On Solid Ground
Chance Crawford and Kit Gibbons are on the cusp of an epic office romance. After months of saying hi in the elevator and making small talk at parties, they’re both dying to make a move. Too bad neither of them can work up the courage. Nerdy, risk-averse Chance is waiting for Kit to give him a sign, whereas Kit’s too afraid of being out in his professional life to date the cutie from IT. If only one of them could find the proper motivation, their shaky flirtation could become something real.
Then an earthquake rocks their city. They band together to help others escape, until an aftershock leaves them trapped in a collapsing office building with little hope of survival. The very earthquake that brought them together could also tear them apart.
Drunk on fear and adrenaline, passions run high, but how can they think about romance when any minute could be their last? They’ll have to face danger, themselves, and each other before they can get back on solid ground.
This title comes with no special warnings.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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Chapter One: Chance
2:17 p.m., Monday, August 13th
After the world ended, everything was dark.
Chance pulled his shirt up over his mouth and tried to breathe normally, but there was too much dust in the air. It filled his dry throat like cotton, making him cough until he was raw. He stumbled over the rubble covering the office floor and fell against one of the few walls that was still standing. It shuddered beneath his weight, and fear lanced through him. It was all he could do to keep himself upright; his limbs were jellied, and his head swam. Panic ate at his stomach lining. Any minute now, he was going to be sick.
“Kit!” His raspy voice grated the air. It echoed eerily down the empty hall. An emergency floodlight flickered up ahead. He headed for it. “Kit, where are you?”
Silence greeted him with a cold handshake.
He took a few more ungainly steps. He was trembling, despite the cloying heat. Shock? Maybe. Or perhaps the earthquake had wormed its way into his bones. As the quiet dragged on, bile rose up in the back of his throat. If something had happened to Kit . . . If he was dead, or hurt . . .
The bile wet his throat enough for him to yell again. “Kit! Can you hear me?”
He looked around but saw no trace of him. Broken glass littered the floor, glinting in the dim light. Bits of wood stuck out from gaping holes in the walls and snagged at his clothes like fingers. A long, jagged crack ran through the tile beneath his feet, revealing peeks at the cement foundation, which chilled his blood.
Suddenly, there was a sound at the end of the hall. Shuffling, and then something like splintering wood.
Oh God, is the roof caving in?
Chance looked up and let out a sob. Ceiling tiles were hanging off dented frames. Parts of it were so caved in they gave glimpses of cracked concrete and the fucking sky, clear through the roof. Chance was no architect, but that couldn’t be a good sign.
Before panic could consume him, he heard more shuffling. He blinked sweat and dirt from his eyes and looked toward it.
“Chance!” A man appeared at the end of the hall. He caught sight of Chance and picked his way over fallen beams. “I’m here!”
“Oh, thank God. Kit.” Chance hurried toward him. His shoe caught on a stray scrap of metal, but he kicked it aside. “When you stopped answering me, I panicked. I tried to find you. I—”
“Don’t move! I’ll come to you.” Kit reached him and grabbed both of his shoulders. “It’s all right now. I’m here.”
Chance held on to Kit in turn, eyes darting over his face as he searched for signs of injury. His hair was dark with sweat and sticking up. There was no trace left of the careful grooming it’d sported mere hours ago. Grime streaked Kit’s jaw. A trail of blood trickled past one of his brown eyes.
But he was alive. He was okay. And right now, he was the most beautiful thing Chance had ever seen.
“Did you find the exit?” Hope flickered in his chest. “Was there a way out?”
Kit stared at him for a long moment before his eyes dropped like weights. “It’s no good. Everything’s blocked off. We could try to clear a path, but I can’t tell what’s debris and what’s a support beam. If we move the wrong thing . . .”
Chance bit back a sob. “The roof might collapse.”
“Yeah.” Kit touched Chance’s cheek. “In fact, it probably will.”
Chance’s heart sank to the ground along with Kit’s gaze. The quiet hanging around them seemed thick and final. Chance could hear his own pulse in his ears as it slowed. After a long, heavy silence, he finally said the thing they both knew, the thing that needed saying even though it was unbearable.
“That was our last chance. There’s no other way out.”
His words rang like bells in the air, heralding ill fortune.
“I know.” Kit let out a breath that turned into a sniffle and held Chance’s face in his hands. “Chance, I’m so sorry. We’re trapped in here.”
* * * * * * *
9:08 a.m., Monday, August 13th
Chance glared up at the flickering fluorescent light above his desk and willed it to make a choice: on or off. If it stayed on, he could work in peace. If it died, he could have it replaced. But so long as there was a spark—no pun intended—of life left in that old bulb, the office manager wouldn’t replace it. It would be free to strobe Chance into a zombie-esque stupor.
