Just When You Least Expect it....



Perhaps it was time to retire. The world had changed so much. And now, it was changing faster than ever. He could remember manual typewriters, and airplanes with propellers, and huge cars with matching huge engines, and lousy gas mileage, but that had been unimportant, because gasoline was cheap. No longer. Now, there were computers, and the moment you got one, it was obsolete. Talk about your throw-away society!

He filled his mug with coffee from his thermal carafe and turned to watch the tech finish installing his latest computer. Taking a sip, he crossed the room and sat in one of his visitor's chairs.

"You're all set, sir. You've got a nice, new computer with all the latest upgrades, a flat-panel monitor, ergonomic keyboard, and trak-ball." The young tech smiled at him, unconsciously pulling her shoulders back to enhance her already prominent bosom.

While he appreciated her display for his benefit, he simply nodded and took another sip of his coffee. "What about the old one?"


"The files on the old one. Have they all been transferred to this one?"

"Uh, let me do that for you right now." The girl grabbed his old CPU and began removing the screws in order to get to the guts.

"And when you've done that, how will you destroy the old one?"

"Oh, we just reformat the drives, sir."

"And is there any way to get at the information that I had on it after you do that?"

"There shouldn't be."

"I need a guarantee. Can you guarantee that there will be no way for anyone to access the information that I had on it?"

"I can degauss the hard drive before I reformat it?"

He hid his smile at her nervous response behind his mug as he sipped his coffee. "Is that a question, or an answer?"

"I can degauss the hard drive before I reformat it, sir, and that way, nothing will be recoverable."

"You can do that here?"

"Uhhh, I'll have to go get a degausser, sir. It won't take me very long at all." She pulled the cover off his old computer and pulled a wire ribbon free, then opened up his new CPU and attached the ribbon to something inside it, then proceeded to plug in the old CPU and type some commands. "While it's downloading your files, I'll go get the degausser, sir."

"Thank you." He watched her stand up and walk to the door. She didn't turn back, so he allowed his appreciative smile to briefly grace his face before standing up and circling around to watch the monitor as the new machine downloaded all the information from his old one. That girl had made it look so easy, but it was all so far beyond his comprehension that he again began to think of retiring. The fact that most of his current office staff were between thirty and forty years his junior did nothing to help his feelings of decrepitude. Although that tech had certainly preened for him. He shook his head and smiled wryly, admitting to himself that the view certainly had been nice. She must be very new, indeed, to even consider him someone to show off for. As long as this damned computer worked, though, was all he was concerned with. That and that no one would be able to access anything he had on the old one.

She almost ran back to her lab to get the degausser. She wondered why no one had told her just how good looking the boss was. Oh, sure, he was older, but so what? Most of the guys she knew were still boys, and might never grow up. This was a man, and the moment she walked into his office and those ice-blue eyes met hers, she'd known that. It never occurred to her that he might not go for younger women.

"You all done with the boss already?" Tom asked when she breezed in.

"No. I need a degausser for his hard drive."

"What for? Just reformat it. He'll never know the difference."

She paused and turned to look at him. "He might, or he might not. But he wants it degaussed, so it gets degaussed. Okay?"

"She's right, Tom," Jeremy called from his cubicle in the corner. "I sure wouldn't want him mad at me because something leaked." Jeremy wheeled out, carrying a heavy-duty portable degausser. "Here." He handed it to her. "So, Linda, is he as scary as everyone makes him out to be?" Down here, in the dungeon, they weren't privy to, or even likely to meet up with the big dogs. There were a lot of rumors, but very little first-hand information.

"Well, he's not as big as they say he is. Only about six foot. He's pretty skinny, from what I could tell, but he's wearing a suit. I got the feeling that he probably wouldn't know what a pair of jeans was, but he looks pretty fit, for a guy his age."

"So, how old is he?" Tom asked, his curiosity piqued.

Linda shrugged. "I don't know. Sixty, maybe? Brown hair that's got more gray than brown in it. Bushy eyebrows, blue eyes that can stare holes in you." She shivered slightly, remembering those blue eyes locked on hers. "He didn't yell, offered me coffee, and stayed out of my way, only asking questions when I'd gotten the computer set up for him. I'm transferring his files from his old computer, now, and then he wants the old one degaussed and reformatted." She smiled as she tucked the degausser under her arm. "Meanwhile, I think I'd better get back before he starts wondering what's taking me so long."

"So, he doesn't chew people up and spit them out?" Tom asked, thinking of some of the rumors he'd heard about the boss.

"Don't know. I'm trying very hard to not give him a reason to get mad at me. See you later." With that, she headed out the door and back up to the rarified air of the important people, ready to do her job.

He was on the phone when she returned. She tapped on the door and heard his growl to enter. She could see from the expression on his face that he wasn't pleased with whomever it was he was talking to on the phone. She diffidently slithered over next to him to continue working on the computers. She glanced at the video screen and realized that it was still transferring files, and probably would be for a while, yet. She sat on the floor, practically under his desk and started humming to herself to distract her from whatever he was saying to the person on the phone.

"I don't care what you thought; you weren't sent there to think, but to act. I suggest you do a little less thinking and try a bit more obedience to your mission. Believe me, you do not want me coming out there to double-check you."

Linda winced and hummed a little louder, closing her eyes. She could still hear him, that low, intense rumble of anger in his voice, but she could no longer make out what he was actually saying.

The next thing she knew, he was crouched next to her, his hand on her shoulder, startling her.

He hung up the phone, jaws clenched in anger, and glanced down at the girl working on his computer. He noticed her eyes were closed and she was humming rather loudly. She had a decent singing voice, he decided. "You can stop that, now."

No answer. "Miss?"

No answer, so he sank down to her level and stared at her for a few moments, then gently grasped her shoulder, smiling in amusement when she jumped.


"It's all right. I was just trying to say that you can stop humming, now. I'm off the phone." He straightened, and then leaned down to offer her a hand up. She smiled and accepted the offer.

His hand was large, and warm, and not as soft as she'd expected. She shivered, thinking of the kinds of things that hand with those long, elegant fingers might be capable of. "Thanks," she softly said, glancing shyly at him. He shook his head and smiled at her, the amusement dancing in his eyes.

"How much longer?"

For a moment, her mind flashed to her own curiosity at that same question, as her eyes drifted down to....oops, that wasn't what he meant, now, was it? She forced her gaze back to his computer monitor. "Well, the download's done, so about five minutes to degauss the old hard drive, then reformat it. But before I do that, how about you check out the new computer and see if everything is there?"

She quickly detached the connecting cable and moved the old CPU out of his way so he could sit down and check out his new computer. He did so, while she knelt by his old CPU and prepared to degauss the hard drive.

His eyes scanned his files and he decided that everything was there. "Looks good." He turned to watch her set up her machine to wipe out all the information on his old computer.

"This'll just take a few minutes, then I'll take it back to the lab and reformat the hard drive. But this magnet will wipe out everything on it."

"All right. Thank you."

She smiled up at him. He was hardly the ogre he'd been painted. "You're welcome."

He returned her smile and went back to his new computer, grumbling softly under his breath. Finally, just as the degausser finished its work, he asked, "Okay, how do I change the color scheme on this thing?"

"Easy, my computer, control panel, display." She was back on her knees beside him, looking over his arm at the monitor. She found herself impressed that he didn't have to have her do it for him. He scrolled through the desktop themes and shook his head, growling softly. "I don't like any of these. Now what?"

"Now, you customize." She shifted closer, almost touching him, and took over control of his mouse. "Okay, here's the color pallet, if you don't see what you like, we can custom blend. What color would you like the background?"

"Something that isn't going to glare."

"How about we start with the spruce pattern for the basic, and then customize from there?"

"All right." He sat back in his chair and watched her, smiling in amusement as she asked questions and blended colors until she had created a color scheme he liked.

"Okay, what about the wallpaper?"


"Yeah, the background on the desktop?" She turned her head to look up at him and suddenly realized just how close he was, and how she was positioned beside him, and...smiled up into his eyes as she realized that he was reacting to her proximity. "We can make it plain, or fancy. Do you have a favorite picture?" She kept her earnest gaze on his eyes as her hand slid up onto his thigh. To her surprise, he didn't react, except for the glitter in his eyes changed as they narrowed slightly and she wondered what he might do.

"Photograph?" He smiled. He was perfectly aware of his body's reaction to her presence, and equally aware of her reaction to having noticed.

"Yeah. You got any photo files? We can take one and you can make it your background wallpaper."

He reached for his new trak-ball and quickly brought up his photo files. Most of them, he wouldn't want to look at for any length of time, but knowing he could change them at will...that could be interesting. He found one he thought amusing, the Kremlin. Perfect. She showed him how to install it as his wallpaper, and as he sat back, with her leaning on his legs to tell the computer to apply the new wallpaper, he chuckled softly.

His warm chuckle of amusement vibrated through her whole body and she suddenly felt flushed and wished he wasn't the big boss, and that they were somewhere other than here. Taking a deep, shaking breath, she eased back and away from physical contact with him.

When she shifted away from him, he felt a momentary flash of ...what, disappointment? Pain? Hardly that. Regret, that was probably it. She'd realized who she'd been flirting with and was backing away. He managed not to sigh.

What was she thinking? She had to be out of her mind! Then she consciously registered his scent and her heart began to pound and she closed her eyes and swallowed the groan that wanted to escape.

"Are you all right?" he asked, seeing her pained expression.

She flushed scarlet and knew that it went all the way down to her toes. "Sorry, it's just...you know." She didn't dare look at him.

He chuckled. "It's all right. It's only a problem when you act on it in an inappropriate manner."

She couldn't help herself and looked into his eyes. She saw desire, certainly, and amusement, and...something else. Something sad, and she found herself wanting to take that look away. "So, who decides if it's inappropriate?" She saw the surprise in his eyes turn to speculation, then he sighed.

"Tempting as you are, I'm probably older than your parents."

"So what?"

He covered his surprise at her response and looked into her eyes. "So, I don't know that it would be a good idea. After all, it's not good form to become involved with one's subordinates."

She scowled at him and shook her head. "Those are someone else's words. Not yours."

"True enough, but still accurate."

They gazed for several long moments into one another's eyes, and then they both sighed simultaneously, smiled ruefully, and Linda stood up, gathered the degauser and his old computer components, loading them on the little cart she had for the purpose, and silently left.

When the door had closed behind her, he took his desk pen and hurled it across the room.

"Hey, Linda. Guess who's got a trouble ticket in for his new trak-ball?" Tom called out as Linda entered their little office area, carrying a tray full of paper cups of coffee.

"Gee, there are three thousand people in this building, and you want me to guess which one? No latte for you!"

"Hey, that's not fair. It's the big boss, again. The one you changed out his computer last month? He's having trouble with his trak-ball. You want to take it?"

"Go ahead, Tom. I've got that security patch to work on."

"Okay. See you later."

"Look, I don't care what's wrong with it, either fix it or get me a new one!"

Tom sighed. Linda must have gotten him on a good day, or else he was just unlucky enough to have gotten him on a really bad one. He again tried to use the trak-ball, but to no avail. The cursor on the screen would jump and freeze without rhyme or reason. "Let me go get you another one, man." The moment the words left his mouth, he realized his mistake. And immediately understood why his kind didn't mingle with the higher-ups except when necessary.

"Just make it fast."

Tom practically scurried from the room and just about ran to the elevator.

When he got back to the dungeon, he hurried in, panting. "Man, that guy's a real ogre!" he complained as he searched for a new trak-ball. When he didn't find one, he turned to his co-workers.

"Don't tell me we're out of trak-balls?"

"Yeah, last one went out a couple of weeks ago and the new order hasn't come in, yet. Why?" Jeremy asked.

Tom groaned. "Because 'he's' mad because his trak-ball is broken."

Linda looked up from where she was programming in the security patch she'd been working on for the preceding week. "Did you try cleaning it?"

Tom stared at her. "What?"

