Greg Leeds knew if he opened his balcony door, there’d be no turning back. His heart banged—buhbum-buhbum-buhbum—had to be five hundred beats a minute. He closed his eyes. Anything to block the surge of emotions smothering him, sucking away what was left of his life.
Relax. Stop thinking.
After a moment, he opened his eyes. One lone lamp on the side table lit the room and the sofa they’d bought last year, a white one, showed the abuse of their four-year-old. What the hell had they been thinking buying a white sofa? He and Marianne had laughed over that gaffe and chalked it up to a lack of parenting experience. He wanted to hope there would be more of those parental missteps. Wanted to.
If he had any sense, he would catch up with Marianne and sweet little Evan, who were on their way to the evening showing of Disney’s latest 3-D flick. The pall of quiet over the house pushed Greg one step closer to the balcony and his heart tripped five hundred again.
For weeks he’d been at this routine. Teetering on this fucking precipice of despair while eyeballing that fucking door with that fucking lock. Each time he’d backed away. Convinced himself he could make things right.
Until this morning.
This morning it was made clear—there would be no redemption. Wanting only to provide for his growing family, he’d played the game and lost. His dream had been simple: get out of the tiny apartment and into a place with a yard where Evan could play with his friends. Somehow, Greg had slipped off track. Or maybe he’d jumped.
At first, it was one small thing. A second of miscalculation. A minor error. Then it became a moment and the moments turned into hours and the hours turned into days and before he knew it, he’d fucked up good.
No turning back.
His scalp tingled and he absently rubbed the spot. Outside, darkness continued to descend on Chicago’s streets.
He took one more step to the door, close enough to touch the handle. To unlock it. To open it. And then the burst of frigid early March air—thirty-six degrees’ worth—blasted him. Somehow, the cold settled his nerves.
She won’t want you now. Why would she?
Little by little, moment by moment, hour by hour, he’d betrayed Marianne and Evan.
From eighteen stories below, a truck horn, that long, piercing blare, sounded. Rush hour. Pedestrians. He should check.
No. Didn’t need to. He’d lived in this building five years. He knew the traffic patterns. He stepped onto the balcony and dragged the iron bistro chair next to the rail.
Minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, he’d thrown his life away. He was the only one who knew. They’d know now. Marianne, his family, his friends. Evan.
They’d know now.
He closed his eyes, breathed in that frigid air and began to shiver. Fear or cold? Not sure, but his dress shirt offered little protection from the lake wind.
Stepping to the rail had been the farthest he’d made it in weeks. It must be the right thing if he’d come this far.
Across the street, half the units in the building were dark. Directly across from him, right in his sight line, one was lit. A bright light in a sea of darkness. There was his answer. The light.
He stepped onto the chair and his breath disappeared into another gust of wind. Somehow he’d started to sweat, and his mind looped. Do it. Don’t do it. Do it.
Too late to think now. Should have done that earlier. When he could have stopped it. Tears streamed down his face. Crying was for sissies and screw-ups. Wasn’t that what his father had always said?
Another car horn sounded and Greg stared at that lone light across the street. A shriek built in his chest, worked its way up his aching throat and bullied its way out.
Into the descending darkness, with the car horn blasting and his mind roaring, Greg hoisted himself over the rail and plunged to the street below.
Jillian decided she might be the biggest idiot in the city of Chicago. Eleven o’clock on a Friday night and she should be doing things that didn’t include schlepping to her office in a distribution warehouse on the South Side of Chicago. Just driving down the street on the South Side could get a girl slaughtered.
And yet, here she was, retrieving her beloved two-thousand-dollar camera. The one she’d forgotten in her desk drawer, thereby making her the biggest idiot in Chicago. One thing she knew for sure, this would never happen again. All she could hope was that someone hadn’t made off with it.
This camera was more than just valuable. It represented two years of what she could achieve when she set her mind to it. Pinching pennies, giving up lattes—whatever it took to accomplish her goal of owning a camera every amateur photographer would carve out an eye for. And that was saying something. Considering photographers needed their eyes.
She reached into the drawer and her fingers brushed the soft leather of the camera case. Still there. To be sure, she unzipped the bag and found her precious baby, its lovely lens cover nearly smiling back at her. She snatched it out of the case, set it on her lap and gently ran her hand over the smooth surface. A grown woman shouldn’t be so attached to an object.
