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"Hold the elevator," Maggie Sommerfield called out, rushing toward it while juggling three sacks full of heavy books.
With a glance at the wall clock near the stairs she usually took to City Hall's third floor, she noted her timing was worse than she thought. Now she was going to be late to Bienville to help set up the belated wedding reception for her boss and mayor, Ruth Sommerfield, and her uncle Keith. Her cousin, Kim, who was hosting the party with her, wasn't going to be happy. She should have waited until later to bring the books to City Hall.
Committed now, Maggie stepped onto the elevator and immediately set her sacks on the tiled floor, her arms beginning to ache from holding them so long. When she looked up into the face of the only other occupant, her gaze met Cody Weston's amused smile.
Seeing him surprised Maggie because it was Saturday evening. She guessed, though, being a psychologist and counselor with the Christian Assistance Coalition here in Hope, Mississippi, helping the victims of Hurricane Naomi meant he worked whatever hours his clients needed him. It certainly had been the case when he had worked with her uncle Keith with his post-traumatic stress disorder after the disastrous storm. Her uncle had spent most of his time in his bedroom, retreating from others, but now he was happy and in love with Ruth. Thanks to Cody.
"I've never seen a woman with so many books. Are those for the Ultimate Garage Sale in two weeks?" Cody asked, lounging back against the wall.
"Yes, my last load. I think I could have restocked the local library with the books I had, but they prefer hardbacks and so many of mine are paperbacks. But Mrs. Abare had tons of hardbacks and I mean tons." She rubbed her arms, suddenly conscious of being alone with a man she had admired from a distance.
"I'm assuming you're going to the third floor?"
"Yes." They both worked on the top floor of City Hall, one of the historical buildings that survived the category-four hurricane eight months ago—a storm that still left over a third of the town recovering from the destruction.
The elevator, which Maggie was sure was an antique, slowly began the ascent to the top floor where she worked as the secretary to the mayor and town council. A grinding sound echoed through the cab right before the elevator came to a stop.
Between the second and third floor.
Maggie froze, waiting a few heartbeats for the elevator to continue its journey.
She hit every button on the console, jabbing them with urgency. Nothing.
"It's stuck." Cody paused then added, "Again."
"What do you mean again? Have there been problems?"
"It usually gets stuck at least once a day lately."
"Why didn't someone tell me? I knew I should have used the stairs. The one time I don't. " Her words rushed to a halt, and she swallowed several times to coat her suddenly dry throat. On top of that, sweat popped out on her forehead, a rivulet running down into her eye, and her heart raced. Before long the walls would begin to press in on her, and she would hyperventilate.
"Let me guess. You're afraid of confined spaces."
"Yes," she bit out, trying frantically to control her body's reaction to a fear she'd had all her life. She didn't want to fall apart in front of Cody, a man who seemed so together. "I believe, Dr. Weston, the term is claustrophobia."
"Yes, you're right."
"And it isn't so much confined spaces as a feeling of being trapped." The second she said the word "trapped" her thoughts zoomed back to when she had been eight and locked in an old root cellar for hours. Dark. Damp. Musky. All because a neighbor kid thought it was funny.
"They should have us out of here in no time."
Her gaze fastened on to the red button at the bottom of the console. In case of an emergency. She slammed her palm against it—a little too hard. Bells went off while her hand throbbed. "I should only work in one-story buildings." That realization didn't help her now. "Why did I have to clear out my car this evening? This could have waited until I had time to make more than one trip," she mumbled more to herself as she tried to focus on something other than being trapped. "Oh, no. It's Saturday. After six. Most people are gone by now. What if no one is in the building to hear the elevator alarm?"
She swept her attention to Cody, and immediately his calm seized her as if to assure her that she was safe. He was here to help her. In the midst of the loud ringing filling the cab, Maggie felt drawn to him as she had been when she'd seen him working with Uncle Keith, that same calm and patience evident time after time. For an instant she forgot where she was as she continued to stare at Cody. Too bad he was only in town for a short time. The alarm ceased.
She pushed away her attraction to a man who only had, at the most, a couple months left in town and latched on to the hope that flared in her. "Good. Someone has turned it off." When Cody averted his gaze, her hope plummeted. "What's wrong?" He was avoiding eye contact. Never a good thing in an emergency.
"It automatically goes off after a certain time."
"How do you know that?"
"I was stuck in this elevator earlier in the week."
"And you got back on it? What are you, crazy?"
He shrugged. "I like to live dangerously."
She didn't want to hear that. "Okay. Do you have a cell phone? I left mine in my purse in my car. I was only gonna be in here a few minutes."
He cocked a grin. "Sorry. That's why I was going back upstairs. Forgot it on my desk."
The urge to pound on the doors and yell for help inundated Maggie. She didn't think her heart rate could go any faster, but it did. Its sound thundered against her skull. Surely he could hear it, too. She looked at the top of the elevator at the escape hatch. Maybe if she got on his shoulders, he could hoist her through .
"Aren't you hosting the party tonight at Bienville?"
His question came to her through a fog of desperation.
"The belated wedding reception tonight for your uncle and the mayor?"
His question refocused her attention on him. Cody went from one disaster to another. That was his job. His expression even, not an ounce of fear in it, he looked back at her.
He exuded calm, control this whole time. Two things she didn't.
The unflappable way he spoke her name centered her on him a few feet away from her. "Yes, I'm hosting it with Kim and her husband."
He moved closer, cutting the meager distance between them in half. "Why were you bringing books to your office then?"
It was his nearness this time that caused her heart to beat even faster. "For Ellie, the DA. She's the organizer for the town garage sale for the library," she replied when she realized all she was doing was staring at him.
