Best Laid Plans - Chapter Nine


"Cody, will you get that?"

Abra sat on the side of the bed, pulling on her work boots. The knock at her door had her scowling at her watch. It wasn't often she had visitors at seven o'clock in the morning, and she was already cutting it close if she wanted to be on the site before eight.

Cody came out of the kitchen with a cup of coffee in one hand. His hair was still damp from the shower and his shirt only half buttoned when he opened the door to Abra's mother,

"Oh, hello." There was an awkward pause before Jessie smiled at him.

"Morning." Cody stepped back to let her in. "You're up early."

"Yes, I wanted to catch Abra before she left. Then I have a dozen things to do." Jessie cleared her throat as she pleated the strap of her purse. "Is she around?"

"In the other room." Cody wasn't quite sure how a man handled his lover's mother at 7:00 a.m. "Would you like some coffee?"

"Actually, I'd -  Oh, there you are." She turned her nervous smile on Abra.

"Mom." The three of them stood there for a moment, forming an awkward triangle. Abra found that she didn't know what to do with her hands, so she stuck them in her pocket. "What are you doing out at this hour?"

"I wanted to see you before you left for the day." She hesitated again, then looked at Cody. "I would love a cup of coffee."

"Sure." Setting down his own, he stepped through to the kitchen.

"Abra, could we sit down a moment?"

Without a word, Abra took the chair across from the sofa. Certainly her mother wasn't going to lecture her about having a man in her apartment. "Is something wrong?"

"No, no, nothing's wrong." She took a deep breath, then accepted the cup Cody brought out to her.

"Why don't I leave you two alone?"

"No." Jessie spoke quickly, then managed a smile. Now that the initial discomfort had passed, she was glad, very glad, that her daughter had someone in her life. Someone, she thought as she studied his face, who obviously cared for her very much.

"Please, sit down, Cody. I'm sorry I've interrupted your morning, and I'm sure you both want to get to work. This won't take long." She drew a second, longer breath. "I've just gotten back from that trip with Willie."

Because she'd already resigned herself to that, Abra smiled. "Did you lose the family fortune at the crap table?"

"No." Perhaps it was going to be easier than she'd thought, Jessie decided. She plunged ahead. "I got married."

"You what?" The shock brought Abra straight up in her chair. "In Vegas? To whom?"

"Why, to Willie, of course."

Abra said nothing for ten humming seconds. When she spoke, she spoke slowly, spacing each word. "You married Mr. Barlow in Las Vegas?"

"Two days ago." She held out her hand to show off a twin set of diamonds.' 'When we decided it was what we wanted, there didn't seem any reason to wait. After all, neither of us are children."

Abra stared at the glittering rings, then back at her mother. "You - you hardly know him."

"I've gotten to know him very well over the last couple of weeks." No, it was going to be hard, Jessie realized as she watched Abra's face. Very hard. "He's a wonderful man, sweetheart, very strong and steady. I'll admit I didn't expect him to ask me, but when he did I said yes. We were right there, and there was this funny little chapel, so... we got married."

"You should be getting good at it by now."

Jessie's eyes flashed, but her voice remained mild. "I'd like you to be happy for me. I'm happy. But if you can't, at least I'd like you to accept it."

"I should be getting good at that, too."

The pleasure went out of Jessie's face. "Willie wanted to come with me this morning, but I thought it best that I told you myself. He's very fond of you, speaks very highly of you as a woman and as a professional. I hope you won't make this difficult for him."

"I like Mr. Barlow," Abra said stiffly. "And I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. I'll wish you luck."

An ache passed through Jessie's heart. "Well, that's something." She rose, worrying the rings on her finger. "I have to go in early and type up my resignation."

"You're quitting your job?"

"Yes, I'll be moving to Dallas. Willie's home is there."

"I see." Abra rose, as well. "How soon?"

"We're flying out this afternoon so I can meet his son. We'll be back in a few days to tie up details." She would have stepped toward her daughter, but she thought it best to give her time. "I'll call you when we get back."

"Fine." There was no affection in the word, only a brusque dismissal. "Have a nice trip."

Cody moved to the door to open it, then touched Jessie's arm before she could pass through. "Best wishes, Jessie."

"Thank you." Jessie was grateful the office would be empty when she arrived. She could have a good, healthy cry. "Take care of her, will you?" she murmured, and walked away.

Cody shut the door, then turned to see Abra standing in exactly the same spot. "A little rough on her, weren't you?"

"Stay out of it." She would have stormed into the bedroom, but he was quick enough to grab her arm.

"I don't think so." She was as rigid as ice, and just as cold. Except for her eyes. They boiled with emotion. "What's the problem here, Abra? Don't you figure your mother's free to marry whomever she chooses?"

