Blair Adams was the one project leader at Fairchild BioSystems who never minded mandatory weekly meetings with their CEO, Oliver Fairchild, for one simple reason. Oliver led them. As far as Blair was concerned, Oliver was major eye candy and always would be.
He brought up a presentation on the video screen that covered one wall of the conference room. “I’ve shared this information recently with the other Weathermen, and now I’m sharing it with this group.”
The hard stare he gave each of them in turn only served to make Blair squirm in her seat, but not because his serious gaze had her afraid. It was because when he looked at them in that way, instead of evoking fear or at least caution, all she thought about was that smoldering look in those hazel eyes, bearing down on her as he fucked her silly.
Not that it would ever happen, of course. That’s because you keep turning him down.
“This information is not to leave this room. I’m only telling you because we have some serious work on our hands to try to find a way to slow it down. I don’t want you sharing this with your team members yet. Not until one of you finds a workable solution.”
She was familiar with the data on the first slide because the information in this presentation wasn’t new to her. Oliver highlighted key words while he spoke. “I’ve been working on this in conjunction with researchers around the globe, and we’re all in agreement. We have three years left underground before we can no longer manufacture breathable air, and that’s being generous.”
No one spoke or moved. It was so quiet, Blair couldn’t even hear anyone breathing. Nice pun.
“The rate of oxygen consumption is a constant. We aren’t using it faster than we have been for seven years. What’s changed is the oxygen content in the air above ground because of massive deforestation from the storms.”
He clicked to the next slide, which showed a picture taken on the surface. Blair had no idea where it was, but she’d seen enough pictures to know it all looked the same now. Barren, windswept, foreign, as if they were looking at pictures of a planet too far away from their own sun to sustain human life, not the planet where they now lived underground like moles.
“At the rate oxygen is being depleted from the air, we won’t have enough to keep up with manufacturing it synthetically below ground. Unless one of you comes up with a way to make it without using the real thing, and I’m talking in the next few months, it will be gone in three years or less from the surface.”
He clicked to the next slide, a schematic of how oxygen was produced, showing the necessary components. “Either that, or one of you needs to find a way to slow down the deforestation.”
“Isn’t that what all of you are working on?” asked Roy Leibowitz. “I mean the Weathermen. Finding the hackers so you can take back the program?”
“Sure is, and you see how far we’ve come in seven years.” Oliver’s voice was filled with sarcasm. He gave Roy a pointed stare. “Find a way to speed that up and you’ll be the hero of the planet.”
He glanced around at each of them again. “These are our two options, people. Stop The Madeline Project from its present course, or find a way to make oxygen synthetically.”
Now everyone was talking. They fired off questions and spoke over each other as Oliver tried to regain some semblance of order in the room. Blair leaned back in her chair and tried to keep up, but her main focus was on Oliver and the way he handled himself.
The man had a presence that made her want to kneel at his feet and beg him to take her, hard, rough, and quick. He might be seventeen years older, but he was still the most handsome, seductive man she’d ever seen in person. She’d had a crush on him for seven years, ever since she’d come to work for him at the tender age of nineteen, right after moving underground from Atlanta.
Oliver whistled loudly, and the conversation stopped. “Please! One question at a time. I want to address everyone’s concerns this morning.”
He pointed toward Roy, but Blair was too lost in her fantasies of Oliver to hear Roy’s question. Besides, this wasn’t new information.
She was the one who’d first noticed the irregularities in air quality readings taken on the surface, over six months ago. She’d emailed Oliver right away, and he’d asked her to come to his office within minutes.
While there, she’d showed him the steady decline in oxygen levels, and theorized that the deforestation had reached a critical stage where unless the storms stopped and plants began to grow again, the levels had reached the tipping point.
He’d agreed with her, and immediately contacted other heads of companies doing the same thing Fairchild BioSystems was doing, asking them to launch their own studies. Oliver hadn’t wanted to jump to conclusions without making sure everyone’s data correlated.
“Is it true that the Storm Troopers and Addison Carlyle’s procurement teams have begun to take oxygen tanks with them when they go to the surface?”
That question came from Annie, the one person in this group that Blair was convinced had either bought her way into this job, or had slept her way in. Roy called her the weakest link, and not always behind her back.
Oliver maintained a neutral expression. “Even if that were true, they would soon run out of it, and then no one could be up on the surface. The air is thin, but still breathable.”
“What happens once it no longer is?” asked Marisol.
“We bring the Storm Troopers underground, and Addison’s company is out of business. But that will hardly matter because we all will suffocate down here.”