Eh, why not?
Cameras didn’t disappoint her.
Either way, mission accomplished. She sat back in her chair, ran a finger over her forehead. “You got lucky this time.” She glanced down at the camera. “Let’s get outta here.”
She stowed the camera, slung the bag over her shoulder and kicked the bottom drawer closed. A sudden grinding of one of the loading dock doors shattered the eerie quiet outside her office.
A drug delivery at eleven o’clock on a Friday night?
It could happen, but being the assistant distribution manager for Stennar Pharm, she’d have known about it and she didn’t remember seeing it on the day’s manifest. Unfortunately, in the week since her immediate supervisor had thrown himself off his eighteenth-floor balcony not everything had gone smoothly. Since Greg’s death, the VP of distribution, Ned Dillard, had been keeping abreast of the daily goings-on in the department. Even if she didn’t know what this delivery was, Ned probably did.
Nothing got by him.
She moved to the doorway. At the loading dock, the growl of the truck engine calmed to an idle. A door slammed.
“Twenty minutes to unload and we’re outta here,” Cliff Henderson yelled.
Cliff, one of the distribution team members, had obviously been expecting the delivery. The ride down here and the flat-out creepiness of being alone in a huge warehouse must have zapped her senses.
She stepped out of the office, closed the door behind her and made her way to the loading dock.
He spun toward her, his face stretched in that holy-crap look people get when surprised.
“Jillian. Wow.” He half laughed. “You scared me.”
“I’m sorry. I forgot my camera and had to come back for it.”
He glanced at the case. “You don’t want to leave that here.”
She gestured to the truck. “What’s this?”
“Delivery that was supposed to happen this morning. Truck broke down. Pain in the ass on a Friday night.”
A delivery that hadn’t arrived? She should have been made aware of that. Jillian glanced at the boxes neatly stacked inside the truck. “You’re going to unload this yourself?”
“Not the whole thing. I’ll be done fast.”
“Can I help you?”
He waved the suggestion away. “Get on with your weekend.”
“I got this. No problem.”
She glanced back at the truck. “If you say so. Just leave the paperwork on my desk and I’ll take care of it on Monday.”
“Sure thing. Things have been nuts around here since Greg…”
Jillian stared straight ahead. “The poor man. I can’t imagine being in such pain that he thought jumping off a building would fix it. I feel horrible for his wife and son.”
Her own father would never win any parenting awards, but he’d never allowed his pain to drive him to suicide.
Cliff let out a long, streaming breath. “Let me walk you to your car.”
For a week, the employees had been avoiding the subject. Everyone walking around sort of dazed, knowing their coworkers were thinking about Greg, but refusing to talk about it. The unspoken sorrow lay heavy on all of them, but, like the others, Jillian supposed it was better to not think too hard about Greg and his demons. “I’d appreciate that.”
Cliff led her to the door and pushed it open. “Good thing the cleaning people don’t come in until Saturday. Depending on the crew, you might have lost that camera.”
“That’s what I was worried about. And I need the camera for a class I’m taking tomorrow.”
Another thing she’d pinched her pennies for—a one-day intensive with a world-renowned photographer. The class was only offered once per year and she’d been on the waiting list for four years.
“That sounds fun.”
“I’m hoping so.” They reached her car and Jillian set the camera bag on the floor behind the driver’s seat. She turned to Cliff. “Thanks for walking me out.”
“You bet. Be careful heading home.”
“I’ll lock my doors. Thanks.”
Even self-sufficient women couldn’t be too careful when it came to being alone at night.
Jackson Lynx added another ten pounds to each end of the weight bar and settled himself on the bench. On Saturday morning, the quiet of the gym in the Taylor Security building could only be considered heaven. No one yapping and wrecking his concentration when he wanted to focus on the day ahead.
Quiet. That’s what he needed.
The gym door swung open and Vic Andrews—most likely the nation’s loudest loudmouth—entered, wearing a ripped T-shirt that said I’m Just One Big Freaking Ray of Sunshine and a pair of gray basketball shorts. He tossed his gym bag on the floor and smacked his hands together. The clapping noise rocketed off the walls and disturbed the calm.
There goes the serenity.
Vic raised his arms. “Boy Scout, funny seeing you here.”
