Shivering against the September chill, Astrid tugged her suit jacket around her ribcage and stepped into the dark silent side-street. Her body was as tense as the starched collar of her crisp cotton shirt; as rigid as her neat black ponytail. Her pounding fear yelled at her not to come this way, but she couldn’t bear the thought of walking through Times Square – that would mean facing a far worse terror than any tramps or junkies down here.
In her tight skirt she stepped over a strewn garbage bag, holding her breath as the smell of trash assaulted her nostrils. There was light at the end of the street indicating that civilization was only thirty yards away, so she put her head down and strode as fast as she could, click-clacking in her high heels. Fifty-story-high skyscrapers loomed up on both sides, hemming her in, making her feel constricted…
She pushed away the dizzying sensation and tried to distract her mind by thinking about the job she was currently working on. Anger replaced her anxiety – the Quinlan Brothers were a couple of arrogant, pushy assholes. Adam and Dylan – pah, they were so full of themselves. She was brand new to this role – she’d only been employed as a federal health-and-safety officer for six weeks. But she refused to let them know how–
A crack behind made her flinch. There was someone following her. Her heart pounded hard and she willed herself not to have a debilitating panic attack. Ever since she’d taken this job she’d felt creeped-out – wondering whether Adam and Dylan had employed a guy to watch her every move. She wouldn’t put it past them. But she was probably being paranoid – she was still shaken after her ex-boyfriend Simon’s terrible treatment over the last year, which she’d finally managed to escape by taking this position.
She headed toward the end of the street, but her fear surged another notch as she saw a black Mercedes steer around the corner, shining its headlights in her face. Now she was trapped at both ends – by the car and whoever was following her. Shit. She squinted in the September twilight, trying to make out the face of the driver, but she’d already guessed it was going to Cole Graves – the owner of the project she’d been appointed to investigate. She gripped her fists, bracing herself as the Mercedes crawled down the empty street and parked beside her.
She was struck with an urge to flee to the end of the road – to freedom – but the sidewalk was slippery from where it had rained earlier, so she knew if she tried to run in these shoes she’d fall flat on her face. And anyway, her knees had turned to mush, so she couldn’t run even if she removed her heels.
She glanced over her shoulder. If there was someone following her, perhaps they could help. Unless they were also working for Graves...
The back window of the car slithered down and she saw Mr. Graves sitting there, smiling coolly. He was handsome, but slimy – even more of an asshole than the Quinlan brothers, with his sharp suit and youthful features, wrapped around a steel core that wouldn’t allow the likes of her – or the law – to prevent him from doing whatever he wanted.
“I thought I might bump into you here, Astrid,” he said in his cool New York accent. “I’ve been dying to talk to you alone.”
She forced her voice to remain calm. “I’m not allowed to talk to you about the project, Mr. Graves. You’ll receive my official report at the meeting tomorrow – as you’ve been notified.”
She held her head high and started to stride away from the car, but he flung the door open and clambered out, blocking her path. “Stop this nonsense, Astrid.” He gestured to the luxurious leather backseat. “Get in – I’m sure we can come to an arrangement. Everyone has their price – I’ll bet I can find yours.”
“I’m not bribable, Mr. Graves. Now I really must say goodnight.”
Astrid turned to face the way she’d come – hoping to escape in that direction – but the dark shadowy shape of a man blocked her path. Her mind raced with panic. How the hell was she going to get out of here?
Graves suddenly grabbed her wrist – his nice act slipping away. “I said, get in the car!”