That was what he got for taking a job in an office building that was older than his parents. Nothing worked the way it was supposed to. It wouldn’t surprise him if the roof came down on their heads one of these days.
But hey, at least he had dental.
With a sigh, he turned his attention to the computer in front of him. While he waited for the sluggish internet to log him into his email, he let his eyes drift. His desk was covered in personal items: a Doctor Who mug full of paperclips, a stuffed frog he’d won at an office party, and several photos of his family. His nephews were front and center, smiling at him from a wooden frame as they stood over a sandcastle they’d built.
There was one item on his desk he did his best to ignore every morning. The dreaded headset. The thing he had to put on by 9:30 a.m. so he could start taking calls. And start losing his faith in humanity.
Not that Chance didn’t enjoy his job. He did. He’d just expected to do more coding and less customer service. Being an IT guy in an office full of older professionals was kind of like being a celebrity: everyone claimed to love him, but if he failed to perform, they’d turn on him like a pack of Bolton hounds.
Good thing they seldom asked him to do anything more complicated than troubleshoot their wi-fi.
His email finally loaded, revealing a bursting inbox, as per usual. Thirty-eight new requests since he’d left on Friday, and as he watched, another one popped up. It was going to be a busy day.
“Once more unto the breach,” he muttered.
“Talking to yourself already?” said a voice behind him. “That’s not a good sign.”
Chance spun around in his desk chair and smiled at the pretty black woman who’d entered their joint cubicle. “Morning, Marci.”
“Morning. Got the kids with me today.” Marci hiked one of the aforementioned children up on her hip and blew a strand of curly hair away from her eyes. “Nadia’s doing field work, and her mother couldn’t sit, so we’re having an impromptu bring-your-kids-to-work day.”
“Awesome! Who says Mondays can’t be fun?” Chance leaned to the side in his chair and peeked around Marci’s legs. He caught sight of big brown eyes before Marci’s oldest daughter, Shana, repositioned herself, giggling.
“It’s such a shame you didn’t bring Shana with you.” Chance switched to the other side and got another glimpse before Shana hid again. “I had a Tootsie Roll for her, I guess I’ll have to give it to her sister instead.” He dug one of the candies out of a bag in his desk drawer and mimed liked he was going to hand it to Ranelle. The baby was too young to even hold the candy, let alone eat it, but Shana didn’t know that.
Just as he’d predicted, Shana burst out of hiding. “Gimme!” She launched herself into his lap.
Chance caught her and lifted her up, blinking his own dark hair out of his eyes. “Shana! I had no idea you were here. You’re getting so big.”
Shana squirmed in his arms, so he set her on his lap. “Guess how old I am now.”
It’d been ten days since the last time she’d had Chance guess, but he indulged her. “Are you . . . sixteen?”
She shook her head, and the colorful beads decorating her braids clacked together twice.
She held up four fingers.
“Goodness.” He widened his eyes comically. “You’re practically middle-aged.”
Marci hooked the toe of her flats under her desk chair and pulled it out before sinking heavily into it, Ranelle cradled in one arm. “That’s how I feel most days. Have kids, they said. It’ll be fun, they said. Did I tell you Nadia wants another one?”
“I sure hope not. I reckon she’ll talk me into it in another four years, like she did with this one.” She kissed Ranelle’s brow, and Ranelle burbled happily.
“Knowing your wife, I don’t doubt it.” Chance turned his attention to Shana. “Maybe a little brother next time?”
“Yeah!” Shana flung a hand out, as if in excitement, but Chance didn’t miss how it went straight for the Tootsie Roll that was clenched in his fist.
At the last second, he tugged it out of reach. “Ask your mom first.”
Shana turned her giant puppy eyes on Marci. “Pleeease?”
“It’s all right with me, but you have to eat something green for lunch.”
Chance presented her with the candy. Shana had it unwrapped and in her mouth in two seconds flat. Prize obtained, she slid off of Chance’s lap and bounced over to Marci, who had finished nestling Ranelle into her carrier. Marci then pulled books and toys out of an overflowing bag for Shana.
It was a good thing they were in a double cubicle, and one of the larger ones on the floor. For that matter, it was lucky Marci had the most quiet and well-behaved children in the world, or she’d never be able to bring them to work.
“We in for a busy day?” Marci asked when she and the girls were settled.
“Yup. It’s Monday all right.” Chance swiveled back to his computer and groaned when he saw two new emails. They were popping up like Hydra heads. “Better get started.”
They worked in silence for the first half hour. Chance hunted through his emails, looking for anything he could answer quickly. One person’s printer had stopped working after a power outage. They’d neglected to try turning it on again. Another person wanted his computer to stop making “noise,” and so Chance directed him to the volume button, with its handy mute function.
