As the weather warms up, we tend to turn toward romantic thrillers, which are decidedly the summer blockbuster of the romance world. After all, what could make for a better beach read than a story of suspense, action, and a little romance?
In Nerves of Steel, CJ Lyons delivers all that and more. Dr. Cassandra Hart has been overwhelmed by patients overdosing on a new drug called FX, and her troubles take a turn for the worse when she realizes her own hospital is the source. Detective Mickey Drake is also on the case—and he just might be the only person Cassie can trust.
The excerpt below picks up in Chapter 5, when Cassie and Drake meet for the first time. And despite their less-than-perfect first impressions, sparks still fly.
Cassie left Fran working on the FX mystery. After returning to the ER’s locker room, she changed into the jeans and Shaker knit sweater she’d worn to work the night before. She touched the bag of drugs in her coat pocket and scowled. It was a macabre equation. Twenty-seven pills of pure FX. Equaled how many dead kids? She had no idea.
She yawned and tucked her hair behind her ears. She thought about simply turning the drugs into a charge nurse and going home to bed.
No. It didn’t matter how tired she was, didn’t matter what the rules were, all that mattered was stopping more FX from making it onto the streets and killing more kids. The best way to make certain the police gave the FX thefts at Three Rivers top priority was to speak to them in person.
The police substation was less than a mile from the medical center, housed in a squat brick cube of a building that brought back memories of her grade school. It was sandwiched by St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on one side and a Methodist one on the other. Perched higher up the hill stood Our Lady of Sorrows, its stained glass a flickering light of hope in the gray morning mist.
Who was protecting whom? Cassie wondered, skirting oil slicked puddles as she crossed the parking lot. Across the street sat a McDonald’s, that other bastion of American worship.
Inside, the desk sergeant escorted her to a glass-walled waiting area on the third floor. He closed the door behind her, muffling the noises coming from the squad room beyond.
A tall man in jeans and a grimy Rolling Stones’ T-shirt sprawled across a vinyl couch peppered with cigarette burns. His feet hung off the couch cushions. The water dripping from his red canvas high-tops had formed a sooty puddle on the floor. One arm was flung up to cover his eyes, and a sheaf of unruly black hair cascaded over the arm of the couch. A gold hoop hung from his left ear, winking in the flickering fluorescent light, giving him the appearance of a Barbary Coast pirate.
The tiny room was sweltering, a tropical fish bowl for humans. As she slid out of her jacket, Cassie wrinkled her nose against the smell of urine, sweat, stale cigarettes, and day old Chinese food. Her slumbering roommate appeared oblivious to both the heat and the stench. She watched him for a moment, noting the regular rise and fall of his chest. At least he wasn’t dead.
Maybe he was a witness or informant. Her hand went to the plastic visitor’s badge the desk sergeant had given her. The man wore no identification. A drunk left to sleep it off?
There was no place to sit except for the couch, but there was a vending machine. Coffee, that’s just what she needed. She fumbled in her jeans pocket for change.
“Make mine black, extra sugar.” A sleep-choked voice came from the sofa.
Cassie glanced over her shoulder in surprise. The man’s arm was now behind his head, his eyes still closed. “Excuse me?”
At the sound of her voice, one of his eyes popped open, drifted for a moment, then lit on her like a beacon in a storm. He blinked twice, his lips curling into a smile that might have been charming if they weren’t shut up in a glass sauna and if he didn’t look and smell like a refugee from a third-world insurrection.
“I said extra sugar, sweetheart.” He sat up, looking at her expectantly as he yawned without bothering to cover his mouth. “Please.”
Several detectives worked in the squad room beyond the window. She eyed her companion once more, not liking the way he looked at her. His gaze was that of a cat searching for a weakness in the canary’s defenses.
“Mister, I’ve had a really lousy night,” she said, pushing up her sleeves and shifting her weight to the balls of her feet. “I don’t need any grief from you. I’m not your waitress or your sweetheart, all right?”
“Sure, honey, whatever you say.”
She stepped to the machine, dropped her coins into the slot, and jabbed the button for her coffee. Sweat gathered between her breasts, but she took her time, refusing to let him see how nervous he made her.
She turned back, glad to have even a lukewarm cup of coffee in her hand as a potential weapon. He watched her with surprisingly blue eyes, inclining his head slightly as if he knew exactly what she was thinking.
He yawned again and raked his fingers through his hair. “I don’t suppose it would make a difference if I said pretty please? I’ll bet my night was worse than yours.”\
She doubted it. But his voice was raspy with fatigue and haggard circles shadowed his eyes.
She sighed. “Here, take it. You look like you need it more than I do.”
She handed him the paper cup. His knuckles were scraped and grease stained. Maybe a car thief?
“You’re a life saver.” He took a sip of the hot coffee and closed his eyes in rapture. Then he patted the seat beside him on the couch. “Sit.”
She might have been tempted if he hadn’t flashed her a lecherous grin. Con artist was probably more like it. “No thanks, I’m fine.”
“Suit yourself.” He finished the coffee in one large gulp and crumpled the cup, aiming it at the trashcan beside the door. He missed, and it joined the pile of take-out cartons on the floor.
Stifling her own yawn, she ran her fingers over the coins left in her pocket, shifting her jacket to her other arm as she pulled them out to count. The bag of FX fell from her coat pocket, tumbling to the floor before she could catch it.
Her derelict companion had faster reflexes than she would have guessed. He snatched the bag from the mud-colored linoleum and scrutinized the small pills inside.
