I’m so excited to share Styx and Sydney’s story with you all, and it’s going to happen tomorrow! But I thought I’d give a little sneak peek of STYX’s first chapter NOW, because I’m funny like that. 🙂 Enjoy!
Gonna die, gonna die, gonna die.
Sydney’s hands were slick on her beloved Pokey’s steering wheel, and she threw another terrified glance at the rearview mirror.
The dark Caddy with no plates accelerated so fast all she could see was the car’s grill.
“Oh God, no.” She floored Pokey’s accelerator as hysteria-edged breaths panted out of her. She thought—prayed—she saw an opening in the traffic in the lane next to her. If she could just get off the freeway, she might have a chance of bringing this insane car chase to an end.
Why is this happening? Dear God, why?
She didn’t know.
Too bad she couldn’t stop and ask them.
Blindly she groped for the phone she’d left in her purse on the passenger seat. She cried in relief when she found it almost immediately and started dialing 911, only to drop the device when she had to grab the steering wheel to avoid hitting an idiotic car that cut in front of her.
Okay, screw the police, she thought, gripping the wheel with both hands once more while tears of frustration dripped down her face. She’d get herself to safety before calling them for help. The right lane next to her was clear. She could move over. The two lanes after that, though, were full of midday workers either going to or coming back from lunch—
A crunch of metal on metal ripped a scream from her even as her poor car fishtailed with the vicious bump from behind. She almost lost control as her trusty Camry tried to deal with the rear impact while going eighty down I-90.
“Go straight, go straight,” she screamed at her car, knowing with a clairvoyant-like clarity what would happen if she was forced sideways at that speed. Her car would flip, the roof of the car would crush in like a soda can, and there would be no livable space within the car’s interior.
In short, she’d die a grisly death.
It seemed to take forever to get Pokey back under control, but at last she got it, her icy hands wrapped around the steering wheel so hard they hurt. Just as she sent fervent thanks out to whatever guardian angels she had, she spotted a sign for a familiar exit.
Goose Island. Division Street.
She was done with waiting for people to kill her.
If she was going to die, it was going to be because she was trying to live, and not waiting for death to come get her.
With another scream tearing out of her, Sydney hit the brakes and wrenched the wheel sharply to the right, flew across four lanes of traffic, and shot onto the exit ramp. In her wake, the sound of screeching tires and blaring horns filled her ears.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” She didn’t care that the words were useless. They gave her comfort, because unlike the people chasing her, she had no intention of hurting anyone.
For a moment she was weightless as her car zoomed down the steep off-ramp. Then Pokey landed so heavily the undercarriage bottomed out and there was another horrible metallic crunching. She blew through a yellow-to-red light, turning a hard right amidst another symphony of car horns, but she didn’t bother to look at whatever she left in her wake.
The only thing that mattered now was escaping whoever was trying to murder her.
Home, her brain pounded at her, but logic overrode the instinct to hole up in what had always been a comfy, safe space. Home was one place she absolutely couldn’t go. The last thing she wanted to do was lead her attackers to her door. Bad enough they obviously knew what her car looked like. If they knew where she lived, she might as well get her final affairs in order.
What a nightmare.
In the minutes it took to shoot through Goose Island toward her neighborhood of Old Town, she racked her brain trying to figure out where she could go. A police station would have been ideal, but since she’d never been in this kind of trouble, she had no idea where the nearest station was. Second choice was getting pulled over by a cop for going sixty on a surface street, but clearly the old saying was true—there was never a cop around when you needed one.
Then she saw it.
A flash of a dark-colored car in her rearview mirror.
Shit, was that the Caddy?
She wasn’t going to hang around to find out.
With her heart in her throat, Sydney swerved off Division Street, zigzagged randomly through the cross streets to wind up facing the other way on Division. With her dashboard lit up like a Christmas tree and something smoking under the hood, she parked in a lot in front of the strip mall located across the street from her apartment building.
It wasn’t home, but it was close.