Everything beyond that was more complicated. Chance happily scheduled appointments for the other requests. He preferred going to people’s offices and fixing whatever was wrong as opposed to remotely walking them through instructions. He wasn’t certain what it was about technology that made people so irritable, but even in their laid-back office, people were quick to lose their cool over the phone.
Which was why, when nine thirty rolled around, he took a deep breath before picking up his headset and positioning it on his head. Not five seconds later, his line flashed with his first call of the day. He hit a button, picked up the receiver, and affected his customer service voice. “Good morning. This is Chance from IT. How may I help you?”
“Hey, Chance,” said a wheezing voice. “This is Duncan from the chiropractor’s office. I dunno what I did, but I hit a button on my laptop, and now everything’s small.”
“On the laptop.”
Chance frowned. “You mean the screen resolution got smaller, or . . .?”
“Maybe? It’s all small.”
Hands down the hardest part of Chance’s job was figuring out what the hell people were describing to him.
“Is the text small?”
“The text. Images. Everything in my internet browser. Not anything else though.”
“Oh!” The light above him flashed coincidentally on. “I think I know what happened. Do me a favor. Find the control key and press it.”
“Okay. I’m pressing it.”
“Now hit the plus symbol.”
There was a pause. “Oh hey! It’s bigger now. What’d I do?”
“You were zoomed out. If you ever need to zoom in, hit control and plus. To zoom out, it’s control and minus.”
“Excellent. Thanks, Chance.”
“My pleasure.” He assumed his polite customer-service voice again in anticipation of ending the session. “Is there anything else I can help you with?”
“Nope. That’s all.”
“Have a wonderful day.”
The line went dead. He hung up and blew out a breath. If all his calls went that easily, he might make it to lunch without any heart palpitations. He had no trouble talking to people, most of the time, but he tended to reflect the emotions of those around him. If they were stressed, he was stressed. If they were angry, he freaked out and tried not to cry like an infant.
He’d thought the tech aspects of the job would make up for the customer service parts, but he spent most days telling people to turn things off and then on again, or helping people with much nicer phones than him figure out how to use them. It wasn’t exactly challenging.
He peeked over his shoulder to see how Marci was faring with her first call of the day.
“Sir, there’s no need to raise your voice.” Her tone was as warm and pleasant as spring rain. “I’m so sorry the copier is jammed. I can walk you through the steps to fix it, or we can send someone out.” She paused. “Sir, I promise I can hear you. Would you like for me to walk you through the steps, or call someone?”
The guy was now yelling so loudly, Chance could hear a tinny, muffled version of his voice. No matter how much he screamed, Marci kept her cool. She repeated the options half a dozen more times before the guy realized the copier wasn’t going to magically fix itself.
Chance didn’t know how she did it. The older guys in the building gave her twice as much shit as they gave Chance—for obvious reasons—but Marci never lost her temper. She did, however, find increasingly creative ways to tell them to fuck off without saying anything unprofessional.
Once, when a client had accused her of not knowing what she was doing, she’d simply replied, “Thank you for your feedback.” The guy’d gone nuclear. It’d become an inside joke in their cubicle that could make them laugh on even the most soul-sucking days.
A moment later, Marci hung up her phone with a pronounced click. “Yeah, same to you, buddy.” She cracked her neck and exhaled. “I swear, the guys down on the eighth floor are impossible. It’s like they put steroids in their watercoolers.” She turned to Chance. “Who rents the offices on that floor anyway?”
“That’s where that one knife company keeps their sales teams.”
“That explains it. Salespeople are the worst. Them, and those business guys who walk around in their fancy suits, acting like kings of the world.” Her eyes drifted to something over Chance’s shoulder. “Speaking of which.”
Chance followed her line of sight just in time for Kit Gibbons to walk by. Aka, Chance’s wannabe office husband. He tried not to stare as he drank in Kit’s tall frame, which was, as per usual, dressed to perfection.
Between his perfect bone structure and the dimples folding his cheeks, Kit was perhaps the most handsome man Chance had ever seen. He looked young too, with thick brown hair and big, boyish eyes. He could usually be seen walking with groups of older men in similar expensive suits, all of whom called Chance things like champ and skipper instead of bothering to learn his name.
But today, Kit was alone. He caught Chance’s eyes and flashed a brilliant smile. “Morning, Chance. And Marci. How’s your day going?”
“Fine, thanks.” Marci smiled back. “Girls, say hi to Kit.”
Shana hid her face behind a coloring book and giggled, but Ranelle gurgled a cheerful greeting.
Kit paused to smile over the cubicle walls. “Good morning to you too, girls. You get more grown-up every time I blink.” With that, he strode around the corner and disappeared into the lobby. Probably to take the stairs up to see his boss on the top floor, where the “important people” offices were located. Kit always took the stairs. Chance was willing to bet he had a hell of a body under that suit.