"Did you try cleaning it, first? You know, take out the ball and make sure the contacts aren't full of crud?"

"Shit. No. He was on the warpath when I got there, and I got flustered." He flopped down in his chair and groaned. "Shit."

Linda chuckled. "Well, the patch has to run for a while, so let me go see if I can soothe the savage beast, okay?"

"You sure?" Tom asked, hopefully.

"Yeah. Besides, I'm not afraid of him." With a saucy wink, she grabbed her cleaning kit and headed out.

She could hear him grumbling through the door. Smiling, she knocked and waited for the expected growl, and entered. She could immediately see his frustration as she approached. He looked up and there was a flash of surprise before recognition on his face.

"You know, you really don't need to prove your reputation as a monster to us poor little computer wonks. I think that you nearly made Tom pee his pants."

"Fix this damned thing."

"Of course." She smiled and picked up the offending trak-ball, flipped it over, wiped off the bottom, frowned, then popped the ball out and looked at the contact points. "Do you have a cat?"



"No. Why?"

"Well, look." She showed him the cavity where the ball sat. There were three small contact points that had wads of dust, lint, and what certainly did appear to be cat hair covering them and preventing the device from working properly. She picked the debris out and then took a can of dust-off and sprayed the device clean. Then, she wiped the ball with a lint-free cloth and popped it back in place. Setting it back on the desk, she touched the ball and the cursor on the screen once again moved properly. She smiled and looked at the boss, who was scowling at the debris from the trak-ball.

"Okay, it's fixed."

He lifted just his eyes to hers. "I don't have any pets, and you're right, this looks like animal hair. If I don't have any pets, then where did this come from?"

Her breath caught as she comprehended what he was asking. "From someone who does have a cat. Someone with access to your office."

"Right." He continued to scowl down at the offending detritus.

"The cleaning crew?"

"What reason would they have to handle the trak-ball?"


"In which case they left behind more than they took away."

"May I?" She gestured towards his computer and he stood, allowing her access. She minimized all his open windows and then accessed the administrator's functions. She started typing in her questions and then sat back, staring. "Well, the bad news is, someone's been trying to use your computer. The good news is, they weren't able to access the hard drives or memory, because you've got it all password protected." She grinned up at him.

"But they've been in here. After I've left. And my hours are such that there is no set time when I leave. Sometimes, I even spend the night here, working. So, who's been playing with my toys?"

She swallowed a giggle at his choice of words. "I don't know. I don't suppose you have any surveillance cameras in here?"

"No. But I suppose that wouldn't be a bad idea, but only if I can do it without anyone else getting involved."

She bit her lip, nodding. "So, how about I help you?"

He looked at her in surprise. "You can do that?"

She grinned. "Yep. It's easy. We just set your computer camera to record automatically when someone accesses the computer, and have it save the pics on your hard drive. It'll be easy." And when he nodded, she set the computer to do just that.

"Now, you just have to wait. And check the vid every time you come in and turn it on."

"Thank you." He smiled at her and she felt her bones going soft and wished, again, that he wasn't the boss, and that he was smiling at her like that for other, more personal, reasons. She stretched and then stood, unconsciously preening for him while she wished he'd ask her out, or something, but not really expecting him to.

"Well, you should be set, now. And if the trak-ball starts working funny, just pop the ball out and wipe out the crud."

"Yes, I'll remember." He smiled at her again and watched her gather up her kit and walk out. Shaking his head at the thoughts he was having, he turned back to his computer and back to what he'd been trying to do all morning.

"Hey, Linda, that boss has another help-desk ticket. He's all yours."

Linda grinned. "Sure. What's the problem this time?"

"Keyboard. Don't know if he spilled his coffee on it, or something else, but some of the keys aren't working."

"Okay, I'll take a spare with me, just in case." Grabbing her cleaning kit and a spare keyboard, she headed up to the rarified air of the important people.

Approaching the door, she knocked and entered at the growled command. She couldn't help smiling and telling him, "You know, we've got to stop meeting like this." Then almost bit her tongue as she realized that it was the only time they did meet. And he was still just as sexy as the first time she saw him.

"Some of the keys are sticking."

"Okay. Have you spilled anything on it?"

"I haven't."

She glanced up at him sidelong. "Have you checked the vid?"

"Not recently. After a month of nothing, I just forgot about it. Until the keyboard wasn't working properly this morning."

"Well, let me take a look at that, first." She typed out each row of keys and noted which ones weren't working. Then she pried the keys from the board and took a look inside. "Well, somebody spilled something in here. Looks like a soft drink."

"I drink coffee, almost exclusively."

She nodded. "Right. Let me just swap it out with this new board, and then I'll go clean this one up and put it back on the shelf for the next time we need one." She suited actions to words and quickly had the keyboard replaced and up and running. "So, should I look to see who's been trying to access your computer?"

"Yes." He stood behind her, watching as her fingers fairly flew over the keyboard and then at the photographs, first of him, then of...."Son of a bitch!"

Linda swallowed hard. She recognized that tone of voice and took a good look at the woman who had caused it. "Um. Isn't that your secretary?"

"Yes." He picked up his phone and placed a call. "I need security up here. I've found a rodent." He listened for a moment longer, and then hung up.

"Uh, do you want me to stick around for this?"

He looked at her, giving her the feeling of a specimen undergoing examination.

"You've got clearance, and you did help set it up so we could find out who's been trying to access my files."

His phone rang and he scowled at it before lifting the receiver. "What?" His demeanor abruptly changed and he seemed to wilt, slightly. "When and how?" His eyes closed as a grimace of pain crossed his face. "No, I'll handle the notifications. Just get me the reports as soon as possible. You're sure?" He listened a bit longer and sighed, his shoulders slumping. "No, I'll do it. Keep me apprised." He gently hung up his phone and looked at her.

"Are you terribly busy at the moment?"

She shrugged. "Not too busy, why?" She couldn't imagine what he wanted, though she knew perfectly well what she'd like.

"Come with me. We lost two agents early this morning, well, early by our time."


His pale blue eyes met hers and he nodded as he rolled his shirtsleeves down and buttoned the cuffs before putting on his suit coat. "Yes. Got caught in the blast of a suicide bomb. I need to inform the families before they hear it on the news."

She swallowed hard. "What about the security issue?"

"We'll wait for them to arrive, give them the evidence, and let them handle it. While they do, we'll drive over to New Haven and then up to Albany to inform the widows."

"Okay." She pondered for a moment. "Um, why do you want me to come along?"

"Because, obviously, my secretary will be otherwise occupied, and I prefer to have someone else, preferably female, along to help pick up the pieces." He pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes tightly as he started to steel himself for the upcoming tasks.


Security arrived in force. They took one look at the photos the computer had taken of the secretary attempting to break into her boss's computer and listened to why they had set it up to do so, and then they escorted the suspect down to interrogation.

"One advantage of not being police, is that we don't have to Mirandize or give them a phone call." He looked at her. "Ready?"

"Uh, I need to let my boss know I'm going, and get my purse."

"Send him an email from here and you can grab your purse and coat on the way out."

She was impressed that he didn't need to look up the addresses or directions to where they were going. When they got to New Haven, he did check a map for the street, and then drove to a modest house in one of the suburbs. When he'd parked in front of the house, they just sat for a few moments, staring.

"MacKee's got two small kids and one on the way." He sighed heavily and opened his door to get out. "I hate this."

She recognized the bitterness in his voice, and then realized that it was just as much grief as it was anything else. She started to open her door, but he was there, opening it for her, just as he had in the parking garage at work. She got out, leaving her purse and coat in the car, as it was a lovely day. Too nice a day to be telling a young woman that she was a widow. She silently followed him up the walk, past a playpen and some scattered toys, to the front door.

Taking a deep breath to steady his nerves, he rang the doorbell. A few moments later, the door opened to reveal a very pregnant young woman.

"Yes." Her pleasant expression, upon recognizing her visitor, turned to horror. "No."

"I'm sorry...."

"No. Oh, no! Please. Oh, God, no!" She burst into tears and stared at them helplessly. He pulled open the screen door and gently pushed his way in, taking the distraught woman into his arms. When the anger hit her and she began to scream in rage and to strike him with her fists, in the chest and on the shoulders, he let her, not doing anything to defend himself, and not saying a word, even to taking several sharp kicks to the shins that had to hurt. Finally, Mrs. MacKee collapsed into his arms.

"Find the kitchen. See if they have any brandy, and bring a damp cloth." He wrapped his arms firmly around the distraught widow and lifted her like a post to carry further into the house; finding the first doorway led to the living room, he set her down on the sofa and sat beside her, cradling her against his chest.

Mrs. MacKee sobbed out her grief and fear while he gently held her. Linda found the requested items and brought back a tumbler of brandy and the damp cloth, then stood silently by, watching.

"It was a suicide bomb. They got caught in the blast. I am so sorry."

"I-it was just a courier job. It wasn't supposed to be that dangerous," Mrs. MacKee sobbed, taking his proffered handkerchief.

"I know. They were at the airport when the bomb went off. They were on their way home. I'm sorry."

He looked up at Linda and she could see the anguish in his eyes. It was a shock to see just how much grief he, himself, felt over the loss of an agent. More telling was that he knew where his agents lived and made the notifications himself, instead of handing it off to a subordinate.

"Is there someone I can call to help her?"

"Janey, is there anyone we can call? Who can come over and help you with the kids, perhaps? I'll take care of all the arrangements, of course, but can we call someone for you?"

"M-my neighbor, Mrs. Fiedler. She's kind of adopted us. Oh, God..." She clung tightly to him as he looked up at Linda and nodded. She nodded back to him and headed out the front door.

Once outside, she looked right and left, trying to decide which one would be the neighbor in question. Then she spotted an elderly woman standing on the porch of the house to her right, and she approached.

"Excuse me, are you Mrs. Fiedler?"

"Yes, I am. What's happened? I heard Janey screaming?"

"Yes, ma'am. I'm sorry, but we came to notify her that her husband's been killed." Linda had to swallow hard at that, as the reality of their mission finally hit her.

"Oh, dear. Is there anything I can do to help?" Mrs. Fiedler came down from her porch and hurried over, meeting her halfway up the walk to the MacKee's house.

"Yes, ma'am. She's pretty distraught. If you could come over and help her?"

"Oh, of course. Joey should be home in about a hour - he goes to morning pre-school. Such a bright little boy. He's already able to read and write, and he's only four! Sandy is probably still down for her nap. Oh, that poor dear girl. Two little ones and one on the way, how's she ever going to manage?" Mrs. Fiedler led the way into the MacKee's house, chattering the whole way. When she saw the scene in the living room, she immediately took charge.

"Oh, good, you thought of brandy." She took the glass and offered it to the distraught young widow. "Come along, now, Janey, drink this, then we'll get you to bed."

"But Joey will be home soon...."

"I'll take care of Joey, and Sandy, as well. Right now, you need to lie down and rest." She looked at the strangers. Catching Control's eye, she nodded, and he nodded back. They understood each other.

"We'll handle all the arrangements. She won't be left on her own."

"Good." Mrs. Fiedler chivvied Janey MacKee up and soon returned, looking sadly at the visitors.

"I've gotten her to bed, but she won't stay down very long. How'd it happen?"

"Bomb at the airport as they were getting ready to fly home."

Mrs. Fiedler closed her eyes for a moment. "Damned terrorists," she muttered. "Don't worry, I'll see to her. I'm sure you have other work to do?"

"Yes, ma'am." Control removed a card from his inside jacket pocket. "If she needs anything, call this number and someone will see that she has whatever she needs."

"Thank you. Did you know Joseph?"

"Yes, ma'am, I did. He worked for me."

The older woman looked surprised. "Directly for you?"


She blinked, somewhat surprised. "I see." And perhaps she did.

"If she needs anything, just call."

"I will." She stared at the simple buff colored card with just a phone number on it, then set it carefully on the end table and followed them to the front door.

Once back in the car, Linda let out a heavy sigh. "That sucked."

