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Overload (Chapter Two)

The red emergency lights blinked on almost immediately, bathing them in a dim, unearthly glow. She didn't, couldn't move, not just yet; she was paralyzed by a strange mixture of alarm and pleasure. She lay sprawled on top of Quinlan, her arms instinctively latched around his neck while his own arms cradled her to him. She could feel the heat of his body even through the layers of their clothing, and the musky man-scent of his skin called up potent memories of a night when there had been no clothing to shield her from his heat. Her flesh quickened, but her spirit rebelled, and she pushed subtly against him in an effort to free herself. For a second his arms tightened, forcing her closer, flattening her breasts against the hard muscularity of his chest. The red half-light darkened his blue eyes to black, but even so, she could read the determination and desire revealed in them.

The desire tempted her to relax, to sink bonelessly into his embrace, but the determination had her pulling back. Almost immediately he released her, though she sensed his reluctance, and rolled to his feet with a lithe, powerful movement. He caught her arms and lifted her with ridiculous ease. "Are you all right? Any bruises?"

She smoothed down her skirt. "No, I'm fine. You?"

He grunted in reply, already opening the panel that hid the emergency phone. He lifted the receiver and punched the button that would alert Maintenance. Elizabeth waited, but he didn't say anything. His dark brows drew together, and finally he slammed the receiver down. "No answer. The maintenance crew must have gone home early, like everyone else."

She looked at the telephone. There was no dial on it, no buttons other than that one. It was connected only to Maintenance, meaning they couldn't call out on it.

Then she noticed something else, and her head lifted. "The air has stopped." She lifted her hand to check, but there was no cool air blowing from the vents. The lack of noise had alerted her. "The power must be off," he said, turning his attention to the door.

The still air in the small enclosure was already becoming stuffy. She didn't like the feeling, but she refused to let herself get panicky. "It probably won't be long before it comes back on."

"Normally I'd agree with you, if we weren't having a heat wave, but the odds are too strong that it's a system overload, and if that's the case, it can take hours to repair. We have to get out. These lights are battery operated and won't stay on long. Not only that, the heat will build up, and we don't have water or enough oxygen in here." Even as he spoke, he was attacking the elevator doors with his strong fingers, forcing them open inch by inch. Elizabeth added her strength to his, though she was aware that he could handle it perfectly well by himself. It was just that she couldn't tolerate the way he had of taking over and making her feel so useless.

They were stuck between floors, with about three feet of the outer doors visible at the bottom of the elevator car. She helped him force open those doors, too. Before she could say anything, he had lowered himself through the opening and swung lithely to the floor below.

He turned around and reached up for her. "Just slide out. I'll catch you."

She sniffed, though she was a little apprehensive about what she was going to try. It had been a long time since she had done anything that athletic. "Thanks, but I don't need any help. I took gymnastics in college." She took a deep, preparatory breath, then swung out of the elevator every bit as gracefully as he had, even encumbered as she was with her shoulder bag and handicapped by her high heels. His dark brows arched, and he silently applauded. She bowed. One of the things that she had found most irresistible about Quinlan was the way she had been able to joke with him. Actually there was a lot about him that she'd found irresistible, so much so that she had ignored his forcefulness and penchant for control, at least until she had found that report in his apartment. She hadn't been able to ignore that.

"I'm impressed," he said.

Wryly she said, "So am I. It's been years."

"You were on the college gymnastics team, huh? You never told me that before."

"Nothing to tell, because I wasn't on the college team. I'm too tall to be really good. But I took classes, for conditioning and relaxation."

"From what I remember," he said lazily, "you're still in great shape."

Elizabeth wheeled away and began walking briskly to the stairs, turning her back on the intimacy of that remark. She could feel him right behind her, like a great beast stalking its prey. She pushed open the door and stopped in her tracks. "Uh-oh."

The stairwell was completely dark. It wasn't on an outside wall, but it would have been windowless in any case. The hallway was dim, with only one office on that floor having interior windows, but the stairwell was stygian. Stepping into it would be like stepping into a well, and she felt a sudden primal instinct against it. "No problem," Quinlan said, so close that his breath stirred her hair and she could feel his chest brush against her back with each inhalation. "Unless you have claustrophobia?"

"No, but I might develop a case any minute now."

He chuckled. "It won't take that long to get down. We're on the third floor, so it's four short flights and out. I'll hold the door until you get your hand on the rail."

Since the only alternative was waiting there until the power came back on, Elizabeth shrugged, took a deep breath as if she were diving and stepped into the dark hole. Quinlan was so big that he blocked most of the light, but she grasped the rail and went down the first step. "Okay, stay right there until I'm with you," he said, and let the door close behind him as he stepped forward.

She had the immediate impression of being enclosed in a tomb, but in about one second he was be- side her, his arm stretched behind her back with that hand holding the rail, while he held her other arm with his free hand. In the warm, airless darkness she felt utterly surrounded by his strength. "I'm not going to fall," she said, unable to keep the bite from her voice.

"You're sure as hell not," he replied calmly. He didn't release her.

"Quinlan…"

"Walk."