“You have a little drool on the corner of your mouth, Chance.”
He snapped out of his reverie and wiped his face. His hand came away dry. “I do not.”
“It’s metaphorical drool, dear.” Marci hummed, sounding amused. “Will you admit you have the hots for him already?”
“For Kit? No, I—”
“Spare me. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. I only have eyes for my wife, but even I wouldn’t mind breaking off a piece of that.”
“I’m telling Nadia,” Chance teased. He glanced at his desk phone. Another line had lit up. “I have a call, so I’ll just . . .”
He started to pivot back around, but Marci caught his chair. “Not so fast, mister. Why won’t you admit you have a thing for Kit? You two would make a great couple. Isn’t that right, girls? Wouldn’t you like to see Uncle Chance settle down with a nice boy?”
Ranelle was now snoozing in her carrier, but Shana nodded eagerly before she went back to coloring.
Chance’s face grew hot; he was willing to bet he was as red as one of Shana’s crayons. “I neither confirm nor deny. I know you’d love to play matchmaker, but I can secure my own dates.”
“Oh really? Is that why you haven’t been on one in—” she tapped her chin “—I believe you’re going on eight months now?”
“Am not!” He frowned. “Six months.”
“All the more reason to ask Kit out.”
“I don’t know anything about him, okay? I don’t even know if he’s into guys. He seems nice enough, but he’s also one of those type A suit people. The very ones you were complaining about a second ago.”
“He doesn’t act like the rest of them, though. He bothered to learn our names, for one thing, and he’s sweet to my girls, which is a big plus in my book. Besides, how can you say you don’t know him? I saw you two talking at the office party last quarter.”
She had him there. Kit had caught sight of the lightsaber pen in Chance’s pocket and had struck up a conversation about the latest film in the franchise. He’d shocked Chance when he’d started talking about the ways in which the films veered away from the expanded universe. It’d given Chance the biggest nerd boner of his life.
For a moment, it’d seemed like maybe there was something between them. A spark. A connection. Chance had felt it that night more strongly than ever before, but nothing had come of it. As days melted into weeks, and he and Kit only ever exchanged pleasantries in the hall or elevator, he’d convinced himself he’d imagined it.
“One conversation does not a relationship make,” he ended up saying. “Kit could be exactly like all those older business execs he works with. Conservative. Married. To a woman. Imagine the talk around the watercooler if I hit on Kit, and he went into some kind of gay panic.”
“People wouldn’t talk about that. They’re all too PR-conscientious.”
“They would after I died on the spot from embarrassment. Now if you’ll excuse me.” He reached for his phone only to realize the line had stopped blinking. Damn. How long ago had that happened?
Marci was undeterred. “Oh, come on. I see how you two look at each other. There’s something there, and you know it. Only you’re too scared to do anything about it. You should learn to take some risks, Chance, or you’re going to miss out.”
“Thanks for the advice, Mom.” The line started blinking again. “I have to take this. Clients don’t like to be kept waiting.”
As he reached for the phone, Marci spun his chair bit by bit, keeping the phone out of reach until he was facing away from his desk. “Marci, cut it out. Please?”
She sighed and released his chair. “Fine. But it wouldn’t kill you to get out more. San Francisco is a big city, and full of possibilities. Don’t you want to meet someone? Revel in the joys of young romance? You’re the one who’s always saying how much you love kids and want to have a whole fleet of them yourself.”
“Sure, but years from now. I’m twenty-three. I still eat dinosaur chicken nuggets for dinner and watch cartoons.”
“Doesn’t mean you can’t live a little. I worry about you. You spend all day in this office with people twice your age, who only ever talk about their mortgages and the rising cost of stamps. Myself included. You need to get out more. Meet new people. Or before you know it, life will have flashed by, and your memories will be nothing but work and sleep.”
It was true that the office didn’t afford Chance many opportunities to be social. The twelve-story Meyers building was rented by over a dozen different companies, and whenever one moved out, a new one crammed itself in. There was little point in getting to know anyone he didn’t work with, because they could be gone within a year.
Chance was friendly to everyone he met, but it never went beyond the superficial. The weather. Local sports teams. How much coffee was too much. Though he had to admit, if there was anyone he’d like to get to know better, it was Kit. He was charming and sweet, and his smile made Chance dizzy. If he ever settled down . . . When he settled down, he hoped it’d be with someone like Kit.
Realizing he’d been quiet for a beat too long, Chance cleared his throat. “Why would I need to make more friends? I have you.” He spun his chair back around toward his desk, already reaching for the phone. Another call had popped up like clockwork. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Marci glared at her own blinking phone lines. “Don’t we all.”
Chance laughed, took a breath to regain his composure, and picked up the phone. “Good morning. This is Chance from IT. How may I help you?”