Saturday, June 4, 2016

Entire First Chapter of THE HARDER THEY FALL


Chapter One

Blaine Parker still got chills when he stood on the surface of the planet. It was difficult to believe The Madeline Project had really been stopped. They could all go home again, once they rebuilt the surface of the planet, of course. Right now, there was no place to live but in caves, or in the few hundred bunkers and storm shelters. None of those would hold the entire population of the world currently dwelling underground.

Glancing around at the space where Grand Forks, North Dakota used to be, it was impossible to distinguish the once-quaint downtown from among the piles of rubble. Blaine still remembered it the way it was before they were all forced underground eight years ago. One day, it would look the same or better, if he had anything to say about it.

“We don’t have the permits to put up the communications towers,” said Townsend. “Let alone the buildings.”

Townsend Dubray was head of NorthCentral Construction. He was Sioux, and his family had once owned most of this area since before North Dakota became a state. Up until the world imploded, they had still lived in this same area. Townsend knew the land, and he knew how to build things. He also gave less of a shit about bureaucracy than Blaine did, which was why Blaine had hired him.

“Fuck the permits. That fucking Agency For Surface Rebuild wasn’t started until a month ago, and already there’s a six month backlog. I’m not waiting that long. I’ll be out of business before I can get anything built up here. My company was right here before I had to move it underground. This is where I’m building it again.”

Townsend shrugged. “You’re the boss.”

Blaine kicked at a large piece of weather-beaten plywood. “Every time I come up here I expect a tornado or a flood to come on me suddenly. I still can’t get used to it. I can’t believe we actually did it.”

“Technically, Dave Perry did it.”

Blaine chuckled under his breath. “Yeah, because we made him do it.”

Townsend lifted his face to the sky and smiled. “It’s wonderful to breathe the real air again.”

Blaine gave him a wry smile. “We have real air underground.”

“No. Not like this. There was no wind. The smell isn’t the same. This is different.”

Blaine agreed with Townsend on that point only. The absence of wind during the past eight years had been difficult to grow used to. The rest of Townsend’s point wasn’t important enough to split hairs over.

Blaine found a large enough rock on which to spread out the blueprints. The building that would house the company once more wasn’t any larger than the one he had underground. What differed was this time it would be part of an entire complex.

Office buildings would stand next to high rise apartment buildings, green spaces, and small groupings of shops. He even had plans for clusters of single family homes that would afford their owners some yard space, if that’s what they preferred. Not everyone wanted to live in an apartment. He envisioned a village where people could walk to work like they did now underground, but one that was still small enough so residents could get to know each other.

Maybe if they rebuilt the surface like the cities were now constructed underground, they could keep the community feel of them. Blaine liked that. He’d grown used to it, and if he could set the precedent by building this, maybe others would follow.

Blaine rolled up the blueprints. “Let’s walk it off again.”

“The stakes are still there,” said Townsend.

“I know, but I want to get a feel for where everything will be.” Blaine had finished purchasing this additional land a few days after The Madeline Project had been shut down permanently, knowing if he waited, everyone would rush up to the surface and try to stake out a claim for land that had never belonged to them in the first place.

The landmarks might be gone, but he knew this area regardless. The realty company with which he worked had begun this deal for additional land shortly after he’d been forced to move underground. He had never believed they’d live out their lives and then die underground. He had always known they’d be able to live on the surface again.

As soon as possible after The Madeline Project became non-operational, he had called the company, which had remained in business, and had been told the newly-formed agency set up to control rebuilding might eventually claim eminent domain over all pre-existing land deals. But he didn’t give a shit about that, either. He’d tie them up in court for decades if they tried.

All deals that had begun in 2118, or afterward, would be honored, according to the agency’s website. This deal had begun in 2118, and he had the documentation to prove it. Three hundred and fifty acres of what used to be gorgeous, lush land outside of Grand Forks. He was rebuilding his company on the surface here, and he would make it thrive once more, the same way he’d done when he’d had to move it underground.

He and Townsend began to walk the perimeter, and Blaine took note of the turquoise stake in the northwest corner. This area was where the single family homes would go. Lots would range from a third of an acre to two acres. They planned to plant thick tree lines on the northern and western borders of the homes, and had discussed planting them around the entire complex. It would make for a gorgeous border, and the more trees that were planted now, the better.

As he and Townsend walked at a leisurely pace, they talked about the project and stopped often to refer to the blueprints. Blaine was surprised to see a figure approach them from the direction of the nearest airlock, and he wondered who she was and why she was up here. He’d been coming up here almost every day for two months, and he saw others less than half the time.