"Yes, it does."

"Do you always do this, yourself?"

"Only if it's local. Within driving distance. Next stop, Albany." He started the car and, putting it in gear, pulled out and headed north.

He did remember to stop and offer her some lunch, but neither of them had much appetite, considering their mission. But they did sit and drink some coffee and toyed with a couple of salads for a short time before continuing their journey.

She didn't have to ask if this task ever got any easier. It was obvious from the look in his eyes, not to mention his silence as they got closer to their destination.

The house in Albany was older, and in a somewhat upscale part of the city. When he rang the doorbell, it took several minutes before anyone came to answer it. When it finally opened, the woman who had answered looked somewhat blearily out at them.


"Mrs. Miller?"


"I'm sorry, but I've come to inform you that your husband's been killed by a suicide bomber at the airport."

She just stared at him for a moment, then she smiled. "You're serious?"

"Yes, ma'am." Control frowned; this was hardly the reaction of a new widow.

She shook her head. "Well, that certainly makes things easier for me. I told him before he left that when he came home, I was going to be gone. Now, I won't have to move, after all."

"Excuse me?" Control asked, shocked.

"I told him I wanted a divorce. Now, I don't have to pay a lawyer. Thanks." With a smile, she closed the door in their faces.

He turned to stare at Linda, who stared back at him with the same shocked and injured expression on her face.

"That was...surprising," she muttered softly as they turned to head back to the car and the long drive back to the city.

"Yes. It was," he agreed. "Now, I wonder if Miller's impending divorce had anything to do with what happened to them?"

"You mean, like he didn't care, so they weren't careful?"

He sighed heavily and nodded. "Exactly. Damn!" He held the door for her and softly closed it once she was in. He circled the car and got in behind the wheel. He leaned back for a moment, eyes closed, breathing deeply, trying to get his emotions under control.

"Would you like me to drive?" Linda asked, somewhat timidly.

"No, thanks. Having to concentrate on traffic will keep me from dwelling too much on what's happened."

There was a weariness in his voice she recognized. He was grieving the loss of his agents just as much as Mrs. MacKee was mourning the loss of her husband. It was a surprising insight into his character, and she found him even more attractive than she had, previously.

All the way back to the city, it seemed that every traffic light was against them, every highway was backed up, and everyone on the planet was out to stop them from getting home. Finally, they were approaching the George Washington Bridge. "Do you have a car at work?"

"No. I usually take the subway."

"In that case, let me take you home."

"All right. I live in lower Manhattan." She gave him her address, and was unsurprised that he didn't need any instructions on how to get there. There was, amazingly enough, even a parking space available right out front. Ever the gentleman, he got out and circled around to get her door for her.

She bit her lip as she looked at him. She could see that he was exhausted. She was pretty tired herself, and she hadn't driven close to four hundred miles in the past twelve hours. "Why don't you come up and I'll fix us something to eat."

He looked at her for a long moment, then nodded and pressed the universal door lock. "All right." He knew he shouldn't. There was too much sexual tension between them for this to be a good idea, but the idea of being alone, right now, was no better. He'd just have to watch himself. He silently followed her up the stairs and into her apartment. It was a nice place, he decided. Relatively well insulated from the outside noises of the city, and even had a window with a view, of sorts.

"Coffee, or something stronger?"

"Just coffee. Thanks. If I had a drink now, I'd probably fall asleep in five minutes."

"Would that be such a bad thing?" she asked softly.

He almost smiled and shook his head. "It would be very ill-advised."

"Okay, nothing but more coffee. Look it's going to take a few minutes to make, and dinner's going to take about half an hour, so why don't you just relax, maybe take a nap on the sofa?"

He sighed, his eyes drifting closed. "I should just go."

"You're exhausted. You've driven four hundred miles, dealt with the deaths of two people you knew and cared about, had to notify their families, gotten beat up by one and the shock of the second not giving a damn about her husband's death. You played with a salad at lunch, drank a gallon or so of coffee, and you no doubt plan on going back to the office and filing a report. Please, just relax for a little bit, will you?" She stood before him, arms folded across her bosom, chin lowered, and had a pretty fair glare going.

He stared at her for a moment, and then sighed. He was tired, still running on adrenaline, but also aware that if he relaxed for 'just a few minutes', he might not be able to make himself get going, again. "I shouldn't."

She looked closely at him, lifting her eyes to his, she could see the weariness and uncertainty. "Sure, you should. It'll be okay. Come on, take your coat off, get comfortable, kick off your shoes and stretch out. I'll wake you for dinner, and if I can't, you can just stay on the sofa. And if necessary, I'll call you a cab to get home. Okay?"

He gazed into her earnest eyes and slowly nodded. "All right." He caught her smile as she turned to go back into her kitchen and he removed his jacket and shoes and stretched out on the couch. Within moments, he was asleep.

She was glad that her order from Fresh Pasta* had arrived the day before. She debated between the Psycho Red, White, and Green Ricotta Cheese and Fresh Spinach Ravioli and the Psycho Reggae Wild Mushroom and Fresh Spinach Ravioli. Unable to decide, she mixed the two together and opted for the Oven Roasted Garlic Marinara Sauce. She put the water on to boil and opened the sauce and prepared to pop it in the microwave in order to heat it. While she waited for the water to boil, she looked in her refrigerator for the bottle of red wine she remembered someone having given her. Finding it, she took it out, removed the cork, and left it to breathe.

She glanced out to check on her guest and smiled when she realized he was asleep. Now, to throw together a salad.



Receiving no answer to her verbal summons, she approached the man sleeping on her sofa. Even in sleep, his expression denoted worry and concern, and she was saddened to think that even unconsciousness didn't allow him respite from his responsibilities. Sinking to her knees beside him, she lightly placed a hand over his right hand, where it rested on his abdomen. He started and abruptly sat up, staring wildly around as his breathing, and no doubt his heart rate, sped up. Seeing and recognizing her, he flushed slightly and looked away.

"Dinner's ready." She rose to her feet and turned away, allowing him a moment to regroup and regain his composure.

He watched her walk away, admiring her svelte form and lithe grace. He stood and followed her.

"Sorry I haven't a formal dining room, but the kitchen's always been sufficient for me."

He chuckled softly. "Don't worry. I grew up on a farm that's been in my family for generations. We always ate in the kitchen, except for Thanksgiving and Christmas."

She paused and turned to stare at him. "Somehow, I can't quite picture you in overalls and cleaning out barns."

He threw his head back and laughed from his toes. When he recovered, he grinned at her and shook his head. "Well, I don't think I ever wore overalls since I got out of diapers. And I've cleaned out more than a few barns in my youth. But you're right. I'm far more at home in the city than I'll ever be on a farm." There was just a trace of wistfulness in his voice, as though he might have regretted ever leaving the farm. And no doubt there were days he did. And this might well have been one of them.

She grinned at him. "Well, dinner is served." She had set the table and there were two plates of ravioli and sauce, steaming hot and sending out a most enticing odor, along with bowls of salad and glasses of red wine. He politely held her chair for her, much to her embarrassment, and then sat across from her.

"Um, do you mind if I say Grace?"

He didn't react except by bowing his head. She was quick with her prayer, not wanting to maybe annoy him by being too thankful for his presence in her home, but thrilled, nonetheless.

"This is delicious. The colors are rather interesting." The pasta was perfect, just the way he liked it, and the accompanying sauce was a delight.

"It's from Fresh Pasta. I really like their stuff, and they deliver."

He chuckled softly and took a sip of his wine. "Even with that, I'm almost never home to cook anything. Thank you."

She smiled. "You're welcome."

They finished eating in near silence; both of them were hungry, and the food was very good. Afterwards, to her surprise, he insisted on helping with the dishes.

Once the dishes were done, he sighed and sat down to put his shoes on. "I'd better get going."


"That's a very bad idea." He didn't look at her, trying very hard to avoid the temptation.

"Look, I know as well as you do that when I woke you for dinner that you were having a nightmare. You can't tell me that you're going to get much sleep, tonight."

"That's hardly your concern." But he wouldn't look at her.

"I'm not asking you to have sex with me, boss. Just to stay and get some rest. Besides, after today, I don't exactly want to be alone, either." She really didn't want to be alone. And she knew that even with the few minutes of sleep he'd gotten that he was in no condition to drive himself home; and he was even more in need of someone to comfort him than she was. And she very much wanted to provide him some comfort. Of course, she'd like to have sex, too, but realized that was a sure way to run him off. So, instead, she focused on his exhaustion and need to rest.

"You can't try and tell me that I can't help keep the nightmares away."

His shoulders slumped. She had a point. If he went home, like he should, he'd either be tormented by nightmares, or get drunk. And still be tormented by nightmares. "I shouldn't take the risk."

"There's no risk. First of all, I'm not planning on telling anybody. Second, who would believe me even if I did? Third, you don't have to stay through the night, just sleep for a few hours and get your batteries recharged. If you want to sleep on the couch, that's fine. But my bed's a lot more comfortable."

He finally lifted his head to look at her and she could see the longing in his eyes, and the utter exhaustion, as well. "Come on. It'll be all right."

He shouldn't. This was a stupid thing to do, but she hadn't asked any untoward questions at all through the day, only commenting what he was thinking about Mrs. Miller's reaction to the notification of her husband's demise. She hadn't been a chatterbox, filling every silence with words. She'd asked few questions, and only those she needed answers to.

"All right."

He might regret it for the rest of his life, but the opportunity to sleep, and really rest, overcame his misgivings.

She woke up, once, when his nightmare manifested. To comfort him, she drew him close and cradled his face between her breasts. His breathing remained strained for several minutes, but he finally relaxed and nuzzled at her. Smiling, she drifted back to sleep.

When he awoke, it was because he'd rested. Her breasts were his pillow, and he relished her warm scent and soft body. With a quiet sigh, he eased away from her and watched her sleep for a time. She was smiling in her sleep. Amused, he shook his head and slipped out of bed. Dressing in the dark, he noticed the time illuminated on her clock radio. Four o'clock in the morning. Plenty of time to go home, shower, change, and be ready to face the new day's tasks. To his amazement, he'd managed to sleep nearly six hours straight, without memory of any nightmares to disturb him. He sighed wistfully as he slipped his feet into his shoes and prepared to leave. He thought of waking her to say goodbye, but decided not to. He heard her shift in her sleep and couldn't help smiling as she rolled into the spot he'd recently vacated and snuggled deeper beneath the covers.

He made sure the door locked behind him.

Arriving home, he put a pot of coffee on to brew while he took a shower. Clean and with his towel slung around his hips, he shaved and headed for his bedroom to dress. Looking at his bed, then at the clock, he figured that he had time to lie down for a bit before he had to go.

Within a minute, he was soundly sleeping, his dreams filled with a warm, comforting, and very young, woman.

By the time he arrived to work, it was nearly 8:30. He was crossing the lobby for the bank of elevators when he heard a strident voice berating someone. Frowning, he angled towards the small group of people who had gathered to watch.

"I swear I'm putting you on AWOL for yesterday. How dare you just up and leave without notice! Do you even care that you didn't finish your system upgrades?"

Control's frown turned into a scowl as he was noticed and a path formed for him. "Don't you read your email?" he softly asked the irate IT supervisor. The man turned with an oath, and immediately stopped, staring at him in recognition.

"I know for a certainty that you were sent an email indicating this young lady's reassignment for yesterday. I suggest you come with me so we can straighten this out." He turned back towards the elevators and after pushing the call button, turned to wait for them. Ms Owens reached him first, her face flushed with embarrassment.

"Are you all right, Linda?"

"Yes, sir," she softy replied, then looked up at him in surprise. She had had no idea that he even knew her name! Her boss caught up just as the elevator doors opened and Control stood back and held the door for them to enter. Even though there were others waiting for elevators to go up to their work areas, no one wanted to share this particular car.