"Absolutely. She's always been free. I want to finish getting ready for work."

"No." He kept his grip firm. "You're not going to work or anywhere until you get this out of your system."

"All right. You want me to get it out of my system? I'll get it out. She never changes." He heard the despair under the fury and gentled his hold. "It's the same pattern with her, over and over and over. First there was Jack, my father. He died before his twenty-fifth birthday." She pulled her arm free, then snatched a picture from the table. "He was the love of her life, to hear her tell it."

Feeling his way, he spoke carefully. "He's been gone a long time. She's entitled to go on living."

"Oh, she's gone right along. Speeding right along. It's been hard to keep up. Husband number two. Bob." She plucked up another picture. "I was, oh, about six when she decided she was free to marry him. That one lasted two, maybe three years. Hard to keep track." She dropped those pictures to grab another. "Then we have Jim. Let's not forget Jim, husband number three. Now before him, there were three or four others, but she never got around to marrying them. Jim managed a convenience store. They met over a carton of soft drinks and were married six months later. And that's about how long they were together afterward. Jessie doesn't really count Jim. She didn't bother to keep his name.

"Then there was Bud. Good old Bud Peters. I don't seem to have a picture of him, but this is Jessie on the day they were married."

Abra swooped it up, knocking several other photographs on their faces. "Bud sold shoes and liked to putter around the house. He wasn't a man to set the world on fire, but I liked him. I guess Jessie liked him, too, before they were together almost seven years. That's a record." She set the photo back. "Good old Bud Peters holds the record."

Cody took her shoulders, massaging them gently. "It's her life, Red."

"It was my life, too," she said passionately. "Damn it, it was my life, too. Do you have any idea what it's like never knowing what last name your mother's going to use, or wondering which 'uncle' is going to be your next stepfather? What house or apartment you're going to live in? What school?"

"No." He thought of the steady and stable marriage of his parents, of the close-knit unit that was his family. "No, I don't. But you're a grown woman now. Your mother's marriage doesn't have to affect you."

"It's the same pattern, over and over. Don't you see? I've watched her fall in and out of love faster than a high-school cheerleader. And every time she gets married or divorced she says the same thing. This is going to be best for all of us. But it was never best, not for me. Now she comes here to tell me about this after it's already done. I always heard about these things after the die was cast."

He held her tighter. "If she's had poor judgment, Abra, it doesn't mean she doesn't love you."

"Oh, she loves me." Now that the venom was out, she felt hollow. Her voice sagged, and her resistance with it. "In her way. It was just never the way I needed. It's okay." She pulled back. The tears that had threatened were under control now, and so was she. "You're right. I'm overreacting. I'll talk to her, to them both, when they get back." She pushed her hands over her face and back into her hair. "I'm sorry, Cody. I took it out on you."

"No, you didn't. You just let it out."

"I guess I'm being stupid. And selfish."

"No, you're not. Just human." He stroked a hand over her cheek, wondering just how badly those early years had hurt her and how many hurts were left. "Come here." As he spoke, he pulled her into his arms and held her, just held her, until she relaxed against him. "I'm crazy about you."

He couldn't see the rush of emotions that came into her eyes. "Really?"

"Absolutely. I've been thinking that when things settle here you ought to come east - for a while," he added, not wanting to scare her off. "You can take a look at the house I'm building, give me a hard time about the design. Look at the ocean."

If she went east with him, would she ever

be able to leave again? She didn't want to think about that, about endings and goodbyes. "I think I'd like that." With a sigh, she rested her head on his shoulder. "I'd like you to show me the ocean. 1 haven't had a chance to show you the desert yet."

"We could go AWOL today."

Her lips curved against his throat before she stepped back. He'd helped. By being there to lean on he'd helped her stand up again. "I don't think so. It wouldn't be right for me to neglect my mother's new husband's resort."

She was in a much better frame of mind by the time they reached the site. Without Cody - without his just being there - Abra knew she might have stayed depressed and angry for days. He was good for her. She wished she knew how to tell him how good without putting pressure on their relationship.

So far he seemed perfectly content to follow the blueprints she'd set up. There had been no promises, no talk of the future, no pretense about happy-ever-after. The invitation to visit back east had been casual enough that she felt safe in accepting.

Now, as so often happened on the site, he went his way and she hers. Later they would share the night.

She was coming to count on that, to depend on it, Abra thought as she made her way to the cabanas. It wasn't wise, it wasn't safe, but then there had to be some risks involved.

"Tunney." Abra nodded to the electrical foreman, then stood, hands on hips, studying the framework of the cabanas. "How's it going?"