“Give me that.” She reached for the bag but he closed his fist around it. Damn, how would she explain this to the police? Gee, I brought you all this evidence, but some homeless wino took it?
She planted herself in front of him and held out a hand, backing up her confrontational stance with a glare guaranteed to make med students jump. Too bad the pirate before her was no med student. “Give it to me, now.”
His eyes narrowed in an expression resembling a scheming Wile E. Coyote. “Looks like you brought enough to share.”
“It’s not mine.”
“Whose is it? Where’d you get your hands on this much FX? It looks to be the real deal—worth a couple thou on the street.”
“How would you know? Have you seen this much FX before?”
He gave a low chuckle. “Only in my dreams. Darlin’, you’ve hit the mother lode. If you know where to get your hands on more, you and me, we could really shake things up. Know what I mean? So where’d you get it?”
“I told you, it’s not mine. Now, give it back.” She reached her hand out to him once more. He gazed upon the FX with covetous eyes, then sighed and dropped it into her palm. Cassie crammed the bag into her jeans pocket.
“Sweetheart, if you only knew what you just passed up,” he said, stretching his arms above his head. His t-shirt shifted to give Cassie a glimpse of well-defined abdominal muscles and a thin v of dark hair that vanished beneath the snap of his jeans.
She turned away. His image was a shadowy reflection in the filthy glass wall, but she could see enough to keep an eye on him.
He rubbed the stubble on his face. “Guess I’d better go,” he said to her back, rising to his feet. “Thanks for the coffee. I’ll be seeing you.” He sent another smile her way, this one more predatory than grateful, and left.
Watching him saunter through the squad room. No one paid him any attention at all. She wondered who he was. Mr. Invisible Man. Should she tell someone he was leaving? Let one of the detectives know?
Cassie took the seat he had vacated, the vinyl still warm. She had more important problems than a vagrant wandering loose among armed cops.
Drake edged into the shadows of the narrow hallway that led to the washrooms and janitor’s closet. He pulled his cell phone from his back pocket, his gaze never leaving the dark-haired woman in the waiting area. His Fair Lady of Caffeine.
“It’s me,” he said, watching as the woman sat down then bounced back up again a moment later. Jeezit, could the woman look more guilty?
“What would you say if I told you I found someone with more FX in their pocket than we’ve seized in two weeks?”
“What? Hold on. Miller’s here, I’m putting you on speaker.” He fidgeted, his body rocking as the caffeine surged into his veins. There was a click of static, followed by Commander Sarah Miller’s voice.
“Is this a joke, Drake?”
“No, ma’am. Not unless someone’s playing it on me. I was crashing in the third floor waiting room when Whitman brought this woman in. She dropped a small bag and I swear it has at least two dozen FX pills in it. Looks like the real deal, too.”
“What did you do?”
“I played along, in case she’d spill anything useful. Didn’t want to force her hand and lose a chance to see what’s going on.” Drake squirmed to get a better view of his Lady as she began to pace, her thick hair whipping against her shoulders with every staccato step. For the first time in months, images cascaded through his mind in rich, vibrant hues of color and light. “She didn’t give me anything. But she has bruises on her arms, some look pretty fresh. I’ll bet she’s here to drop the dime on someone.”
“Whitman just told Kwon that her name is Hart and she asked to see someone on the FX taskforce. You stay out of sight. I’m on my way.”
He dropped the phone into his pocket and waited. One by one, each of the detectives in the bullpen received a call. Within a few minutes the area was clear of civilians and the other cops had positioned themselves at strategic sites. The clipped sound of Miller’s footsteps reverberated down the stairs across from Drake, announcing her arrival.
Hart seemed oblivious. Whoever she was, she sure was an amateur. She took two steps to the door, hand reaching out as if she were about to leave, then spun and resumed pacing, a ferocious scowl tightening her features. He hadn’t seen any track marks, but you could snort FX that pure. Although, she didn’t seem like a user. Most junkies wouldn’t be so generous, even if it was only coffee. Instead, her agitation reminded him of his own restlessness last night. Anticipation of action, more like a caged tigress than a scared rabbit.
Kwon appeared behind Miller, her Glock drawn. She’d even put her Kevlar back on. As Miller approached the door to the waiting room, every cop in the place had a hand on their weapon. Every cop except Drake.
His service piece was upstairs, locked in his desk at Major Crimes. He still had his backup Baby Glock in an ankle holster, but he made no move toward it. Instead he was fascinated by the way his palms were tingling, his fingers itching. As if they’d been numb, dead to touch for months, and were finally coming to life.
Drake shoved the thought aside, forcing himself to focus on what was happening in the glass walled room. He blew his breath out, surprised that he’d been holding it. Afraid that this feeling might vanish.
The fluorescent lights glared off Miller’s shiny blonde hair, styled into a sleek bob. Her posture would have drawn compliments from any drill sergeant. Even the pinstripes in her slate gray suit stood at attention. She marched into the waiting room. The direct approach. Typical. The Commander was intent on climbing the Pittsburgh Police Bureau’s career ladder in record time and breaking the FX case would be a major step on her path.
I’m Commander Sarah Miller, in charge of the FX Task Force. I understand you have some information for us.”
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Nerves of Steel
A deadly new drug epidemic puts an ER doctor in danger: “A perfect blend of romance and suspense. My kind of read.” –Sandra Brown, #1 New York Times–bestselling author of Thick as Thieves