Once the doors were closed, Control turned to the IT chief. "Don't you ever berate another employee in public like that! If you saw the email, then you should have known what she was doing, yesterday. If anything, she deserves an award for finding the vulnerability in my office. Not to mention her very valuable assistance in informing the next of kin of the two agents we lost yesterday morning." Normally, he wouldn't do this in front of any witnesses, but Linda Owens deserved better treatment for only having performed the tasks she was requested to.

"I-I saw the memo, and I thought it was a joke!"

"Did you even think to ask?"

The man squirmed uncomfortably beneath Control's glower. Linda simply tried to fade into the background.

"Uh, I guess not."

"Well, I suggest you do a bit more research before you go about publicly humiliating someone. For that matter, I suggest you do any correction and counseling in private, in future. Since you saw fit to so publicly take Ms Owens to task, I suggest you just as publicly apologize for your actions."

The IT chief paled and then flushed before nodding.

"I suggest the cafeteria at lunch time would be a suitable occasion."

"Yes, sir."

The elevator came to a stop and the two IT employees got off. Linda glanced at him as the doors were closing and caught his smile and wink.

It gave her a warm, cuddly feeling inside, rather like the memory of a warm, solid body sleeping beside her.

Word had traveled quickly. By eleven, the cafeteria was crowded with people waiting to see the big apology. When it happened, it was something of a disappointment. Oh, he apologized, all right. For chastising her in public. No mention of his having made a mistake in the chastisement at all, just for his public calling her to task. He was smiling rather smugly, thinking he'd pulled one over on Control, when the man himself spoke from behind him.

"I agree that your choice of venue for correcting your subordinate was inappropriate. But I was more concerned with the fact that your reason itself was erroneous."

The smug grin quickly turned into a scowl as he hemmed and hawed and finally forced out. "Of course. I'd also like to apologize for my mistake in taking you to task. Next time, I'll make sure of my facts, first." There was an underlying threat in his words that made Linda uncomfortable. With a final glare at Control, her boss left, still scowling, through the grins and snickers of the crowd of agents and employees.

"Now I'm really on his shit list," Linda murmured.

Control glanced at her. "Don't let him bother you. After all, who would they send in your place to beard the old lion in his den?" With a smirk, he turned and walked away. Linda thought about it for a moment, then smiled and got her lunch.

Remarkably, now that he knew how to clean his trak-ball himself, several months went by without his needing any assistance from the IT folks. He'd occasionally think of the girl, but would always just as quickly put her from his mind, although, sometimes, late at night when he had trouble sleeping, he allowed the memory of her warm comforting embrace to linger and ease him back to sleep.

He had had a very bad night and now had overslept. Normally, that wasn't a problem, and he still had an hour and a half until his meeting, but it annoyed him to be 'late'. Even though his idea of late meant he wasn't an hour early. As he strode across the lobby, he noticed the doors to one elevator open and someone step inside.

"Hold that for me, please?" he called out, lengthening his stride to try and catch the closing door. A hand batted at the seal and the doors re-opened just as he reached them and he stepped inside. "Thank you."

"You're welcome."

He looked down in surprise to see his favorite computer wonk. "We've got to start meeting like this," He quipped with a smirk.

She laughed, not one of those cute little feminine giggles, but a real laugh. "Well, I'm here exactly the same time I always come in, catching the same elevator, and heading for the dungeon."

He frowned slightly in confusion. "Dungeon? You're on the twelfth floor. How can that be a dungeon?"

"We have no windows, anywhere. The cubicles are all 'private' with six-foot partitions that don't line up with the overhead lights. So, we call it the dungeon." Seeing the concerned expression on his face, she shrugged. "Hey, I worked one place where they hid us in the basement. At least this one doesn't smell." She grinned. "Besides, doesn't everybody have a nickname for where they work?"

"I suppose they do. I just hadn't thought much about it."

Abruptly, the lights went out and the elevator ceased moving. The sudden shock knocked them from their feet and there was a sickening crunch as Control's left hand hit the floor wrong and his wrist snapped. With an oath, he rolled to his back, holding his injured limb to his chest. Using his right hand and feet, he scooted until his back was pressed against the wall, then took his cigarette lighter from his pocket and lit it, panting through the pain.

He saw Linda huddled in the corner by the doors, an expression of terror on her face. "It's all right, the elevator just locked up. See if the phone's working, and hit the alarm button, would you?"

She stared at him numbly for a moment, and then followed his instructions. When she pushed the alarm button, however, nothing happened. And when she tried the emergency phone, it was dead.

"It's not working."

"Then someone must have hit the power switch to turn it off. Although I can't imagine why anyone would." He noticed her shiver and wrap her arms around her legs, pulled tight to her chest. "Are you all right?"

She looked over at him and shivered. "I was on my way into the elevator in Tower One when it was hit. Two minutes later, and I'd have never gotten out. I'm kind of scared of elevators, now, but I'm not about to climb twelve flights of stairs every day, either."

He stared at her as he struggled with understanding. "Come here." He held out his right arm and she looked at him blankly for a moment, then crawled across to him and sat close beside him, his right arm coming around her shoulders to hug her close. She sighed in relief at his touch. Then she noticed his injured wrist.

"You're bleeding."

He glanced down and saw that she was quite correct. There was a glimmer of bone showing through the blood oozing out of the punctured skin. It was numb from shock, and he knew it hurt, but it was currently not terribly distracting. "Then I'd better wrap it." He took his arm from around her, pulled off his necktie, then got his handkerchief from his breast pocket and gingerly wrapped it around the injury. Her hands brought a safety pin from her purse, and she fastened the makeshift bandage so it wouldn't slip off, then tied a knot in his tie so he could use it as a sling.

"Maybe use your coat to help support it, too?"

"Good idea." He carefully eased his hand inside his jacket, using the buttons to help support it. "Thank you." He looked at her, frowning. "I need to close the lighter. The old Zippos tend to overheat and can start a fire if they're left burning too long."

She swallowed hard and nodded, her eyes closed. "Okay."

He extinguished the lighter and then wrapped his right arm back around her shoulders, pulling her snuggly against his side. "Now, we get to wait for them to realize there's a problem."

"I am going to be so late for work."

"Nonsense. It isn't your fault that the elevator stopped. Besides, if necessary, I'll put in a word for you."

She giggled nervously. "My boss still hasn't forgiven me for the last time you stood up for me."

"Then your boss is a fool." He could feel the shivers of fear as she leaned heavily against him, her head pressed against his shoulder. He gently ran his hand up and down her arm, trying to comfort her. "It'll be all right."

"H-how can you be sure? What if there was another attack?"

"We'd know. There would be alarms and we would hear people yelling. It's quiet. The elevator is stuck, is all."

"Great. Of all the people to get stuck on an elevator with, you had to get me." She shuddered and tried to squeeze even closer to him.

"Oh, I don't know. I don't find your company at all lacking." He tightened his grip on her, honestly relishing the feel of her body close to his. He closed his eyes and leaned his cheek against the top of her head, inhaling the scent of her shampoo. Although his broken wrist was beginning to throb, and if no one noticed the elevator wasn't working, soon, he was going to miss his meeting, just sitting here with her like this was really quite pleasant. After a few minutes, she shifted slightly, raising her head from his shoulder.

"What's wrong?"

"Would you mind if I moved around a little to get more comfortable?"

"Not at all." He released her and felt as she turned so that she was facing away from him, then shook her head and tried another position. She squirmed and shifted for several minutes, but never settled. Finally, he stopped her.

"What do you need?"

"If I'm really careful not to hurt your wrist, could I sit on your lap?"

If he was surprised by her request, he made no intimation, merely shifted a bit and grasped her hip to guide her into position. She sat down and carefully leaned against him, putting her arms around him and resting her cheek against his shoulder. He hugged her back and she relaxed and her right hand came back to settle in her lap. His right hand slid down her arm to gently clasp her hand.

"It'll be all right."

"I know. I just hate it in here. Not that I mind your being here! In fact, I'm really glad that you are."

"Do you normally ride up alone?"

"Yeah. I'm too late for the early birds, and too early for the late ones. I kind of arrive during the lull, I guess."

"So you normally catch this particular elevator at the same time every day?"




"Well, since the phone and alarms don't work, that means that the power was turned off, not simply lost. I'm wondering who you know that would think trapping you in an elevator would be a good practical joke."

She shivered. "No one. They all know how I feel about elevators!"

He squeezed her hand to reassure her. "Then who dislikes you enough to trap you in here all alone?"

"But I'm not alone. You're here with me."

"Yes, but normally, I'd have gotten in a couple of hours ago and been up in my office by now."

She swallowed audibly. "Th-that's just sick."

He squeezed her hand again. "Yes, it is. But if it turns out to be the case, then there are going to be some major changes around here."

She shivered and tightened her arm around his shoulders, pressing more tightly against him. "I wish my cell phone worked in here."

"So do I."

They sat together quietly. She took a great deal of comfort in his presence and willingness to hold her, and he took pleasure in comforting her.

It had been a very long time since he'd had a pretty young woman on his lap. Still, he was more concerned with who would deliberately trap her in here. He was willing to bet that they, whoever 'they' were, had no idea he was also on this particular elevator this morning. It was something unforeseen which would, hopefully, come back to haunt them. And he was just the man to see to it that it did.

He was nearly dozing when the cell phone in his jacket pocket rang, much to his amazement. It normally didn't work in the elevators in this building. Both of them jumped, jarring his injured arm and making him hiss in pain as he fumbled to get the phone out of his pocket.


"Yes, sir. Your meeting's due to start soon and a couple of them have begun asking where you are?"

"I'm in elevator three, which has apparently been taken out of service without warning, leaving me stuck in here with a young lady. Before you just willy-nilly turn it back on, however, I want it checked for prints, and then, after we get out of here, I want to know who those prints belong to, and where they work."

"Yes, sir!"

The phone went dead in his hand and he sighed. "That should mean that we'll be moving again shortly."

"He sounded awfully nervous."

Control chuckled. "No doubt. He's a trainee who got tapped to fill in as my secretary until I find a new one. The poor boy seems terrified of me, for some reason."

She giggled, softly. "I can't imagine why. You're such a sweet, gentle man, after all."

She sighed and snuggled impossibly closer as he chuckled, the vibration making her nerve-endings tingle with desire. Then she sighed and forced herself to pull away from him, stopping only when his hand caught hers.

"The last thing you need is for those doors to open and them find me sitting in your lap. I don't think it would make a very good addition to your reputation." She got to her knees beside him, and her hand sought his face in the darkness. She held his cheek as he froze in surprise, then she kissed him. His right hand came up and caught the back of her neck, holding her as he returned the kiss, deepening it. Then, his hand dropped and she withdrew, gasping.

"Sorry," she softly murmured, "But I had to know what that was like." She touched her fingers to her lips, remembering the kiss.

"I'm not. Sorry, that is." His hand found her cheek in the dark and gently caressed it. "But it shouldn't happen again. Remember, it's only a problem when one acts inappropriately."

"So, this time it was appropriate?" There was just a hint of a teasing tone in her voice.

He chuckled. "This time."

"Thank you."

"You're welcome."

The lights came on, but the elevator didn't move. She stood up and grasped his right hand to help him up, mindful of his injured wrist. With an uncertain glance at him, she pressed the button for his floor and the elevator lurched into motion. Sighing with relief, she briefly hugged him and then let him go, to stand across the car from him.

"Will there ever be another 'appropriate' time?" she asked, not looking at him.

He shook his head, resignedly. "Doubtful. After all, I'm older than your parents."

"So what? The guys my age are children. You're not a child, you're not a 'guy'. You, are a man."

He gazed at her, frowning, trying to understand what she meant.

Seeing his confusion, she shrugged. "You're not into games. At least, not the kinds of games most people play in order to get someone to have sex with them."

"And how would you know that?"

She smiled. "From the way you kissed me back."