It would take everyone a while to figure out where to go, even if they did decide to pick up and move here. One of the reasons he’d jumped on completing this land deal was because he knew the government would create offices and agencies to try to control the surface. Otherwise there would be chaos.

While he understood the need for it, no one was going to prevent him from keeping land that he’d owned before all this had happened. Some things had to be honored from before. They couldn’t all start over from scratch.

“Blaine Parker?” she called.

Blaine and Townsend stopped walking while Blaine shielded his eyes. He grinned. It had been a long time since he’d had to shield his eyes from the real sun, and it felt wonderful to do so now. “I’m Blaine Parker. How can I help you?”

As she drew closer, his dick jumped to attention. Shoulder-length red hair blew in the soft breeze—it had been a long time since he’d seen that, too—and intelligent green eyes regarded him. A freckled face topped a lush, curvy body that made him ache to see it naked. Was her skin freckled everywhere? Who was this adorable girl?

Her gaze roamed slowly over him as she decreased her pace. She was checking him out. He was used to that, but the clipboard in her hand intrigued him as much as her admiration of him. Was she with his realty company?

She paused in front of him and stuck out her hand. “Colleen Newton. You’re a hard man to track down.”

I’m a hard man, sweetie, period. He shook her hand. “What can I do for you?” He didn’t recognize the name. A quick glance at her clipboard gave him no information.

“I’m with the NorthCentral Division of the Agency For Surface Rebuild.”

“Permits,” said Townsend, under his breath.

But not softly enough because Colleen heard him. “Yes, permits. You have none, Mr. Parker. You’re not building here without them.”

The newly-formed agency must be desperate if they had hired people to chase down anyone trying to rebuild on land they technically already owned. He handed Townsend the blueprints, sighing loudly enough for Miss Newton to hear, then pulled the papers out of his jeans pocket and shoved them at her.

“I owned some of this land before we all moved underground. The deal for the additional land was begun in 2118. According to the latest guidelines posted on your agency’s website, as of late last night when I checked it again, you can’t refuse to allow me to complete a land deal started in 2118, ergo, I will be building my complex on my land.” He winked at her. “Sorry you came all the way up here for nothing.”

She looked at him like he’d insulted her entire family, about three generations back. Then she dropped her clipboard in the dust and placed her hands on her hips. Blaine nearly lost it. What was it about that gesture? It was so damn cute.

To him, it had never signified defiance or anger. A person who is angry balls his hands into fists, ready to fight. One who is defiant puffs out their chest, trying to make themselves appear larger. Putting your hands on your hips was like trying to brace yourself against a fall by closing your eyes. It did nothing to help you.

“Mr. Parker, I don’t think you understand. The Agency has control of all building, including communications towers. The division I work for has control throughout NorthCentral.”

“Are they keeping the names the same, then?” he asked.

“What?”

“I asked you if they’re keeping the names the same. NorthCentral below ground, NorthCentral above ground … won’t that be a bit confusing?”

Townsend chuckled under his breath and shook his head, but Colleen was not amused. Her emerald-colored eyes flashed with the indignation of someone young enough to have little experience at being in authority, but enough intelligence and street smarts to be able to pull it off, regardless.

Blaine liked her. She was damn beautiful, and she had fire inside. She wouldn’t be boring. He wondered how old she was. Couldn’t be more than thirty, and she was likely closer to twenty-five. He was forty-two, and had no qualms about dating someone that young.

“This has nothing to do with the names of the cities.”

“Well, actually, yes, it does. I don’t want my customers confused. I think you should consider naming them differently up here, or adding another word. NorthCentralUp, for instance.”

“NorthCentralTopside,” said Townsend.

“Oh, I like that better. Up and down are too generic.”

“That’s about enough of that from both of you.” She picked up her clipboard and tore off the top sheet. “This is a notice from the Agency prohibiting you from building so much as a birdhouse until you get the proper permits.” She thrust it at him.

Blaine glanced at it for no more than a split second, then passed it to Townsend. “Why would I build a birdhouse, Colleen? There are no birds left up here.”

She shook her head slowly, but he caught the way her mouth almost curled into a smile. It was quick, but he definitely saw it. Her gaze softened about three degrees. “Very funny. You know what I mean. I’ll be up here in a week, and I’d better not see anything begun or we’ll shut you down.”

