twenty, on the verge of becoming a newly minted magna cum laude with a master's degree in comparative literature, destined to fulfill her Aberdeen destiny. At the funeral, she'd been told by an endless stream of intellectuals and potentates that she must survive—and thrive—to carry on the esteemed family name.
Afterward, when the shock wore off, Zoe had realized that she no longer wished to live a life of duty and boredom. Instead she'd abandoned the education that had meant so much to her parents, seized control of her trust fund and struck out on a series of desperately madcap jet-set adventures heretofore unknown to the stodgy, intellectual, old-money Aberdeen clan. "Of course you'll survive," Kathryn soothed.
Zoe plastered on a carefree smile. "Yep. If I can live through a surfeit of yacht parties in Ibiza, ski trips to Aspen and Christmas holidays at a Thai beach resort, I can make it through one measly hangover."
Ethan chucked her under the chin. "You've had it real tough, kid."
Zoe kept up the smile. Her grief over her family had faded, or perhaps been buried under the glittering lie of her new lifestyle. Eventually the Aberdeen funds had slowed to a trickle. She'd been a spendthrift, and her "trustworthy" accountant had been overly liberal with his fees. The result was that she'd suddenly reached a point where it was either go broke or stop and take stock of her situation.
She took stock. Not a pretty sight.
Working her family connections and party-girl past, she'd landed the job at the Times, only to realize that she'd locked herself into a role she'd already been playing for too long. Fortunately she was good at it, even without the old trappings. Only Kathryn and a few close friends had an inkling that there was more to Zoe than her bright, flashy surface...and far less to her trust fund.
Today Zoe couldn't keep up the facade. She put her head in her hands. "I ran across old family friends at the symphony benefit. We, uh, caught up over champagne."
In fact, it had been the prospect of admitting to the couple that she'd spent the years since the elder Aberdeens' deaths traveling, partying and running through the family money like gas through an SUV, that had sent her straight to the bubbly. She'd always lacked intestinal fortitude.
"That must have been nice." Kathryn's face said she knew otherwise.
"I'm certain you did well," Ethan contributed to humor her along.
Zoe grimaced. What a disappointment she'd be to her beloved Mummy and Pop and pompous old Rags if they could see her now, employed as a second-rate gossip columnist and often flat broke because she'd pledged to make do on her meager salary to protect the remaining trust fund.
"I'm not quite the raging success they expected," she admitted. The couple had been kind but noticeably taken aback by her chosen profession.
"Stuffy snobs," Ethan said. "Never mind." He dropped a hand on Zoe's bare shoulder the way her pop used to, both encouraging and proud, while she'd bent over her textbooks as a dorky, bespectacled fifteen-year-old studying for her college entrance exams.
That version of Zoe Aberdeen was as long gone as her family.
Ethan, the incorrigible flirt, gave her a teasing brush of his fingers before moving off. "I ought to be on my way before we draw attention from the tower."
The managing editor presided over the lesser columnists and reporters from a spacious second-floor corner glass office with a mezzanine that overlooked the newsroom. Editors like Kathryn had been granted similar but smaller offices on the exterior rim of the ground floor. Zoe's space was at the approximate center of the room, a magnet for anyone in need of chocolate, a dirty joke or a bit of juicy gossip.
Kathryn gripped the steel edge of the cubicle wall. "What's that you've got?"
Zoe looked down. Clasped to her chest was one of the many lucky charms that cluttered the desk, a folk art figurine. She must have picked it up for reassurance. "It's that voodoo doll I bought in the Gaslamp Quarter weeks ago."
"I remember. The day we discovered the lust potion." Kathryn came around the partition, steering an unoccupied desk chair so she could sit knee to knee inside Zoe's cubicle. "It's an ugly old thing, isn't it?"
"I kind of like her." The pocket-size voodoo doll wasn't as crude as some. Mayan symbols had been carved into the figure's bulbous body.
Kathryn turned the doll over with long, deft fingers. "Solid ebony. Where do you stick the pins?"
Zoe raised her brows. "Thinking of cursing someone?" The book editor shrugged. Her relationship with Coyote Sullivan had veered wildly between adversarial and erotic for the past month or so. But ever since her return from a recent vacation that was supposed to be solo, she'd been glowing, and not only because of the newly acquired tan.
Nope, Zoe knew a mama-got-sex glow when she saw one, even on such an uncharacteristic place as Kath's face. Which made her wonder just how effective one small filched sample of lust potion could possibly be.
"I don't believe this is a voodoo doll at all," Kathryn said, handing it over. "With such massive breasts, perhaps it's meant to be a fertility symbol?"
Zoe threw up her hands, refusing the doll. "Perish the thought." She had a reputation to maintain, one where marriage and babies were the very last things she should desire.
"I don't want it either." Kathryn set the doll on the desk. "Especially after the lust potion turned out to be..." She shook her head, saying no more.
Zoe thought the purported lust potion was a fascinating topic. "Especially after the potion made you and Coyote do the horizontal rumba until you were both howling at the moon?"
"It didn't make us. Or at least we don't know for certain that it did." Kathryn didn't bother to hide a satisfied smile. "Nor were we always horizontal."
Zoe chuckled. "So you're saying that you made a conscious decision to engage in an affair so hot it's capable of burning down the Times building?"
Kathryn's eyes twinkled. "Please restrict the hyper-bole to your column."
"This isn't for my column." Zoe wrote about local celebrities, society debs and the forays of Hollywood bigwigs who'd drifted south to engage in San Diego's laid-back lifestyle. In other words, fluff and flattery.
"I'm thinking of doing an investigative piece."
"On the potion?"