The elevator bell dinged as the car came to a stop and the doors opened. There were half a dozen concerned-looking men waiting for them, all apologizing to him. She saw one rather austere-looking man in white who was frowning in concern, but not as voluble as the others. She took him for someone of an equal to Control, although she didn't recognize him.


The man in white turned to look at her. "Yes?"

"Uh, he broke his wrist when the elevator stopped and knocked us off our feet. I helped him tie his handkerchief around it to help stop the bleeding. He needs to see a doctor."

The man in white looked her over, noting her frazzled appearance and the way she kept wringing her hands. "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine, thanks to him. I, uh, don't do elevators very well. He kept me from panicking. But he really does need to see a doctor for his wrist." She looked up at him pleadingly.

"I'll see to it. Meanwhile," he turned and grabbed one of the lesser hangers-on. "See to it that this young lady gets safely to her office, will you?"

The man frowned at her, looked up at the man in white and then nodded. "Right away, sir." He turned back to her and grabbed her arm as the rest of them headed down the hall to the meeting room.

Finally getting them all to back off, Control took a deep breath and looked around for the girl, but she was nowhere to be seen. Frowning, he saw the man in white beckon to him. With a sigh, he walked over to him.


"Control. The young lady said you broke your wrist?"

Unconsciously rubbing his left forearm with his right hand, Control nodded. "It'll wait until after the meeting, however. Where's the girl?"

"I sent one of your people to escort her to her office. She seemed rather shaken."

Control snorted what could almost have been called a laugh. "Shaken? I would think so. She was about to enter an elevator in Tower One when it was hit. It's left her somewhat skittish about elevators."

Michael winced. "I can only imagine. I'm amazed she can bring herself to enter one alone."

Control looked up at the slightly taller man. "Every morning, she arrives at the same time, and takes the same elevator alone to the twelfth floor. Her co-workers all know about her fear and that she's got her routine down almost to a science."

Michael's chin lifted slightly. "You suspect one of her colleagues did this deliberately?"

"Well, if the power had failed or there was a problem, the phone and alarm would have worked. But shut it down properly, and they won't. What do you think?"

"I think someone's going to be very sorry they ever contemplated, let alone perpetrated, such a 'prank'."


"Meanwhile, let's make this the shortest meeting on record and get you to the hospital to check out that wrist. Your young lady mentioned bleeding?"

"Nothing serious. My hand turned under when I fell and the wrist broke." He did not, however, offer to show him his injured limb.

"Hmmm." He was distracted by the return of the man whom he'd asked to escort the girl to her office. "Did she get to her office safely?"

"I put her on the elevator down, sir, yes."

Michael went very still. Control scowled, and the young man continued to gaze blankly at them.

"I wanted her escorted to her office. Is that not what I said?"

"Well, yes, sir, but..."

"The young lady was locked in an elevator for an hour with no communication to the outside world and you simply shoved her into another elevator and sent her on her way?"

The other meeting attendees were starting to stare at them, wondering at the tone of voice of the visiting director.

"Uh, I thought...."

"Thought? Did anyone tell you to think? Your instructions were to escort the lady to her office." He raised his cane in anger, but didn't strike, although the young man who had so miserably failed the simple task cringed back. "Get out of my sight. If you can't even perform a simple escort without screwing it up, I certainly don't want or need you in this meeting." He turned his back on the young man's affronted expression and caught the black fury in Control's eyes.

"Let's get this over with, Control."

"Michael, I need to know that she's all right."

"I'll see to it myself, as soon as I get you to the hospital, all right?"

"Her supervisor doesn't like her, which is partially my fault, but this has all the earmarks of a deliberate act to terrorize that girl."

Michael regarded him silently as they made their way into the conference room. "I'll take care of everything, Control," he softly murmured as they moved to their places at the head of the table.

The guy the man in white had sent with her only went as far as the second bank of elevators around the corner, pushed the down button, asked her floor and, after she entered, pushed the button for her before stepping out. She opened her mouth to protest, but the door closed and the car began to move downward. Terrified, she grasped the rail in the back and held on, her eyes tightly closed until she felt the car stop moving and heard the doors open, at which point, she rushed out and immediately down to the ladies' room, where she promptly threw up. Then she cried for ten minutes before being able to pull herself together, wash her face, and make herself at least somewhat presentable, before going down the hall to her office.

She had a pile of work orders on her desk, most of which she could handle without leaving her office. By the time she'd worked the pile down to just a few items that couldn't be handled from online, she had stopped shaking.

Then she got called into her boss's office.

Michael, as the second-highest ranking person in the meeting, kept a close eye on Control and when he could see the man was sweating from the pain of his injury, called a halt to the meeting, even though the others were far from ready to stop wrangling over the subject.

Over their protests, Michael spoke. "We can reschedule for tomorrow or the next day. But at the moment, I think that Control's broken wrist must take precedence." The clamoring voices went silent as they finally realized what none of them had noticed. How Control's left hand had remained tucked inside his jacket, and how his tie was tied to help provide support for his injured wrist.

"Come along, Control, let me get you to the hospital to have that looked at. Gentlemen, I suggest you contact Control's aide later this afternoon and see when we can reschedule. I'll be staying in town for a few days, so you needn't worry on that account." With that, he escorted the silent Control from the room to the elevator, down to the parking garage, and to his car, where his driver sat, patiently waiting.

"That didn't take very long," the young woman remarked, looking curiously at Control.

"Called short. Get us booked into a decent hotel after you take us to the hospital."

"Yes, sir."

"Michael, I need to know if Linda's all right."

Michael hid his surprise well, thinking, 'Linda, is it? I wonder...' "We'll get you to the hospital, then I'll come back and personally check to see that she's all right and take care of anything she might need. Like a permanent escort up and down the elevators." He was amazed that after having narrowly missed being killed in Tower One, that she was able to enter any elevator. Obviously, the girl had guts. He glanced across at Control. He was leaning against the door, his eyes closed, perspiration dotting his forehead and lines of pain etching his features, and thought that was the only sort of woman who could ever attract his old friend.

But he was careful not to voice any of his thoughts aloud.

"What's her last name and where does she work?"

"Owens, twelfth floor, with the other computer people. I assume it's in the center of the building, as she mentioned that they call it the dungeon because it has no windows."

"I'll take care of her for you." He smirked, then realized that Control must be in a great deal of pain not to have noticed the innuendo. He caught his driver's eye in the rearview mirror and nodded slightly. The young woman nodded back and pressed harder on the accelerator.

He escorted Control into the hospital emergency room and got him signed in, explaining what had happened and when. They quickly took him back to an examination cubicle and, with a promise to return and take him home, Michael returned to his car and driver to go back and check on Linda Owens.

When they got back to the Agency, Michael's assistant accompanied him up to the twelfth floor to check on Linda Owens. The place was a maze of small cubicles, but they eventually found their way to Linda's.

"Good Lord, no wonder she calls it a dungeon," Michael muttered distastefully. The cube was barely large enough for the modular desktop, one two-drawer file that acted as a support for the desktop, and two overhead lateral files. And the light under them, though turned on, was dim.

"If anyone ever tried to put me in a space like this, sir? I'd quit."

"I don't blame you. I don't think Control has any idea. Now, where might she have gotten off to, do you suppose?"

"I hear a man's voice. He sounds rather angry."

"And Control mentioned that her supervisor doesn't like Ms Owens. Lead the way."

She did, finally stopping before a door in an actual wall. There was a man's loud, angry voice to be heard through the closed portal. There was a slightly larger cubicle nearby, with a man in a wheelchair sitting hunched over his computer monitor.

"Excuse me, but is Linda Owens anywhere about?"

The man looked up, scowling. "Who do you think the boss is in there firing?" he bitterly asked.

Michael frowned. "Why?"

The man snorted and turned back to his monitor. "Because she's better at her job than he is at his. She knows more. She's almost as good as I am, and she doesn't let anyone bully her. Except him."

"But why is he firing her?"

The man didn't look up. "Because she was 'late'. Like he doesn't know how come. Bastard."

Michael glanced at his assistant and noticed her eyebrow go up in surprise. She was unashamedly eavesdropping at the door. "What is it, Angelina?"

"I think he's propositioning her, sir. He just said that there's one way she can keep her job, if she knows what he means."

"Is the door locked?"

Angelina quietly wrapped her fingers around the knob and silently turned it. With an impish grin for her boss, she eased the door open so they could see, without alerting the room's occupants.

"You know what I'm talking about, don't you, Owens?"

"You'd better hope I'm mistaken, you jerk."

Michael and Angelina exchanged a look and turned their attention back to what was going on. The man in the wheelchair watched them, fascinated and wondering who they were.

"Look, he's just asking you to put out for him, Lindy," a new voice chimed in. They spotted him standing slightly behind and next to 'Lindy'. He had a smug expression and ran his hand possessively down the young woman's arm.

She jerked away from him. "Tom, you anus in search of a rectum, why don't you go try fixing the boss's trak-ball again?"

'Tom' grabbed her shoulder and shook her.

"That's enough, Tom. You don't want to leave any marks, after all." The man stepped into view. He was balding, paunchy, and sallow complected, like he seldom saw the sun and the only exercise he got was getting up to go to the refrigerator or bathroom. "Look, Linda, no one will believe you if you try and file harassment charges. And you were an hour and a half late, this morning."

"Only because Tom did something to the elevator. I was on the premises. It's hardly my fault if someone sabotaged the elevator!"

"Oh, right. Like anyone's going to believe that?" Tom derided.

The unnamed man came over and gently placed a hand on Linda's shoulder, then slid it lightly down to caress her breast. "Like I said, there's only one way you're going to get to keep this job," he crooned, squeezing and making Linda gasp.

Michael had had enough, he glanced at the man in the wheelchair and cocked his head.

"Yeah, I heard him threaten her," the man softly said.

"Good, that makes three witnesses to two, and one victim." With that, Michael opened the door wider and stepped in, amazed that they still went unnoticed by the three occupants of the room.

Michael realized that the man called 'Tom' had Linda's arms pinned, and the other man had both hands up under her blouse, while she silently struggled. Taking a step to the side, Michael brought up his cane and brought it down sharply on the groper's arms. With a yelp, the man's hands fell to his sides, where they hung uselessly while the nerves recovered from the shock of the blow.

Tom let go, as well, turning towards the intruders, intending to put up a fight, but the girl in the white suit had a small pistol in her hands pointed in his direction....at the lower end of his torso, and he put his hands up and backed away.

"Ms Owens, are you all right?" Michael asked, wondering if he dare touch her. She turned to him and he could see the tears tracing down her cheeks. She recognized the man from that morning and nodded.

"I'm okay. They didn't hurt me." But she edged towards the door.

"Good, now please go and call security. We'll take care of these two until they arrive. And I think the gentleman in the nearest cubicle may be concerned for your welfare, also."

"I'm okay, Trevor."

"Well, if you aren't right this second, I'm sure you will be when you testify about those two threatening to fire you if you didn't 'put out' for them," Trevor replied. He looked at the two strangers and added, "I've already called security. I told them I had a sexual harassment and assault. Did I get that right?"

"You most certainly did, to which I think we can probably add unlawful imprisonment and battery."

"I didn't hurt her! She said so herself!"

Michael glared down at the man. "You touched her. I, personally, observed your crony holding her while you groped her. That, sir, is battery, or perhaps sexual assault. I'll let the police and district attorney decide." He turned away to fight down the urge to do some battering himself. He found Linda standing there, looking lost.

"Don't worry, my dear. You are in no danger of losing your job. I believe I heard you accuse 'Tom' here of having orchestrated your earlier difficulties?"

"I can't prove it, but I do think he's the one. He and Mr. Burger have been down on me ever since I had to clean the boss's trak-ball a few months ago."

Michael scowled. "Why would your cleaning Control's trak-ball elicit their ill-favor?"

"Because Tom didn't think to clean it and we were out of new ones, so I went up and cleaned it, and then, a few weeks later, his keyboard started sticking and I took him a new one and looked at the old one. Someone had spilled a soft drink into it, and it was sticking. Then we found out who'd been trying to hack into his computer and he had to go notify a couple of new widows and asked me to go with him to help, since his secretary was being arrested."