The heavy humidity of an unusually warm autumn day slapped at Sydney the moment she dashed out of her smoking car, but she barely noticed as she tried to figure out what to do next. Again, her instinct was to run to a place where she knew was safe. Her best friend, Zemi, had a yoga studio, OMMniscience, tucked right in the middle of the strip mall, so maybe she could go there. Or maybe she should run into Edibles, the donut shop next to the studio, where she and Zemi usually landed after yoga class.
But to go to a place connected to her in any way could prove dangerous for everyone involved.
So no OMMniscience, and no Edibles.
But she couldn’t just stand there.
Without another thought, she sprinted past the strip mall and around the corner, eyes open wide for a random place to hide. The flash of light on a glass door as it slowly swung shut snagged her attention. Without another thought, she zipped through the glass door and into the high-rise building’s vestibule.
And crashed into a solid something that almost had her bouncing back out through the door.
“Whoa, lady.” Hands shot out to stabilize her even as a handful of mail scattered to the black and white tiled floor. “Where the hell’s the fire?”
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” Out of breath and terrified she was going to throw up, Sydney glanced back through the glass door only to see a dark Cadillac—oh Geez, was that the same one? —drive by. “Oh my God, hide.”
“Are you fucking crazy?” the solid object demanded, but she didn’t listen as she grabbed him by his dark T-shirt and yanked him sharply to one side of the door with all the might she had in her 5’2” frame. For good measure she pivoted so that his back was to the glass door while she huddled as small as she could against him so that she was shielded by his rangy, solid body.
Any port in a storm.
“What. The. Hell.” The voice was aggravated, gruff, but he didn’t jump back or try to push her away. Instead arms came around her, and strangely, that feeling of being in a safe port while a storm raged around her increased. “Jesus. You’re shaking like a leaf.”
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” Apparently these were the only words her freaked-out brain was capable of producing. At least it was better than screaming.
He started to turn his head to look outside the glass door. “What are you so afrai—”
“Don’t look.” Hastily she reached up and yanked his head back around…
And looked into the face of the man she’d been drooling over for the past two months.
Every Thursday and Sunday, Sydney made sure she was at Market Place grocery store, ostensibly to work. But in actuality, she did her best to keep an avid lookout out for this delicious specimen of a man, who usually could be found putting a major dent in the frozen pizzas.
While he had dubious taste in food, the rest of him was perfection—short brown hair several shades darker than her own, strong dark brows that hooded pale blue eyes with long lashes, and a mouth that turned up at the corners even when fully relaxed. But even more fascinating than his riveting face was his ink.
The man was a walking work of art.
His black T-shirt, emblazoned with the words House Of Payne, exposed muscular arms covered with tattoos all the way down to his wrists. His neck also sported some ink, just glimpses of colorful art peeking out from under his shirt’s neckline. She’d never been this close to him, so she hadn’t known about that intriguing art going up his neck. For a totally inappropriate second she wondered what she needed to do to get him to take his shirt off so she could get an even closer look.
Then she shook her head. Wow. She must be suffering some weird sort of nervous breakdown to wonder such a thing at a time like this.
“It’s okay.” He looked down at her—way down, since she’s pretty much stopped growing around the age of thirteen—and gave her a smile that would have charmed the Devil himself. “You’re safe, all right? You got a boyfriend or something that’s hunting you down? I can take care of that shit, no worries.”
“No, I don’t have a boyfriend or anything like that.” Just to be on the safe side, she pulled him up against the wall, where all the apartment building’s mailboxes were located, and out of direct line of sight. “It’s the Brisket Bandit posse.”
He slow-blinked. “Uh…what?”
“I’m a secret shopper for Market Place grocery store, though that’s a secret, so don’t tell anyone. Otherwise I’d just be a shopper, not a secret one, and I’d certainly lose my Employee of the Month status if everyone knew I was a secret shopper.” Very carefully Sydney chanced a quick peek over his shoulder, then ducked back when a chatting couple walked by. Eek. “I finally caught the Brisket Bandit. Only come to find out, he’s not a solo act. He’s got a posse, and he sent them after me to murder me with their car.”