“You try that and my attorneys will challenge your agency’s authority. I’ll tie you up in court for longer than you can imagine.” He’d like to tie her up in bed.

“This agency was formed by the Vice President’s Office. Knock yourself out.”

“I know her personally. The Vice President.”

Colleen smiled, but it wasn’t a humorous gesture. “So do I. See you in a week.”

She turned, and Blaine watched her ass move under the flowered skirt. His damn cock was rock hard now, and there wasn’t one fucking thing he could do about it until he was safely back in his apartment underground. He snatched the paper out of Townsend’s hand, then put Colleen Newton’s contact info from the letterhead at the top of it into his Internet phone.

“What are you going to do?” asked Townsend.

Blaine handed him back the paper. “I’m going to ask her out to dinner.”
****
Colleen forced her pace to slow down. She didn’t want to give Mr. Gorgeous Weatherman Blaine Parker the impression she was storming off in a huff. Of all the people to have to track down, she’d pulled the short straw—literally. She could still hear her coworkers snickering when she realized she was the one who had to chase down Blaine.

Even her aunt had been unable to intervene. It would have looked like favoritism, which it was, and Colleen had agreed that wouldn’t be a good start to her career with the agency. Her MA in urban planning and development had helped her land this job, and she didn’t want to waste all that education.

Plus, it had been the only job offer she’d received since earning that degree two years ago that didn’t include asking customers if they wanted to try the special that day. In her interview, she’d been told this would be a rough start. Chaos was likely to ensue as people clamored to return to their homes, which of course were gone now. Land barriers had been eroded. Landmarks were gone. Part of this agency’s task was to find the old markers, if they could, and make sure those who owned land before got it back, or at least were given suitable alternatives.

Unfortunately for Colleen, despite this being a neophyte agency, she was still the new girl on the block, and no one gave her preferential treatment because of her family. Most of her coworkers had been in government service since before everyone moved underground, and they knew their way around the bureaucracy. She had to prove herself, the same as the others had done.

In an effort to restore order, the agency was requiring everyone to get permits, even those who, like Blaine, had deals that pre-dated the mass moves underground. She had also been warned that Blaine Parker was unlikely to give a shit, or to cooperate with such a mandate. It was only a formality so they could keep track of everything, or at least try to. But he wouldn’t see it that way, and she’d been warned about that, too.

She knew all about the guidelines he’d quoted. She’d helped write them. But they were fluid, and likely to change at a moment’s notice. The website also said that, though she doubted he had given those paragraphs more than a passing glance.

Despite the warnings ahead of time, no one had told her how freaking gorgeous he was up close and personal. She wished she’d been prepared for the sheer force of standing next to him and speaking with him. He oozed wealth and power, not to mention more than a healthy dose of testosterone.

He was also a player. She knew that, too, because it was splashed all over the Internet. But now it would be difficult to erase the memory of that intense gaze peering into her soul, or the way his eyes had twinkled with amusement when he’d made the joke about the names of the cities. She loved a man with a sense of humor, and it was obvious that, in addition to his well-known rebel status, Blaine Parker had a witty one.

When she reached the airlock, she turned to find him and the man with him, whose name she didn’t know, still standing there, watching her. She wasn’t far enough away to miss the way he shielded his eyes once more, as if he were trying to see the expression on her face. He was certainly a sight, in his jeans, boots, and blue plaid shirt.

He looked like he spent a great deal of time outdoors, which surprised her. He’d been CEO of Clear Channel Industries since before he was her age. She had always imagined him in person as pale, dressed in a suit and tie, and hunched over his computer in a wood-paneled office. Perhaps that was where he spent his time indoors, but he didn’t look out of place in this windswept field, either.

His hair hung loose to his shoulders, blond and soft-looking. She’d wanted to run her fingers through it even while his “I don’t give a shit” attitude had pissed her off royally. And those sapphire eyes… They gleamed with just the right amount of lust to make him sexy but not lecherous. Her damn panties were wet, for heaven’s sake.

“Are you coming, Miss?” asked the guard at the airlock, distracting her from Blaine.

Not yet, but I will later when I fantasize about him. “Yes. Thank you.”

She gave Blaine one last look, and couldn’t help but smile as he tipped an imaginary hat to her. Oh, he was a charmer all right. And a player. But that’s exactly why she was so attracted to him.

Colleen curtseyed in response to his hat tipping, then kept her gaze on him long enough to see him laugh. She finally turned around and began the descent through several levels of airlocks to the city below.


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