Because it was the fastest way to get out of his grasp, she walked. The complete darkness was disorienting at first, but she pictured the stairs in her mind, found the rhythm of their placement, and managed to go down at almost normal speed. Four short flights, as he had said. Two flights separated by a landing constituted one floor. At the end of the fourth flight he released her, stepped forward a few steps and found the door that opened onto the first floor. Gratefully Elizabeth hurried into the sunlit lobby. She knew it was all in her imagination, but she felt as if she could breathe easier with space around her.

Quinlan crossed rapidly to the guard's desk, which was unoccupied. Elizabeth frowned. The guard was always there–or rather, he had always been there before, because he certainly wasn't now.

When he reached the desk, Quinlan immediately began trying to open the drawers. They were all locked. He straightened and yelled, "Hello?" His deep voice echoed in the eerily silent lobby.

Elizabeth groaned as she realized what had happened. "The guard must have gone home early, too."

"He's supposed to stay until everyone is out."

"He was a substitute. When he called the office, Chickie told him that I would leave before four. If there were other stragglers, he must have assumed that I was among them. What about you?"

"Me?" Quinlan shrugged, his eyes hooded. "Same thing."

She didn't quite believe him, but she didn't pursue it. Instead she walked over to the inner set of doors that led to the outside and tugged at them. They didn't budge. Well, great. They were locked in. "There has to be some way out of here," she muttered.

"There isn't," he said flatly.

She stopped and stared at him. "What do you mean, 'there isn't'?"

"I mean the building is sealed. Security. Keeps looters out during a power outage. The glass is rein- forced, shatterproof. Even if we called the guard service and they sent someone over, they couldn't unlock the doors until the electricity was restored. It's like the vault mechanisms in banks."

"Well, you're the security expert. Get us out. Override the system somehow."

"Can't be done."

"Of course it can. Or are you admitting there's something you can't do?"

He crossed his arms over his chest and smiled benignly. "I mean that I designed the security system in this building, and it can't be breached. At least, not until the power comes back on. Until then, I can't get into the system. No one can."

Elizabeth caught her breath on a surge of fury, more at his attitude than the circumstances. He just looked so damn smug.

"So we call 911," she said.

"Why?"

"What do you mean, why? We're stuck in this building!"

"Is either of us ill? Hurt? Are we in any danger? This isn't an emergency, it's an inconvenience, and believe me; they have their hands full with real emergencies right now. And they can't get into the building, either. The only possible way out is to climb to the roof and be lifted off by helicopter, but that's an awful lot of expense and trouble for someone who isn't in any danger. We have food and water in the building. The sensible thing is to stay right here."

Put that way, she grudgingly accepted that she had no choice. "I know," she said with a sigh. "It's just that I feel so… trapped." In more ways than one.

"It'll be fun. We'll get to raid the snack machines–"

"They operate on electricity, too."

"I didn't say we'd use money," he replied, and winked at her. "Under the circumstances, no one will mind."

She would mind. She dreaded every minute of this, and it could last for hours. The last thing she wanted to do was spend any time alone with Quinlan, but it looked as if she had no choice. If only she could relax in his company, she wouldn't mind, but that was beyond her ability. She felt acutely uncomfortable with him, her tension compounded of several different things: uppermost was anger that he had dared to pry into her life the way he had; a fair amount of guilt, for she knew she owed him at least an explanation, and the truth was still both painful and embarrassing; a sort of wistfulness, because she had enjoyed so much about him; and desire–God, yes, a frustrated desire that had been feeding for months on the memory of that one night they had spent together.

"We don't have to worry about the air," he said, looking around at the two-story lobby. "It'll get con- siderably warmer in here, but the insulation and thermal-glazed windows will keep it from getting critically hot. We'll be okay."

She forced herself to stop fretting and think sensibly. There was no way out of this situation, so she might as well make the best of it, and that meant staying as comfortable as they could. In this case, comfortable meant cool. She began looking around; as he'd said, they had food and water, though they would have to scrounge for it, and there was enough furniture here in the lobby to furnish several living rooms, so they had plenty of cushions to fashion beds. Her mind skittered away from that last thought. Her gaze fell on the stairway doors, and the old saying "hot air rises" came to mind. "If we open the bottom stairway doors, that'll create a chimney effect to carry the heat upward," she said.

"Good idea. I'm going to go back up to my office to get a flashlight and raid the snack machine. Is there anything you want from your office while I'm up there?"

Mentally she ransacked her office, coming up with several items that might prove handy. "Quite a bit, actually. I'll go with you."

"No point in both of us climbing the stairs in the dark," he said casually. "Just tell me what you want."

That was just like him, she thought irritably, wanting to do everything himself and not involve her. "It makes more sense if we both go. You can pilfer your office for survival stuff, and I'll pilfer mine. I think I have a flashlight, too, but I'm not certain where it is."

"It's eight flights, climbing, this time, instead of going down," he warned her, looking down at her high heels.