“Slow down.” Again he glanced over his shoulder, then gave her a look that clearly doubted her sanity. “A secret who? The brisket what? Wait, don’t answer,” he said when she opened her mouth to fill in the blanks. “I just need to know one thing. Are you supposed to be taking medication for anything? No judgment, I have impulse-control issues, so I know how it can be. I’m just wondering if you’ve missed a dose.”
For crying out loud… “Secret shoppers are employed by retailers to blend in with other shoppers, and we’re trained to spot shoplifters. Market Place has had a problem with big-ticket items disappearing, like brisket. That’s why this particular thief got branded with the name Brisket Bandit.”
“Thank you. I’m, uh, the one who made it up,” she added, while her face got hot. Great. Now she was babbling. Who cared about what name she’d slapped on her target? “Anyway, it’s taken a while, and we almost caught him over Labor Day weekend at the South Loop Market Place store a couple weeks back, but he got away before the cops could arrive.”
“So you work as a secret shopper slash undercover cop—”
“Oh, no. I’m not a cop. I mean, I don’t carry a gun, or anything like that.”
“I’m thinking you should.” Putting her firmly in the corner of the vestibule and out of sight, he bent to pick up his scattered mail, all the while keeping a sharp eye on the door. “So you work way the hell and gone down south, and these assholes chased you all the way up to Old Town?”
“I usually work at the Market Place store a few blocks from here.” What she didn’t mention was that was where she’d secretly perved all over him whenever he showed up on his frozen pizza shopping days. “I was subbing for another secret shopper who was out sick at a Market Place store over in South Loop. That’s where I finally caught the Brisket Bandit a couple hours ago. I did everything by the book, and I even had the police there waiting for me to run him out of the store right into their waiting arms, so he’s officially wrapped up and taken care of. Little did I know he had a crew watching and waiting for me in the parking lot. They saw me chase their guy, and decided to go after me on the freeway. I don’t even get why. I mean, I’m not the one who tackled him, slapped the handcuffs on him and carted him off to jail. The police did all that. What’s more, taking their anger out on me isn’t going to change anything. Why go after me?”
“Because they’re stupid, but not stupid enough to go after cops. A secret shopper like you is easy pickings. That pisses me off.”
“Sorry.” Belatedly she bent and gathered up the last of his dropped mail. “I’m really sorry I’m bothering you like this.”
“Stop apologizing, you haven’t done anything wrong. You got a name?”
“Sydney. Sydney Bishop.” She handed him his mail and tried to smile when all she felt like doing was bursting into freaked-out hysterics. “Hi.”
“Hi, Sydney Bishop. Terrance Hardwick, though everyone calls me Styx, except my mother.” His eyes never left hers as he took the mail from her. “You live in this building, Syd?”
Syd. That was cute. “I actually live across the street, in the red brick building with all those gorgeous big industrial windows. See?” Carefully she peeped through the glass door and pointed at her second-story window. “I just didn’t want to lead them right to my doorstep.”
“So you thought you’d lead them to mine? Kidding,” he chuckled when his statement filled her with such horror she gasped. “If they come here, they’ll get a helluva lot more than they ever bargained for. Not only do I know how to take care of assholes who like terrorizing women, but my family’s lousy with cops.” Rising from his crouch, he held out his hand to her. “One phone call, and I’ve got just about every hard case with a badge over here ready to defend you. That’s how my family rolls.”
“That’s great.” Sliding her hand into his, she slowly rose to her full height, and all the while she couldn’t seem to stop looking at him. Which wasn’t unusual when it came to her grocery store guy. From the moment she’d spotted him tossing frozen pizzas into his cart by the armload, she hadn’t been able to keep her eyes off him. “My family’s not at all like that.”
“Supportive. If you’re not figuring out a way to make space travel fun and convenient for the masses, or winning a place on the Olympic team, then you’re ignored because you’re failing at life.” Too late, she bit her lip. Since when had she decided that sharing the pitiful low points of her life was a good way to flirt? She wouldn’t blame him if he ran for the nearest exit.
His dark brows shot up. “Your family’s into space travel… and the Olympics?”
“According to my parents, a goal isn’t worth aiming for unless you’re aiming for the very top.”