"Pretty good, Ms. Wilson." He rubbed the back of his hand over his mouth. He was a big man who was running to fat, and he was sweating freely. As he watched Abra he took out a bandanna and wiped his face. "I thought you were still busy at the health club."

"I wanted to check things here." She stepped closer. Tunney kept at her shoulder. "You think the wiring's going to be done on schedule? Thornway's a little nervous."

"Yeah, sure. You might want to take a look at those units over there." He gestured to a section across what would be a courtyard. "The carpenters are really moving on it."

"Umm-hmm." Because she'd yet to find time to go through a unit, she walked forward. "I haven't checked with -  Damn." She snagged her boot on a curled scrap of wire. "These places need to be squared away. Safety inspector would slap our wrists for that."

She would have reached down for the wire herself, but Tunney was ahead of her. "You gotta watch your step." He tossed the scrap into a trash drum.

"Yeah. This delivery just come in?" Abra gestured to three huge spools of wire. "As long as the suppliers keep ahead of us, we'll be fine." Absently she leaned against one of the spools.

She liked the look of the site, liked the ring of buttes and mesas constructed by time and nature that cupped the spreading growth conceived by man's imagination and sweat. This was building to her. This was what had drawn her. When a person could stand under the wide arch of sky and see progress - the right kind of progress - it brought hope, as well as satisfaction.

Though she hadn't told him yet, she'd begun to see and understand Cody's vision. A little magic, a little fantasy, here in one of the harshest and most beautiful spots in the country. There were still coyotes in the hills, snakes in the rocks, but man belonged here. When the resort was finished, it wouldn't simply merge with the desert, it would celebrate it.

That was what he had seen. That was what she was coming to understand.

"It's going to be quite a place, isn't it?"

"Guess it is." He was shifting his weight from one foot to the other as he watched her.

"Ever take a weekend in one of these places, Tunney?"

"Nope." He wiped his face again.

"Me either." She smiled at him. "We just build them, right?"

"Guess so."

He wasn't the most expansive of men, and she sensed his impatience. "I'm keeping you from your work," she said. She tried to straighten, but the end of the wire caught at her jeans. "God, I'm a klutz today." She bent to free it before Tunney could reach her. Frowning, she pulled the length of wire out and ran it between her fingers. "Did you say this just came?"

"Right off the truck. Hour ago."

"Damn. Have you checked it?"

He looked down as she crouched to examine the wire. "No. Like I say, it was just off-loaded."

"Check it now." She waited while he bent beside her to take the cable in his hand.

"This ain't fourteen-gauge."

"No, it's not. I'd say twelve."

"Yes, ma'am." His face puckered as he straightened. "That'd be right."

Swearing, she walked over to the other reels. "These are all twelve, Tunney."

Breathing between his teeth, he pulled out his clipboard. "Fourteen-gauge on the order sheet, Ms. Wilson. Looks like somebody screwed up the delivery."

"I should have known it was too good to last." She straightened, wiping her palms on her thighs. "We can't use this, it's substandard. Call the supplier and see if they can deliver the fourteen-gauge right away. We don't want to fall behind."

"No, we sure don't. Easy mistake, though. Unit numbers almost match." He showed her the numbers on his invoice, then pointed to those stamped on the spool. "Can't tell twelve from fourteen by just looking."

"It's a good thing you can tell by feel, or else we might have had a mess on our hands." She shaded her eyes with her hands as she looked toward the cabanas. "Any chance some might have slipped by you?"

He balled the bandanna back in his pocket. "I've been in the business eighteen years."

"Right. Still, you might - " She broke off when she heard a crash of glass and a scream. "Oh, my God." She raced across the distance to the health club, following the sound of men shouting. . She was breathing hard by the time she reached it. Pushing her way through, she spotted Cody leaning over the bleeding body of one of the workers.

Her heart rose up to block her throat. "How bad?" She thought she recognized him vaguely. He was young, maybe twenty, with a long sweep of dark hair and a tough, tanned body.

"Can't tell." Cody's voice was curt. The only thing he was sure of was that the kid was breathing. For now. "An ambulance is on the way."

"What happened?" Her boots crunched over vicious shards of broken glass as she moved to kneel beside him.

"Seems like he was on the scaffold inside, finishing some wiring. Lost his balance, took a bad step, I don't know. He went right through the window." Cody looked up, and his mouth was grim as fury and frustration ripped through him. "He fell a good twenty feet."

She wanted to do something, anything. "Can't we get him off this glass?"

"His back could be broken, or his neck. We can't move him."