One of the things his project leaders hated about Oliver was his bluntness. All except Blair. She loved that quality in him. A woman would never have to wonder where she stood with him. He’d never feed her a line of bullshit five miles long and thirty feet deep.
Not now. Pay attention to this presentation.
“If the Storm Troopers stop doing their jobs, what hope do we have of gathering data on the storms?” asked Annie.
“We have data on the storms,” said Oliver. “Seven years’ worth of data. We had data before we all were forced underground. Every year we lose dozens of Storm Troopers to the storms. We don’t need more data. We need more time.” He glanced around the room again, his expression dark and serious.
“That’s what you’re each charged with from this point forward. The systems run on their own, thanks to your hard work all these years. What I need now is a solution. Because I have to be honest with you. I’m not sure even if the last two hackers are found, we can figure out how to stop The Madeline Project.”
“Why do you say that?” asked Blair. They all knew by now that three of the five hackers had been found, but not that finding them still might not halt the course of self-destruction.
His gaze softened as he glanced toward her, just like it always did. Oliver had asked her out at least once a month for the past two years, ever since her nasty divorce. And every single time she’d turned him down.
“A few reasons,” he said. “One, as I pointed out a moment ago, it’s taken us seven years to get this far in tracking them down. We only came this far because of a few lucky discoveries.”
Two years and he hadn’t stopped pursuing her. But Blair didn’t want to be his flavor of the month. He dated a lot. Too much for her taste. A string of toxic relationships and one huge mistake of a marriage had left her gun-shy. Gun-shy wasn’t even the right expression. More like terrified of being used or abused again. But even that didn’t stop her from fantasizing about him.
“Two, even with the real names of three of them now, there isn’t a damn thing we can do yet. If we out them, we risk never finding the other two.”
“Don’t you think three are enough to get the answers we need to shut down the program?” asked Roy.
A shadow of annoyance crossed Oliver’s face as he cut his gaze toward Roy. “My friends and I don’t believe so. We want the other two as well.” He glanced back toward Blair. “And three, the latest information we have indicates it was a mistake on their part. The hackers didn’t mean to send the program on a rogue course.”
Blair’s pulse raced. This was worse than she’d realized. “So what happened? A coding error?”
“That’s what we were told, yes. It’s now self-sustaining. It’s feeding off the electromagnetic fields around the Earth. It’s on autopilot, if you will.”
A cold shiver ran down her spine. “Which means you might not be able to stop it, ever.”
He nodded, then shifted his gaze as yet more questions came from the team. Blair watched him, enjoying the way his clothes hugged his muscular frame perfectly. Her thoughts wandered to what might have happened if Oliver Fairchild had caught her eye when she had first started in this company as a customer service rep.
Would she have married Donny Gallagher four years ago? Would she have gone through the craptastic men she seemed to attract like the magnetic fields Oliver mentioned? Probably. Likely. Her fate seemed to have been sealed the first time Mommy Dearest brought home a boyfriend who tried to crawl into bed with Blair when she was only twelve years old.
“If there are no more questions, that’s it for today. You have your marching orders, gang. Let’s save the planet.”
Oliver’s parting words took a back seat to the flood of emotions coursing through her body. She rose from her chair, ignoring the excited chatter around her, and made her way toward the nearest door.
Allowing the memories of her terrifying teen years inside always brought on a panic attack, and this time was no different. Even Oliver’s sexy smooth voice and dark wavy hair wouldn’t stop it this time. She’d let the images in too far already.
Sweat broke out along her hair line and under her arms. Her breathing was too rapid, and spots danced before her eyes. This was a bad one. She needed to get somewhere alone where she could talk herself down.
Blair heard her name called but ignored it, heading for the bathroom at the end of the hall. Everyone’s offices were in the other direction, so she knew she’d have a few moments alone in there.
Bursting inside, she leaned over the closest sink in the row, blinking against the glare of lights to splash cold water on her face. It ran down her top, but she didn’t care. It was cotton. It would dry.
She grabbed a handful of paper towels and wet them with cold water, then slid to the floor and curled up against the wall, placing the cool towels across the back of her neck. She bowed her head and closed her eyes.
Breathe. Just breathe. You’re okay.
Her heart pounded in her ears, banging out words to its rhythm that she ignored. Instead she turned them into her own litany, the way she’d been taught to do.
You are okay. You are safe here. You can’t be hurt.
The door opened and she gasped, blinking against the lights again as her head snapped up.