The Boy Scout nickname had been around since their army days when Lynx, two years younger than Vic and fresh out of West Point, had joined Vic’s unit as a Second Lieutenant. Vic, being Vic, was the only guy with balls enormous enough to call his superior Boy Scout. Somehow, they’d become friends. War did that to men. Bonded them. Gave them a common purpose and understanding of the insanity surrounding them.
Lynx lay back on the weight bench and gripped the bar. “Since you’re here, you might as well spot me.”
“Sure. How long you been here?”
“Forty minutes. Don’t start.”
“I’m not starting. I asked a question.”
“Yeah, but I know you’re gonna start.”
In the five months since Lynx moved to Chicago from D.C., Vic had been nagging him to get out more. Meet some people.
All good things. Just things he wasn’t yet ready for. He had someone in mind, though. Jillian Murdoch from his Sunday morning yoga class. She was cute and lush but could also derail his plan.
Eleven more days.
“But since we’re on the subject,” Vic said, “it wouldn’t kill you to be spontaneous every once in a while.”
“I don’t like spontaneous.”
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.
Lynx let go of the bar and popped to a standing position. At six foot five Vic had four inches on him, but Lynx knew how to get large with someone without needing bulk. He folded his arms.
“I got an hour before my meeting. Let’s make it peaceful. Yes, I should get out and have fun. You know what I’m doing. Don’t fuck with my head. I have a plan. That plan requires me to stick to a routine. No slip-ups. No emotional upheavals. No aggravating friends breaking my balls because I like to keep a schedule. Now, are you gonna shut up and spot me?”
Vic waved both hands at him. “I’m not the one running my mouth and wasting time.”
Assuming his point had been made, Lynx dropped to the weight bench again.
Behind the bench, Vic waited for him to start his set. “All I’m saying—”
“I don’t care what you’re saying. And tell Gina to stop hinting at fix-ups.”
“You’ll have to have that conversation with my wife. She’s on a mission to find you a woman and I’m not getting in the middle of it.”
Lynx took a breath, held it a second and heaved the bar. His muscles groaned at the added weight, but he exhaled and fully extended his arms. He made it to eight reps before his arms quivered and he set the bar down.
Unaided. Not bad.
“I don’t want to insult her.”
“Then stop coming to my house for dinner every Friday night. She thinks you’re lonely. Why else would a successful single guy be at our house every weekend rather than getting laid?”
True dat. “You don’t think I want to get laid? This is no fucking picnic I’m putting myself through.”
Without a doubt, there were nights he slept on his not so comfortable sofa to avoid climbing into his cold, barren bed. He was a man who enjoyed the feel of a woman next to him while he slept. In the time since he’d entered a thirty-day rehab for a prescription drug habit that turned borderline scary, he’d been following his program and, as the books advised, staying away from women. For three hundred and fifty-two-and-a-quarter days he’d been focusing on making himself well, on taking responsibility for his actions and more or less trying not to pummel himself for his mistakes. That meant attending regular support group meetings and concentrating on not relapsing. It had been some of the hardest work he’d ever done. He didn’t need his friends testing him.
“Yeah. The big plan. The one-year mark you’ll hit in what? Ten days?”
Vic laughed. “I get it. My wife isn’t convinced. She thinks you need a woman. Can’t say I disagree. Except, I don’t think you need a woman to marry. You, my friend, need a woman to get busy with. You’re like a goddamned monk.”
“My life. My choice.” Lynx set his hands back on the bar. “Second set.”
“I’ll talk to her. Tell her to lay off.”
“Thank you. Tell her as soon as I’m ready, I’ll let her know.”
Vic sighed. “Boy Scout, I know you. You’ll never let yourself be ready. You’re so determined to have a plan that you’ll make it a habit. Your life will become week after week of rigid schedules. Work every day. The gym every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Recovery meetings every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Yoga every Sunday. Am I close?”
Close? The fucker was dead-on. Lynx gave the bar a push and ripped off eight reps. Next time he’d shoot for ten at the higher weight. See how he did.
He set the bar back into its cradles and sat up. “I know what I’m doing.”
“You need to get a life.”
And now the next phase of the lecture would begin. What Vic didn’t understand, and probably never would because he wasn’t an addict, was that the life Lynx led now was one that kept him in control. To keep his sobriety intact and prove he could be the responsible person he’d been prior to getting hooked on pills. “I have a life,” he said. “It’s just not the life you think I should have.”