Michael blinked, trying to follow the rambling report. "But why would your assisting in performing notifications have any bearing on these 'gentlemen's' attitudes towards you?"

Linda shook her head. "I don't know. We sent him an email to let him know where I was, but the next morning, he blasted into me down in the lobby, in front of everybody. The boss came in and had words with Mr. Burger, and told him to make his apology as public as his 'taking me to task' was." She shook her head and her spine stiffened, taking the slump out of her body and raising her chin in the process. Taking a deep breath, she continued. "Sorry, I'm not normally quite so rambling."

"That's quite all right, my dear, you've had a rather trying morning, all told." Michael turned as voices approached, coming from two men dressed in security uniforms. "Ah, gentlemen. Good. These two," he gestured at Mr. Burger and Tom, "threatened this young lady with job termination if she didn't provide them with sexual favors, the older 'gentleman' was seen by my assistant and myself groping Ms Owens while Tom held her. We are, naturally, going to press charges. Do we have on-premises holding cells?"

"Yes, sir. Do you want us to turn them over to the local police?"

"It can wait until tomorrow, I should think. The lady was the one trapped with Control, this morning. I'm certain that you can just imagine the ordeal that was." His mustache covered his smirk as both security men nodded in quick agreement. "Besides, it will give them plenty of time to consider their stories. So please keep them incommunicado from one another, as well as anyone else."

"Wait, don't we get to make a phone call?" Tom burst out as one of the security men handcuffed him.

Michael looked surprised, then amused. "You're mistaking this agency for the city police, I'm afraid. We don't have to do anything of the sort." He turned to Trevor. "Young man, if you would care to give them your statement, it would save us some time and provide a solid basis for their detention, if you'd be so kind? That way, we can take the young lady home to try and recuperate from the ordeals of today."

"Yes, sir," Trevor readily agreed, smiling, an action that made Linda stare at him in amazement. "I'd be more than happy to."

"Excellent. Angelina, Ms Owens, if you'd care to go, now?"

Linda silently followed Angelina, with Michael bringing up the rear, jauntily swinging his cane.

"Who is that guy?" Trevor asked as the trio disappeared into the dark maze of cubicles.

"That's the Western Director. He's here for some meetings. Control got hurt in that elevator, and they had to cut the first meeting short," the older security man informed them. He noticed the two prisoners looking worried. "That's right. Your little 'practical joke' backfired, big time. She wasn't alone in that elevator. She was stuck in there with Control. Who got hurt. You're lucky, you'll probably be in the city jail by the time he comes back, or he'd no doubt have something to say...or do... to you." With a grin, he turned back to Trevor. "We'll be back to take your statement, if that's okay?"

"Sure, not a problem. I'm not planning on going anywhere for a while. I didn't see anything, but I heard it all. Burger said that the only way Linda could keep her job was to put out for them." He smiled as both Berger and Tom flinched and glared at him. Knowing that he was going to be immune to their retaliation, he grinned at them as they were unceremoniously escorted out.

Trevor turned back to his computer and the patch he had been working on, smiling. This had turned out to be an absolutely wonderful day!

Michael motioned for Linda to precede him into the car. "Would you mind if we went by the hospital to see if Control's ready to be released?"

"Not at all." She was a little dazed with everything that had happened so far. But finding out if Control was okay was high on her list of priorities.

Michael watched the girl, wondering what, if anything, was going on between her and his old friend. She showed remarkable aplomb for someone who'd begun her day with something as terrifying as being trapped in the elevator must have been. Then to have her boss harass her. Still, no hysterics. Not many women of his acquaintance, nor men, for that matter, would still be so calm.


"What?" Michael asked, concerned.

Linda glanced over at him and blushed. "I was just thinking that I should have kicked them both in the balls when I had the chance." She sighed, "Too late now, I suppose."

Michael chuckled. Yes, this girl certainly had guts.

"Perhaps there will be an opportunity to correct that minor omission," he suggested.

Linda smiled wearily and leaned her head back against the seat. "How was the boss when you last saw him?"

"Hurting. But I think he had an inkling of what was going on and expressed far more concern for your welfare than his own." He watched her closely as her smile softened.

"He's a nice man."

Nice? Control? A 'nice man'? The girl's in love with him. "I doubt that there are many people who would agree with you."

Linda sighed. "I know. But I doubt that very many people have seen the look in his eyes when he finds out some of his people have been killed, or how he is when he informs the family. He grieves for them."

Michael wasn't surprised that Control cared about his people, but was that this slip of a girl should have realized it. She was far more observant than most people. Perhaps she was being wasted in computer support?

"I hope he's all right."

"Oh, I'm certain that he will be." He glanced ahead as the car slowed down to make the turn into the hospital parking lot. "Well, let me go see if they're ready to send him home, yet. Would you mind moving to the front, with Angelina? I imagine Control will need the extra room to stretch out."

"Oh, sure. I can do that." As the car stopped, Michael got out and offered Linda his hand as he held the door for her, then opened the front door and handed her in, as well.

"I'll be back as soon as I can. If there's any trouble, I'll page you."

"Yes, sir," Angelina replied, watching for trouble as he walked up to the emergency room doors and entered.

"Is he a good boss?" Linda asked.

Angelina smiled. "The best. Providing you're always alert. He doesn't suffer fools and he hates incompetence, but he's generally pretty easy to work with."

Linda grinned. "So, if you're the best at what you do, you'll get along?"

Angelina laughed. "Something like that. I like him, although, I'm not sure I approve of his going in alone."

"Well, if I promise not to steal the car, you could go with him, in case he needs any help?"

Angelina thought about her offer. "I'd love to, but...."

"So, call him and ask?"

She bit her lip, then shook her head. "I'll have to take the keys, and you'll need to keep the doors locked, but it should be all right. After all, you're not one of the bad guys." She smiled at Linda and then got out, hurrying after her boss.

Linda sighed, leaned her head back against the seat, and closed her eyes, trying to relax.

Upon seeing his assistant, Michael scowled. "Angelina? Why aren't you with the car?"

"Because Ms Owens logically pointed out that you're far more likely to have need of my assistance here than she's in need of a baby-sitter. After all, she's not one of the bad guys."

Michael looked at her thoughtfully, stroking his mustache with thumb and forefinger. "True enough. Now to track Control down."

It didn't take them very long, as they heard a crash from one of the examination rooms and Control's voice raised in fury. They simply followed the sounds of his voice.

"What the hell did you just give me?" He had his right hand fisted in the young doctor's jacket at the throat, almost lifting the younger man from his feet.

"It's just something for the pain," the doctor said, placatingly.

"And just what part of 'nothing but a local' did you not understand?" He shook the younger man, his fury barely contained.


He broke eye contact with the now gasping doctor and turned his head to look. "Michael, I told them repeatedly not to give me anything but a local and antibiotics," he said plaintively. "Stupid son of a bitch didn't listen." He turned back to the MD and shook him again, still holding him up.

"He's starting to turn blue. I suggest you release him, at least enough to let him breathe. We do need to ascertain exactly what it is he gave you, after all." Michael's voice was calm, but inwardly he seethed.

Control did release the young man, however, then put his right hand to his head and stumbled, almost as if his legs were trying to give way. Angelina moved close to help Control while Michael focused on the doctor. "Did you think to ask why he didn't want anything but a local anesthetic?"

"Of course not. I'm...."

"An idiot. There's generally a very valid reason when someone makes such a demand. Now, what did you give him?"

"Morphine. It's a short-acting pain killer, and...."

"One he just happens to have an adverse reaction to," Michael growled, bitterly. "His attorneys will be contacting the hospital. I hope your malpractice insurance is paid up?"


"I know you heard me. He insisted on nothing but a local for a perfectly valid reason. He doesn't react well to pain medications. At best, they make him nauseous; at worst, homicidal. Neither is acceptable." He turned to Control and Angelina. "How is he?"

"Woozy, at the moment. His arm's got a fiberglass cast on it, so I imagine we can get him out of here before anything else happens."

Control looked blearily up at Michael. "He said he had to give me an antibiotic. The moment he gave it to me, I knew it was no antibiotic. Michael, where's my gun? I want to shoot him and put him out of my misery." He shivered, nearly doubling over from nausea.

"Sorry, we left it in the car, remember? However, I'm sure we can hurt him a great deal more by suing him for everything he ever hoped to have." He turned back to the doctor, who was turning a bit green, himself.

"Is he, other than the morphine, ready to leave?"

"Well, I had planned on keeping him for observation...."

"Ah, so that's why you drugged him against his wishes?" Michael sighed. "Call security, Angelina. I don't know who you are or who your masters are, young man, but you've chosen the wrong party to take on, this time." The doctor only looked confused, but looked forward to the arrival of security, because he planned on having the patient arrested for assaulting him.

Unfortunately, the guards took one look at Michael's credentials and arrested the doctor. By that time, the senior physician in the ER had been notified of the problem and was offering a private room, free of charge, for Control to recover in. Control, however, wanted nothing to do with that idea.

"Just sign the damned release papers and let me out of here!"

Having Control's rather formidable glare, which was matched and supported by his two colleagues, directed at him made the doctor simply sign the release papers without further comment.

They even managed to forego the 'required' wheelchair, each of them simply taking one side of Control and escorting him out.

Michael watched in concern as Control's breathing became harsh and unsteady. "Are you sure this is a good idea?"

"No, but I'm not staying there. I want somewhere safe. Take me home, please? I'll be all right, there."

Control had closed his eyes against the late-afternoon sun, wincing in pain.

"Of course. The car's just over here."

They got him in the car and he slumped down in the corner, resting his head against the cool window glass. Michael circled around and got in while Angelina got behind the wheel, grateful that Linda had been watching for them and unlocked the doors.

Linda watched Control, who looked awful.

Angelina started the car, put it in reverse and backed from the parking slot. Shifting into drive, she glanced back, "Sir, I need directions."

"East thirty-fifth," Control muttered with a groan as he gripped his middle and doubled over. Panting from the pain, he eased back upright and leaned heavily against the door. "Michael, I'm afraid that if you don't want me soiling the upholstery, you need to stop."

Angelina didn't need to be told and quickly pulled to the side of the street while Michael reached past Control to open the door.

Control nearly fell out onto the pavement, but Michael's hands on him kept him from doing so. He allowed the nausea to take over and regurgitated the contents of his stomach, meager as they were, onto the asphalt. Then he continued with dry heaves for several minutes, finally sagging limply in Michael's grip.

Michael, with a grunt, hauled his friend back into the car as Angelina stepped out and closed the door before sliding back behind the wheel and with a quick check and use of her turn signal, merged back into traffic, receiving only a few angry horn honks in response.

Michael did what he could to make Control comfortable before sitting back and sighing in annoyance.

"Sorry, Michael."

"You've nothing to apologize for, Control."

"Did you remember to check on Linda? Is she all right?" Control's eyes were closed and he didn't see the young woman in question looking worriedly back at him from the front seat.

"She's fine. Although, it would appear that your concerns were more than valid. Her supervisor, Mr. Burger, was making inappropriate advances on her with the assistance of a younger man named Tom. A third man, Trevor by name, overheard everything and is, no doubt, still giving his statement to security. I ordered them incarcerated and held incommunicado until we have the opportunity to interrogate them prior to turning them over to the local authorities."

Control's jaws had clenched at the news, but he finally sighed and nodded. "Excellent. You're sure she's all right?"

Michael couldn't help but smirk. It was so obvious his old friend and superior felt something for the girl, and looking at her concerned face peering back from the front seat, it was equally obvious that she undoubtedly held similar feelings for Control.

"Yes. She's unharmed. Of course, she was a bit upset that she didn't take the opportunity to 'kick them in the balls' when she had the chance. I suggested that that particular omission might be repairable."