“And I thought my family’s expectations were bad.” He cocked his head toward the sweeping lobby beyond an interior set of automatic glass doors. “You wanna come in and take a load off while I make a couple calls? You could say I’ve got the heart of Chicago PD on speed dial.”
“Um…” She looked into the lobby, not sure if he was inviting her into the building, or up to his place. At first glance, being invited up to her grocery store guy’s place was all sorts of awesome, but the fact was he was a stranger. He might be her idea of yummy, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t an ax murderer. “I’ve been too much trouble already. I’ll just hop across the street, get myself calmed down with a nice cup of tea, and call the police from there. At the very least, I’ve got to get them out here so they can take a look at the damage that was done to my poor Pokey and make a report.”
“My car. I name cars,” she added, then wondered if she had survived I-90 only to die of embarrassment at the feet of her grocery store guy. “I think it’s clear at this point that I’m easily amused.”
He took this in with a shake of the head. “You’re not walking across the street alone, Syd. Anything happens to you, that’s on me.”
Like that, the fear and dread flooded back in. “I can’t let you do that. For all I know, they’re right outside, waiting to run me over.”
“Calm down.” To her surprise, he reached out and hooked a strong hand around the nape of her neck. “What’d the car look like?”
“It, uh…” For some reason, it was hard to think with that warm, strong hand branding itself into her flesh. “A dark Cadillac sedan, dark gray or black. No license plate. It should have front-end damage because they rammed poor Pokey when we were on the freeway. If that car is waiting outside, we’re all going to die, so you are definitely not going out there with me. I’ll chance it alone.” She could dash across the street without getting hit. Probably.
Again, he shook his head as he let his hand drop. That’s very brave of you.”
“And unbelievably stupid.”
“Um…not thank you?”
“We’re not going to go playing in the street when there’s someone out there using their car as a fucking murder weapon.” With his mail clenched in one hand, his free hand grabbed hers. Before she was over the oddly delightful shock of his hand holding hers, he was dragging her through the automatic glass doors that led into the lobby. “I don’t have tea, but I make a mean cup of coffee, and I can get any number of cops you want here within the next five minutes. I’m not letting you go out there until I know you’re safe.”
“No buts. Elevators are over here around the security desk—”
“Look, I just need to know one thing. Are you an ax murderer?”
That stopped him cold. “What?”
“I’ve had a hell of a day,” she said on a sigh, and she wasn’t surprised to see her free hand shake before she dragged it through her hair. “Catching the Brisket Bandit, nearly dying at eighty miles per hour on I-90, and then crashing headlong into you…” My crush for the past couple of months. “I just need to know I’m not jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire, because that’s pretty much how my luck has been today.”
“Ah, got it. You want assurances that I’ve never killed anyone with an ax.”
“Or any other implement. I’m not picky about details.”
“Uh-huh.” Without letting her go, he turned to the security desk, a good twenty feet away, sucked in a breath, and bellowed out, “Yo, Marty! Vouch for me, yeah? Lady here is worried I’m an ax murderer. Am I an ax murderer?”
An older man who strongly reminded her of Stan Lee leaned over the desk to get a good look at them. “Not that I know of. Why? Is she an ax murderer, and maybe she wants to meet like-minded people?”
“That’s a good question.” Turning back to her, the man known as Styx lowered his voice while Sydney gaped at them. “Are you an ax murderer?”
She shook her head, amazed that the majority of the people in the lobby ignored them, casually going about their business as if having a yelled-across-the-lobby conversation about ax murderers was a perfectly normal event. “You just yelled about murder in public.”
“It’s cool. Marty’s a retired badge and has seen it all when it comes to this city. Not to mention he used to be my dad’s partner when they were both in uniform, so he knows to just roll with whatever impulsive shit I toss his way. So? You an ax murderer?”
Wow. “I once killed a spider when I felt it crawling on my arm, but I swear it was an accident. I still feel guilty about it.”
“Spiders get my boot, with no guilt, but that’s about as scary as I get. That’s a promise, Syd. Okay?”
She took a deep breath, held it a moment, then took a leap of faith. “Okay.”