"Well, then she's in the building and heard the alarm."
"Not exactly. I needed my trunk space so I thought I would drop them off here. She has a vacant room on the third floor down the hall from my office. That's where she's storing the books until the garage sale. I have a key to it." Maggie checked her watch. "She's probably getting ready for the party right now." Panic began to swirl around in her stomach. Words that flooded her mind a few seconds ago vanished.
She spied the emergency button and punched it again. The alarm blasted the air. She glanced around, and it seemed the elevator had shrunk. Was it this small a minute ago? She gulped in air, but nothing she did filled her lungs.
Her gaze latching on to the escape door in the ceiling, she waved her hand. "You can hoist me up there. I'll see if I can reach the third floor door and pry it open. I've seen it done in movies."
She peered at him, now only a foot away from her. His handsome features set in a composed countenance, he took her hand still wildly gesturing at the ceiling. The blue in his eyes, like the Gulf not far from Bienville, drew her toward him. The gleam in them reminded her of sunlight glittering off the surface of the water.
"Tell me about the books you have in those sacks."
"The ones for the garage sale."
"Oh," she muttered, transfixed by the smile on his face creating two dimples in his cheeks. She'd never noticed that before. No, that wasn't right. She had but she'd refused to dwell on how much they appealed to her. "I collected these from Mrs. Abare today. I've already given Ellie mine."
"What do you like to read?"
Heat flushed her face. "Romance."
One eyebrow arched. "You do? I like a good mystery myself."
"Nope." He still held her hand between them, his warmth against her cold fingers soothing.
For five whole seconds she didn't even think about where she was. "I haven't really read many mysteries." Then she slid her gaze toward the control panel.
"Maggie." He said her name in a husky voice. It lured her back to him. "I'll loan you one of my books."
She inhaled a composing breath that seemed to be working. "In that case, I'll loan you one of my books and we can compare."
He chuckled. "A romance?"
"Why not? I've always said men should read them to learn how women think about what love is."
"Okay. I'm game."
Those two dimples deepened as his smile grew. "I'm willing to try and figure out what women want. It might help me in my work."
"Yes, it could. Think of it as research."
"Yeah, research." He laughed again and pressed on. "How's your son doing now that it's summer?"
"According to Brady, it's gonna be a long, boring summer. He is usually so busy with his friends I don't hear that until a few days before school starts at the end of August. Not this year, but then he's gonna be thirteen soon."
"Aah, such a fun time. It wasn't that long ago for me."
The subject of her son reminded her of the stress she'd endured for the past month, concerning Brady. That stress reinforced the situation she was in at the moment. She peered at the emergency button again, trying to decide if hitting it a third time would make it work any better.
"How are Keith and Ruth?"
Suddenly the elevator began moving upward. The unexpected jolt sent her flying against him. He clasped her upper arms and steadied her. The whisper of his breath caressed her cheek before he pulled back, giving her some room. But it wasn't enough. Not even clear across town would be enough. Her mouth went ever drier as her pulse sped through her body.
"See. We're being rescued," he said as the elevator stopped and the doors swished open.
A blush still scorched her face. The scent of peppermint on his breath lingered, teasing her senses. Touching a part of her that she'd closed off when her fiance died thirteen and a half years ago. When he was killed, she'd thought part of herself had died, too. No man was going to change that feeling. And certainly not a man who was only here a short time. She needed to remember that and keep her distance from Cody.
For a few seconds she didn't move until he nudged her forward, saying, "I'll get your books for you."
Finally she scurried off, looking around for the person responsible for rescuing them. No one was in the corridor.
"Hello," she called.
Cody stepped off the elevator with all three bags of books. "Maybe it fixed itself. It's a contrary elevator."
"One I will never ride again. I don't care what I have to carry up the stairs."
"Where can I put these?"
"Here let me take one." She approached him, again vividly aware of his nearness.
"Naw. I've got this. Just show me where to take them."
"This way." She walked toward a door at the far end, the click of her heels echoing through the hallway.
"If you know you have trouble with confined spaces, why did you get on the elevator?"
She could now get back to normal, put the incident on the elevator behind her. "A spur of the moment decision which I regret. That should teach me to stop doing things suddenly and without thought. But I'm wearing heels, and I don't usually. I saw the staircase and wasn't sure I could make it all the way up with the sacks. It's been a long day getting everything ready for my uncle's wedding reception. The whirlwind romance between Uncle Keith and Ruth is the one thing good that came from the hurricane. I don't know if they would have gotten together otherwise." She was chattering, which had to be a result of her nervous state due to the elevator incident—certainly not the man nearby. Okay, maybe it was because of the man beside her.
Cody nodded. "Ruth was what Keith needed. She gave him something to focus on other than the damage caused by the hurricane. The whole town is excited about the marriage."
"Yeah, everyone has contributed to the reception. Ellie did the flower arrangements. Mrs. Abare the cake. If it hadn't been for Mrs. Abare giving me the books this afternoon when I went to pick up the cake—" She clapped her hand over her mouth.
"The cake is out in the car. The icing could have melted while we were trapped in the elevator." She hurried her pace, pulling the key to the storage room out of her pocket.
"We were only in the elevator ten minutes."
Only ten minutes? It had seemed much longer, until she'd centered on Cody, then time just seemed to melt away. "Good. Then there's hope the cake is fine," she finally said as she opened the door and he set the sacks on the table in the room.
"In a town called Hope, there should be." The six-foot-tall counselor closed the door and locked it.
"True, but since Hurricane Naomi, it has been scarce." She headed for the stairs in the center of the corridor. "I can't thank you enough for helping my uncle. He's a new man since you started counseling him."
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