Control chuckled. "The girl's tough. I'll grant her that." Then he grimaced and shivered as the morphine did something else to his body. Michael watched him with grave concern.

"Are you absolutely certain you oughtn't to be in a hospital somewhere?"

Control shook his head. "No. Just get me home and let me sleep off the effects. I'm thinking that the bathroom tile would be a good spot to sleep, at the moment." He shuddered again, obviously fighting back nausea.

"I don't know that leaving you alone is such a good idea, Control."

"I'll be fine in the morning."

"Of course you will," Michael said placatingly. "But for tonight, I don't think you should be left to your own devices."

"I don't need you or your assistant to baby-sit me, Michael." There was no strength in the demand, and Michael knew he was right. He looked from Control to the very young Ms Owens and gave her a questioning look. She looked at him and her expression turned to surprise as she pointed a finger at herself and mouthed 'me'.

Michael smiled and nodded, his own questioning expression encouraging her. Linda thought about it for only a moment before nodding and turning her attention back to Control. Michael smirked, having noted the almost predatory expression on her face. It was only obvious that the young woman intended to take the opportunity he was offering her, and if Control was smart, would accept. Fortunately for his friend, Ms Owens wasn't in his direct chain-of-command, so there would be no impropriety in their relationship. Unlike his marriage to a former assistant had been. But he'd been fortunate in that she'd willingly given up her career to become a full-time wife and stay-at-home (most of the time) mother. He couldn't help but smile as he thought about her reaction to the news.

Michael knew where Control's home was; he knew where several of them were, actually, and the one on East Thirty-fifth was one of the nicer ones, complete with a view of the ocean. He softly gave directions to Angelina, and told her to pull into the parking garage in the basement of the building.

"Control, we're here. We need your parking pass."

"Hmmm?" Control was obviously woozy and well under the effects of the drugs.

"Your parking pass for East Thirty-fifth street. Where is it?"

"Wallet." He fumbled his wallet from his breast pocket and even with his hands shaking, managed to retrieve the card and hold it out.

"Mikey, I'm going to be sick, again."

Knowing that there was nothing for him to throw up, Michael only patted his friend's shoulder. "We've almost got you home. Once there, you'll be able to relax."

"But Mikey, I'm goin' 't be sick now. Don' wanna mess up the car, Mikey."

'Mikey' glared at his friend; Control knew perfectly well that he hated being called Mike, and Mikey could put him into a rage, but seeing his friend's obvious distress, he took a deep breath, held it for a count of five and then silently released it. "All right, 'Petey', let me open the door and you can puke on the pavement." He opened the door, held on to Control to keep him from sprawling out onto the concrete, and was grateful that they were already at the secured entrance to the parking garage and away from any prying eyes of the public. He quickly handed the card key to Angelina and then winced as Control's dry heaves left nothing but a slight white foam on the pavement and a very weak and miserable Control helpless beside him. Again hauling him back and with Angelina closing the door once more, Michael sighed and re-settled Control in the seat.

"Which parking spot is yours, Petey?"

"A-3, Mikey. Right between the stairs and the elevator."

"Which floor are you on in this one?"


"We'll take the elevator."

"All right. Thanks, Mikey. Tell M'ella thanks for me, too, would you?"

"My assistant is Angelina, now, Petey."

Control frowned. "Whr's M'ella?"

Despite his annoyance, Michael couldn't help but smile. "With any luck, she'll arrive at my hotel, this evening."

"Lucky man, Mikey. Y'know that, right?"

Michael's smile widened. "Yes, Petey, I'm very well aware of my good fortune in regards to my wife." She'd even taken up horseback riding, and was doing well on the amateur dressage circuit.

"Lucky man, Mikey. Lucky man." Control shivered, doubling over and gripping his middle with a groan. Michael shook his head in commiseration and silently vowed vengeance against that stupid doctor who put his friend through this.

The car came to a stop and Michael gratefully got out and circled around the car to help his friend. "Come on, Petey, let's get you home and put to bed, shall we?"

"Y'sure Linda's all right?"

"Positive. You can ask her yourself, if you like."

"Too young."

Michael snorted. "That would have to be her decision, not yours."

"She's a child."

Looking at the blushing young woman under discussion, Michael threw caution to the wind. "She's young, I'll grant you that, but she's over twenty-one, legally an adult, and quite capable, I'm certain, of making such decisions on her own without your interference. Unless, of course, you're not really attracted to her?"

"She's smart, beautiful, sexy as hell - of course I'm attracted to her."

"Ah, then she's not attracted to you?" He looked at Linda, asking her as much as he was Control. She was staring at Control and there was a hunger that Michael recognized in her eyes, and it made him smile. "And if she is? What are you going to do about it?" He had an arm around Control's shoulders, holding him upright while they cajoled and bullied him towards the elevator.

Control sighed. "Don't know. Iss not appropriate."

Michael snorted. "Don't be ridiculous. It's not like my wife and I. She worked directly for me. That was inappropriate."

"But she quit."

Michael smiled. "Yes. She did. To be with me. In your case, however, you're not in her direct chain of command. If anything, you can protect her from such things as happened today. You can't negatively affect her job. But knowing that you're together will keep others from doing anything stupid."

Control scowled. He was leaning heavily against Michael, his injured arm clutching his aching gut, as they staggered into the elevator. Angelina pressed the button for the third floor and pointedly ignored the conversation going on, surreptitiously watching Linda for her reaction to the knowledge of how Control felt about her.

Unfortunately, the movement of the elevator set Control's already abused digestive system back into rebellion. This time, it took both her and Michael to keep him upright.

"Someone get his keys," Michael grunted as he struggled to keep his friend and himself upright. "Try his right jacket pocket, and if they're not there, his pants pocket."

Being the only one not holding Control upright, it fell to Linda to find his keys. She patted his jacket pocket and, realizing they weren't there, gingerly reached into his pants pocket and retrieved them. There were at least six door keys on the ring, and she wondered how long it would take her to find the one that would open his apartment.

Finally, Michael got Control stripped to his skivvies and put to bed. Shaking his head, he left his friend and rejoined the ladies in the living room. Angelina was sitting on the sofa watching Linda as she looked around the room. She was bold about it, letting her curiosity take free rein.

Michael watched her for a few moments and then asked, "Might I ask what your intentions are towards Control?"

She stopped looking at the book titles on the shelf and turned to face him. "It's not a decision that only one of us can make, you know."

Michael smiled and nodded. "But?"

Linda blushed slightly as she glanced towards the door leading to where Control was, hopefully, sleeping. She sighed heavily. "He thinks he's too old, or I'm too young." She faced Michael, a belligerent look on her face. "He's wrong, though."

"But you don't know how to convince him?"

She sighed again. "No. I don't." She looked away and shook her head, then looked up at him again. "Got any ideas?"

Michael smiled. "I'm afraid that's something the two of you must come to a collective decision on. However, I would like for you to stay here with him in case of complications. If you don't mind?"

She grinned. "Mind? Not at all."

"Good. If you wish, Angelina can drive you home to get anything you think you might need?"

"Sure. Thanks."

Michael watched as the two women left, and when they were gone, he chortled and rubbed his hands together, thinking of his friend and the consternation that young woman's presence would cause.

Control felt wretched. That was the only word he could think of to describe how he felt. His ribs ached as though he'd been beaten, as did his abdominal muscles, and his stomach was queasy, and his head ached, and he wondered why? He lifted his heavy left hand to place over his forehead, only to smack himself with the cast limb. Oh. Right. Elevator, broken wrist. Stupid doctor with his stinking drugs. His stomach roiled again, threatening, once more, to try and turn itself inside out.

With a groan, he forced himself out of the nice, comfortable bed and into the bathroom, where he had another bout of dry heaves. It left him weak and panting and his aching ribs and abs were now screaming in agony. He jumped and banged his head on the toilet as two hands gently began to rub his back. He twisted awkwardly in order to see, and his eyes widened as he recognized, "Linda? What are you doing here?"

"Michael didn't want you to be left alone. So I sort of volunteered." There was anxiety in her eyes as she withdrew her hands from him.

He shivered and closed his eyes, remembering that night she'd held him...

"Come on; let's get you back to bed." She grabbed him by the arms and pulled, helping him stand. His aching ribs and abs wouldn't let him fully straighten up, but that was hardly surprising. He was grateful for her support as she helped him back to bed. With a groan, he collapsed onto the bed, curling onto his side and drawing his knees up into an almost fetal position. He felt her pull the covers over him, and then her weight as she sat beside him and began to gently rub his back. It felt good and he tried to relax into the sensation. He almost begged her not to go when she got up to turn off the light, but stifled it, only to feel relief when she returned and not only sat beside him, but stretched out behind him and gently slid her arm around him and rubbed his aching abdominal muscles. His breath caught a moment and then evened out. The warmth of her body behind him and the gentle caress of her hand felt pretty good.

In fact, it felt damned good.

She felt him relax and sighed. She spooned up more tightly against his back, hugging him to her as she left her arm wrapped around his middle and relaxed back into sleep, hoping to continue the dream she'd been having, where they did a lot more than just sleep together.

Several more times, she was awakened by his distress, until she thought to face him, as she had that other time they'd slept together, when both of them had needed comforting. Drawing him close to her, she was pleased when he wrapped his arms around her and nuzzled against her.

It sent little electrical prickles all over her body, and she shivered, holding him even closer.

If only he was aware of how he made her feel.

He loved this dream. The one where the girl from tech services shared his bed. Of course, his dreams were nothing like what had actually happened that night. In his dreams, they were far more intimate, as his hands gently aroused her as he kissed her breast. In this dream, she always responded to him, encouraged him to more than simply touch her; and she touched him, as well. Holding him close and making soft sounds of pleasure, urging him on.

This time, however, was a little different. This time, he lay on his back while she ....

His eyes flew open as he gasped, and realized that it wasn't a dream, and that she was here, in his bed with him, and she was....

He groaned and shifted, slightly, not even thinking of getting away from her. He stretched his right hand down to tangle in her hair, gently urging her to stop.

After a few moments, she lifted her head and looked up at him. Her pupils were wide in the dimness of the early morning, and there was an avid, hungry look on her face. Reluctantly, it seemed, she sighed and moved up beside him, settling against him, with her head on his shoulder.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to wake you up. How are you feeling?"

"I was feeling quite well, until you stopped." There was just a bit of regret in his voice that he wasn't quite able to control.

He felt her smile against his shoulder before she sat up and looked at him. "Should I continue, then?"

He sighed and didn't look at her, "Probably not."

She ran one hand down his body, and he couldn't help but react. He gazed up into her eyes above him and frowned. But she only smiled at his consternation and leaned down to kiss him. He couldn't help himself and wrapped his arms around her and kissed her back, allowing those passions and feelings he kept so tightly restrained to manifest. When she finally withdrew with a gasp, he let her go, watching her with hooded eyes as she brought her fingers to her lips and stared at him. Then she smiled and came back for another kiss.

When her tongue slipped past his teeth, he caught at it with his own and sucked at it. Her body, now stretched out atop his, bucked in response. He held her and rolled them over so that he was above her. He gasped as he broke their kiss and stared down into her smoldering eyes.

"This is madness."

She only smiled and slid her hand between them and down, her touch light and gentle. "Not when it's what we both want."

He groaned and rested his head on her shoulder. "It's not appropriate."

"Says who?"

Her arms wrapped around his body, pulling him more tightly against her. He groaned again; it had been such a very long time....

"I've got a really lousy track record with relationships. They always end very badly."

"I'm not looking for an ending, but a beginning. Please?" She shifted beneath him, splaying her knees out to the side so that her warm, moist core was ....

He shuddered with desire. "This is madness," he repeated as he kissed her again, with all the passion he constantly held in check.

And she responded in like manner.

When she awoke, he was still sleeping heavily, cradled against her. She smiled. It had been even better than she could ever have imagined. Now, to convince him that he wasn't 'too old' for her. Or that she wasn't 'too young'. She enjoyed the way he used her as a body pillow, one leg across hers, his head cradled between her breasts, his arms wrapped possessively around her. With a sigh, she ran one hand over his shoulder, and the fingers of her other hand through his hair, and remembered the earlier physical sensations.