In answer, she stepped out of her shoes and lifted her eyebrows expectantly. He gave her a thoughtful look, then gave in without more argument, gesturing her ahead of him. He relocated a large potted tree to hold the stairway door propped open, handling it as casually as if the big pot didn't weigh over a hundred pounds. Elizabeth had a good idea how heavy it was, however, for she loved potted plants and her condo was always full of greenery. She wondered how it would feel to have such strength, to possess Quinlan's basic self-confidence that he could handle any situation or difficulty. With him, it was even more than mere confidence; there was a certain arrogance, subtle but unmistakably there, the quiet arrogance of a man who knew his own strengths and skills. Though he had adroitly sidestepped giving out any personal information about his past, she sensed that some of those skills were deadly.

She entered the stairwell with less uneasiness this time, for there was enough light coming in through the open door to make the first two flights perfectly visible. Above that, however, they proceeded in thick, all-encompassing darkness. As he had before, Quinlan passed an arm behind her back to grip the rail, and his free hand held her elbow. His hand had always been there whenever they had gone up or down steps, she remembered. At first it had been pleasurable, but soon she had felt a little smothered, and then downright alarmed. Quinlan's possessiveness had made her uneasy, rather than secure. She knew too well how such an attitude could get out of hand.

Just to break the silence she quipped, "If either of us smoked, we'd have a cigarette lighter to light our path."

"If either of us smoked," he came back dryly, "we wouldn't have the breath to climb the stairs."

She chuckled, then saved her energy to concentrate on the steps. Climbing five floors wasn't beyond her capabilities, but it was still an effort. She was breathing hard by the time they reached the fifth floor, and the darkness was becoming unnerving. Quinlan stepped forward and opened the door, letting in a sweet spill of light.

They parted ways at their respective offices, Quinlan disappearing into his while Elizabeth unlocked hers. The late-afternoon light was still spilling brightly through the windows, reminding her that, in actuality, very little time had passed since the elevator had lurched to a halt. A disbelieving glance at her wrist-watch said that it had been less than half an hour.

The flashlight was the most important item, and she searched the file cabinets until she found it. Praying that the batteries weren't dead, she thumbed the switch and was rewarded by a beam of light. She switched it off and placed it on Chickie's desk. She and Chickie made their own coffee, as it was both more convenient and better tasting than the vending machine kind, so she got their cups and put them on the desk next to the flashlight. Drinking from them would be easier than splashing water into their mouths with their hands, and she knew Chickie wouldn't mind if Quinlan used her cup. Quite the contrary.

Knowing that her secretary had an active sweet tooth, Elizabeth began rifling the desk drawers, smiling in appreciation when she found a six-pack of chocolate bars with only one missing, a new pack of fig bars, chewing gum, a honey bun and a huge blueberry muffin. Granted, it was junk food, but at least they wouldn't be hungry. Finally she got two of the soft pillows that decorated the chairs in her office, thinking that they would be more comfortable for sleeping than the upholstered cushions downstairs.

Quinlan opened the door, and she glanced at him. He had removed his suit jacket and was carrying a small black leather bag. He looked at her loot and laughed softly. "Were you a scout, by any chance?"

"I can't take the credit for most of it. Chickie's the one with a sweet tooth."

"Remind me to give her a big hug the next time I see her."

"She'd rather have you set her up on a date with that biker who came in after lunch."

He laughed again. "Feeling adventurous, is she?"

"Chickie's always adventurous. Was he a client?"

"No." She sensed that that was all the information he was going to give out about the "biker." As always, Quinlan was extremely closemouthed about his business, both clients and staff. On their dates, he had always wanted to talk about her, showing interest in every little detail of her life, while at the same time gently stonewalling her tentative efforts to find out more about him. It hadn't been long before that focused interest, coupled with his refusal to talk about himself, had begun making her extremely uncomfortable. She could understand not wanting to talk about certain things; there was a certain period that she couldn't bring herself to talk about, either, but Quinlan's secretiveness had been so absolute that she didn't even know if he had any family. On the other hand, he had noticed the gap in her own life and had already started asking probing little questions when she had broken off the relationship.

There was a silk paisley shawl draped across a chair, and Elizabeth spread it across the desk to use as an upscale version of a hobo's pouch. As she began piling her collection in the middle of the shawl, Quinlan casually flicked at the fringe with one finger. "Do people actually buy shawls just because they look good draped across chairs?"

"Of course. Why not?"

"It's kind of silly, isn't it?"

"I guess it depends on your viewpoint. Do you think it's silly when people spend hundreds of dollars on mag wheels for their cars or trucks, just because they look good?"

"Cars and trucks are useful."

"So are chairs," she said dryly. She gathered the four corners of the shawl together and tied them in a knot. "Ready."

"While we're up here, we need to raid the snack machines, rather than rely on what you have there. There's no point in making extra trips upstairs to get more food when we can get it now."

She gave him a dubious look. "Do you think we'll be here so long that we'll need that much food?"

"Probably not, but I'd rather have too much than too little. We can always return what we don't eat."

"Logical," she admitted.

He turned to open the door for her, and Elizabeth stared in shock at the lethal black pistol tucked into his waistband at the small of his back. "Good God," she blurted. "What are you going to do with that?"

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