“Blair, are you okay?” Oliver knelt next to her and took her face in his hands. “Are you ill? Should I call the medical team?”
“No,” she whispered. “I just need a moment. I’ll be all right.”
“Do you need food? Water?”
He opened his mouth to say something else, then closed it and sat on the floor next to her, crossing his legs. Normally, anyone else’s presence when she had one of these episodes was about as welcome as a root canal, but having him there next to her was comforting. She felt safe, in a way she hadn’t for a very long time. Why?
She handed him the paper towels. “Will you wet them again, please? With cold water.”
He rose and turned on the tap. Her gaze traveled up his jeans to his firm ass, but then she closed her eyes again. Not the right time, Blair.
How she was able to entertain her erotic fantasies of this man at a moment like this amazed her. Did he have super powers? It wouldn’t surprise her to learn that.
He slid back to the floor. “Here you go.” Instead of handing her the towels, he placed them on her back of her neck and stroked her hair gently. “Is there anyone I can call for you?”
His voice was so calming, so controlled, that her heart rate slowed and her breathing grew less erratic. “No.”
“Is it backing off now?”
“Yes.” How did he know? She gazed into his eyes. This close, she could count his eyelashes. Why is it men always had longer ones than women? “Thank you.” The sentiment was totally inadequate, but it was the only thing she could manage to say.
“You’re welcome. I hope you don’t mind me intruding like this, but I’ve seen that look before.”
“Wide eyes, dilated pupils, sweat breaking out on your face suddenly, and the expression of a frightened animal that is desperate to get away from everything in a hurry. Either you were ill, or … or this.”
She swallowed hard against the sudden lump in her throat. “Did I really look like that?”
“Only to someone who’s seen it before.”
“Where have you seen it before?”
His expression turned bittersweet. “In the mirror.”
“Why? What happened to you?”
The bittersweet expression turned into a sexy half smile, and she had a sudden urge to kiss him. “Why don’t we discuss it over dinner?”
So much for compassion and understanding.
She rose, and he did too. She stopped walking toward the door as he placed a hand on her arm. His touch was so gentle and tentative that instead of becoming upset he’d done that, she was surprised. When she turned to face him, the saddest look she’d ever seen on his face took her by surprise.
“Blair, please tell me why not.”
“Why not what?”
He sighed softly. “Why every single time I ask you out you turn me down. Is it something about me you don’t like? Do I smell funny? Is it the way I dress?”
She couldn’t help smiling. “No. You’re gorgeous and charming, but you don’t need me to tell you that.” You have a different woman every month to stroke your ego.
“Then why won’t you have dinner with me?”
Something shifted inside her at the tone in his voice, but despite that, she had no intention of letting him use her. “You date a lot. I don’t want to be the latest subject of gossip in the tabloids.”
For a brief second, he looked like she’d slapped him, but then his expression turned neutral. “I would never let that happen that to you.”
“How would you prevent it?” She watched several emotions cross his face, none of which made any sense to her.
“Because you’re not just any woman.”
Voices in the hall reached her ears and she waited, expecting them to be interrupted any second, but no one came inside. “And the rest of the women? Do they mean nothing, then?”
He looked really uncomfortable now, but she didn’t care. He’d started down this road, not her.
“I’m getting a bit old to be acting like a horny teen.”
They stared into each other’s eyes for long moments, and her heart suddenly went out to him. That statement was so intimate, and so honest. She knew a line now when she heard one, having had way too much experience in that department, and Oliver had not just handed her one. He stood before her, sincere and vulnerable. Since there was no reason for him to be either, she decided she was acting foolish.
She wasn’t sure what was going on with him, but she knew a poignant moment when she saw it. This man was putting his heart out there, and the last thing she wanted to do was hurt him, especially after he had come in here and helped her through the panic attack. He hadn’t been obligated to do that. He could have ignored it.
What harm would there be in one date? She didn’t have to sleep with him. Sure, it would be a struggle not to, but so what? All she had to do was remind herself that if she did go to bed with him, working here would become uncomfortable and awkward. She loved this job too much to give it up. Easy peasy. Right?
“Okay. I’ll have dinner with you.”
At first, it didn’t look as though he’d heard her. Then the sweetest smile graced his handsome face, and for a second or two she was sure he was going to kiss her. Instead, he nodded a few times. “Thank you. That’s wonderful. Thank you.”
Blair wondered if she was on the edge of a great adventure, or whether she’d just made the biggest mistake of her life. Either way, she had the unmistakable feeling that everything had suddenly changed.
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