He awoke slowly, remembering the night's passions and relishing the sensation of her hand on his shoulder and her fingers against his scalp. Sighing, he stretched beside her, straightening his body and shifting away from hers. He saw the disappointment in her eyes as he moved away and his heart fluttered in his chest. With a rueful smile, he leaned over her and kissed her, only momentarily surprised by the strength with which she clung to him as she deepened the kiss and pulled him tightly against her. His body reacted predictably and he slid his right hand down between them, then up to fondle her breasts. She was more than ready, and, to his surprise, so was he.

Later, when they again awoke, he gazed into her eyes, wondering what she was thinking. He could see that she was wondering what he was thinking, as well, and a wry smile tugged at his lips. "I suppose the question should be 'where do we go from here?'"

"I guess 'work' would be the short answer?"

He chuckled and felt her shiver. "What's wrong?"

She giggled nervously and shyly met his concerned gaze. "When you laugh, it makes me go all tingly inside," she admitted.

He stared at her for several moments, and then his expression softened and he drew her close and kissed her. "Thank you."

She hugged him tightly. "How are you feeling? You were pretty sick last night."

"Well, I've got the hangover from hell, and my ribs and wrist ache, but other than that, I'm feeling pretty damn good." He gently nuzzled along her face, lightly kissing his way from her temple to her lips. He felt her body respond and took a great deal of satisfaction in giving her pleasure. Sighing, he glanced at his bedside clock and winced. Reluctantly, he withdrew from her, but was halted by her frightened expression and obvious feelings of abandonment.

"It's almost six, and I'm normally already at the office by now," he softly explained. "I need to take a shower and get dressed. Then I'll run you home so you can change."

"I, uh, have clothes with me. Angelina took me home to get them last night." She looked up at him, shyly. "Can I share your shower?"

His heart nearly stopped before racing off. He smiled indulgently. "All right," he agreed, holding his right hand out for her. With a big smile, she took his hand and let him pull her up and into his arms and into a tender kiss. Then he turned away and led her into the bathroom, where they shared the shower, and one another's bodies.

Although he was running considerably later than usual, he was still earlier than most of the people who worked in the building. And since he had an assigned parking space, there would be no difficulty in getting in. He did think to wonder when and who had delivered his car, though. He glanced over at his passenger and realized that the seat could have been adjusted for her somewhat shorter height.

"Were you the one who brought my car back?"

She glanced at him and blushed. "Is that all right? It was Angelina's idea. She ran me by my place and then asked if I'd mind bringing your car over." She giggled nervously, "Good thing she remembered to ask if I could drive, though."

Control chuckled. "Thank you. Would you like to stop somewhere for breakfast? I'm pretty much just a coffee in the morning person, but if you want anything?"

She found herself pleased that his car had bench seats and not a console in the middle, as it allowed her to sit close beside him and lean against him. "Just you, but I guess that will have to wait until later, now." She sighed, wishing it had been the weekend when they could have spent the entire day together, and then wondered if she wasn't already trying to be too possessive. She glanced up into his face and saw him smile and realized that he didn't seem the least bit tense, and smiled, knowing that she had something to do with his demeanor, this morning. "But coffee sounds great."

"Do you want to stop, or wait until we get to work?"

"That depends. Is it coffee from the canteen, or some of the good stuff in your office?"

He chuckled. "My office?"

"I'd love some." Not only would this allow her to spend more time with him, it would mean not having to ride up in the elevator alone. She could take the stairs down to her floor, which was a lot easier than going up.

The coffee was delicious. Control watched her as she closed her eyes and savored every sip. He was strongly tempted... but it wouldn't be appropriate. At least, not here, and not now. When she opened her eyes and smiled at him, he could read the satisfaction in her expression, coupled with uncertainty. He looked away from her and sighed. "We need to talk."

She nodded. "About where do we go from here, I hope?"

He met her gaze again. "Yes."

Her chin lifted, and there was a challenge in her eyes. "Where do you want it to go?"

He regarded her, solemnly. "I honestly don't know. Last night, well, despite all the negative things, was wonderful. But what are you looking for? It's far too late for me to contemplate a family. I probably won't live another twenty years. That doesn't seem very fair to you, now does it? You're young, and vibrant, and there is no way I can keep up with your energy on a regular basis."

She gave him a skeptical look. "Seems to me you 'kept up' just fine, last night."

He felt himself blush and had to look away. He had, hadn't he? He couldn't help but smile. "Yes, but that might have been a fluke. My energy levels have deteriorated over the years. I'm not sure that's fair to you."

She regarded him with a solemn expression. "But what if I'm not into mountain biking or high-energy sports? I guess you don't know me very well at all, but I'm kind of like a cat. I like my creature comforts, a warm place to sleep, someone to touch me, someone to talk to. Sex is great, but so is being able to talk and laugh and just be with someone."

He stared at her, confused and uncertain. He shook his head, wondering. "But why me? Surely there are men much closer to your own age who would be more suitable."

She snorted and looked away, shaking her head. Then she turned back to him. "Most of the so-called 'men' I know are stuck in adolescence. All they're concerned with are whether or not they can have sex with someone, and how many different girls they can seduce and then brag to their buddies about. Have you ever listened to them talk? They can't seem to get past the latest PlayStation game, or blockbuster movie. The sexiest new model and that cute new girl in reception. If I wanted a child, I'd get pregnant and have one. But I don't want children." She looked away. "Besides, I can't have kids. So that's not a problem." She looked up into his warm, concerned eyes. "The first time I saw you, you....you exuded this, this force. One look and everyone knows you're a man, not a boy, not a 'guy', but a real man. One who knows who and what he is, and what he wants. My question is, are you willing to admit that I might be something you want?"

He stared at her, flustered. So young, and yet so very mature. She obviously knew exactly what she wanted, and that was him. He considered her questions. What did he want? The idea of a soft, warm, willing woman was always a temptation. But she indicated that she was interested in more than just sex, and not necessarily anything beyond his physical capabilities.

"What do you like?"

She smiled dreamily and closed her eyes. "Long walks on the beach or in the woods, a good book, cuddling before the fire, snowball fights, building snowmen, body surfing, snorkeling, book and antique stores, ballroom dancing." She opened her eyes and gave him a challenging look, "Sex."

He shook his head in wonder and smiled softly.

"What do you like to do?"

He regarded her for a time, but she didn't fidget or get flustered, just continued to look earnestly into his eyes. "I like good food, good wine, scotch, a good book, a peaceful night's sleep...."

"I can give you that. Can't I? You didn't have any nightmares, did you?"

He frowned at her. She knew. Somehow, she knew he was plagued with nightmares. "What makes you think that?"

She snorted. "Because you come in at five in the morning and rarely leave before ten at night? That's not someone who gets a good night's sleep very often. Besides, I saw your medicine cabinet. You've got more sleeping pills than a junkie in there."

He slowly nodded. "All right, yes. Perhaps you can give me that little bit of peace so I can sleep better." Despite the drugs, he'd slept surprisingly well, and even with all their activity, he felt well-rested. In fact, he felt pretty damned good. "Strolls along the beach, walks in the rain, sitting before a warm fire when it's snowing out and reading a good book," he paused, closely examining her face, "out loud," he softly added. He watched as her eyes widened and she broke his gaze, shivering as her breathing sped up.

"Uh, I'm pretty adaptable," she shyly offered, bringing her gaze back up to his.

"Are you?" There was a feeling in the air just like he'd experienced before a bolt of lightning had struck far too close for comfort, but this wasn't something deadly, he didn't think. This feeling was fraught with possibilities.

"What do you want?" he whispered.

She smiled, a brilliant, heart-achingly beautiful smile. "Just you," she whispered back, bringing one hand up to stroke his cheek. "That's all, just you."

He couldn't help the small groan that escaped his lips as he gathered her to him and hugged her tightly. "This is madness," he murmured as he buried his face in her hair.

"So, who wants to be sane?" she whispered as her arms snaked around his body and held him just as tightly.

He laughed, almost hysterically, and shook his head. Then he lifted her chin and kissed her. Hard. She clung to him, opening her mouth to invite him in.

When she offered to deepen the kiss, he did, his tongue tangling with hers as his right hand held her head and his left arm with its cast crushed her against his body. She'd complained that the men she knew were mere adolescents, but he was feeling rather like one, himself, at the moment, excited, giddy, and.... Lustful. He pulled back with a gasp and stared at her. He saw the hurt and worry in her eyes and grinned. "Rain check?" He was breathing hard, as was she.


"Rain check. Continue this 'discussion' later?"

She thought for a moment, then smiled. "Promise?"

"You have my word."

She grinned and then licked her lips. "Okay."

He kissed her once more and then released her, smiling. "Since yesterday's meeting was cut short, I'm sure I'll probably be locked in the conference room most of the day."

"That's okay. With Tom and Mr. Burger gone, Trevor and I are going to have a rough time keeping up with all the computer stuff." She smiled. "We'll be lucky if we can manage to get lunch, today."

"Lunch will be from eleven-thirty to twelve-thirty, and you will join me, I hope?"

She stared at him. "I'd love to, but if I'm in the middle of something, I'll probably forget."

"I could call you." He tilted his head slightly to one side as he regarded her.

She smiled and nodded. "Of course." She glanced down at his desk and picked up a pen. Leaning down, she wrote two numbers on his blotter calendar. "The first one is my cell, the second is my pager." She set the pen down and looked up at him. "I'd better get going and let you get ready for your meeting, huh?"

Control smiled and softly sighed. "I suppose." He stepped close and gently took her into his arms and bent slightly to kiss her. It was a soft kiss, but one full of desire and promise. Releasing her, he stepped back and gently rubbed the knuckles of his right hand along her cheek. "I'll call you."

She turned her face into his caress and smiled. "You'd better." Then, before she threw herself at him, she spun on her heel and made for the door. He watched her and marveled that such a beautiful and intelligent young woman should want to become involved with someone like him.

Michael strolled in shortly before eight-thirty and smirked. "So, how did you sleep?" He was careful not to emphasize the word 'sleep' in any way.

"I slept." Control leaned back in his chair and gazed up at his long-time friend. "I suppose it was your idea to have that girl baby-sit me?" There was a cold hardness to his expression and voice that was not lost on Michael.

"Yes. I take it that you are displeased?"

"What were you thinking?"

Michael shrugged and sat in a chair facing the desk. "The girl is obviously infatuated with you, at the very least. I didn't have to twist her arm to get her to stay. And in your inebriated state, you certainly intimated that the attraction is mutual, so what happened to piss you off?"

Control simply stared at him for several long moments. Their blue eyes, similar in color, if not expression, bored into one another, finally, Michael grinned. "Good for you! She's a nice young lady."

"Young being the operative word, here." He sighed and shook his head. "I'm too old for this, Michael."

"If you pass up this opportunity, then not only are you too old, you're also a fool."

"I'm thirty years older than she is!" But there was no force in his bluster, and Michael knew it.

"Sometimes, it's not age, but maturity that matters. My wife is the best thing that's ever happened to me, and if you work it properly, this young woman could be the best thing that's ever happened to you."

Control snorted and shook his head. "Well, I did sleep well."

Michael leaned forward, nodding, "And that in and of itself is reason enough to pursue the lady. You no doubt don't recall what you said yesterday, but it was obvious that you're already half in love with her. Take the chance, man. You may never have another." He watched as the uncertainty his friend felt flashed across his expression and sat back to smile as he saw Control's eyes harden in determined resolve. "After all," he softly purred, "What have you to lose?"

Control sighed and nodded, "And much to gain?"

Michael grinned. "Everything to gain," he agreed.

*Yes, Fresh Pasta is real....and outstandingly tasty. Exceptional quality and visually spectacular. www.freshpasta.com - and they deliver!

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