Minutes later, when they heard the siren, Abra sprang into action. "Cody, get in touch with Tim. Let him know what happened. You men get back, give them room to do whatever they have to do." She wiped at the clammy skin of her brow. "What's his name?"

"It's Dave," somebody called out. "Dave Men-dez."

When the ambulance pulled up, Abra waved the men back. "How about family?"

"He's got a wife." One of the men who'd seen the fall drew jerkily on a cigarette. What had happened to Mendez could have happened to any of them. "Her name's Carmen."

"I'll take care of it," Cody told her as they watched the paramedics strap Mendez to a backboard.

"Thanks. I'm going to follow the ambulance in. Somebody should be there." Because her stomach was rolling, Abra pressed a steadying hand to it. "As soon as I know anything, I'll be in touch." After a quick word to one of the ambulance attendants, she raced for her car.

Thirty minutes later she was in a waiting room, pacing uselessly.

There were other people scattered through the room. One woman waited patiently, almost placidly, with her nose in a paperback. Abra continued to pace and wondered how anyone could sit in a hospital without going slowly crazy.

She didn't even know Mendez, and yet she knew him very well. She worked with men like him every day of her professional life. It was men like him who made reality out of what she and Cody put on paper.

He wasn't family, and yet he was. As she paced the room she prayed for him.

"Abra."

"Cody." She turned, hurrying forward. "I didn't think I'd see you."

"I brought the kid's wife in. She's signing some papers."

"I feel so useless. They won't tell me much of anything." She dragged her hands through her already-tousled hair. "How's his wife?"

"Terrified. Confused. She's trying to hold on. God, I don't think she's more than eighteen."

With a nod, Abra went back to pacing. "I'll hang around with her. She shouldn't wait alone. Did you call Tim?"

"Yes. He's upset. He said to keep him posted."

Abra opened her mouth, then shut it again. In Thornway's day, if an employee was badly hurt, he came himself. "Maybe I could talk to the doctor now." She started out of the room just as a young, pregnant woman stepped in.

"Senor Johnson?"

Cody slipped an arm around her shoulders. She was trembling as he led her to a chair. ' 'Abra, this is Carmen Mendez."

"Mrs. Mendez." Abra reached out to take both of her hands. They were very small, like a child's - and very cold. "I'm Abra Wilson, the engineer on the project. I'm going to stay with you, if you like. Is there anyone else you want me to call?"

"Mi madre."
Tears flowed down her face as she spoke. "She lives in Sedona."

"Can you give me the number?" Abra asked gently.

"Si." But she only sat

there, weeping silently.

Moving to the couch, Abra put an arm around her and began to speak in low, fluent Spanish. Nodding and twisting a tattered tissue, Carmen answered. After a moment, Abra patted her shoulder, then gestured to Cody.

"They've been married less than a year," Abra said in an undertone as they moved to the corridor. "She's six months pregnant. She was too upset to really understand what the doctor told her, but they've taken Mendez to surgery."

"Want me to see what else I can find out?"

She leaned forward to kiss his cheek. "Thanks. Oh, her mother's number." Pulling a notebook from her pocket, she scribbled in it.

Abra went back to Carmen, sitting with her, offering what comfort she could. When Cody returned he brought little new information. They spent the next four hours waiting with a television murmuring in a wall bracket nearby.

Cody poured coffee from the pot kept on a warming plate in the waiting room, and Abra urged cups of tea on Carmen. "You should eat," she murmured, closing her hand over Carmen's before she could protest. "For the baby. Why don't I get you something?"

"After they come. Why don't they come?"

"It's hard to wait, I know." The words were hardly out of her mouth when she saw the doctor, still in his surgical scrubs. Carmen saw him, too, and her fingers tightened like a vise on Abra's.

"Mrs. Mendez?" He walked over to sit on the table in front of her. "Your husband's out of surgery."

In her fear she lost her English and sent out a stream of desperate Spanish.

"She wants to know how he is," Abra said. "If he's going to be all right."

"We've stabilized him. We had to remove his spleen, and there was some other internal damage, but he's very young and very strong. He's still critical, and he lost a considerable amount of blood from the internal injuries and the lacerations. His back was broken."

Carmen closed her eyes. She didn't understand about spleens and lacerations. She only understood that her David was hurt. "Por favor, is he going to die?"

"We're going to do everything we can for him. But his injuries are very serious. He's going to be with us for a while. We'll monitor him closely."

"I can see him?" Carmen asked. "I can see him now?"

"Soon. We'll come for you as soon as he's out of Recovery."

"Thank you." Carmen wiped her eyes. "Thank you. I will wait."

Abra caught the doctor before he stepped back into the corridor. "What are his chances?"

"To be candid, I would have said they were very poor when you brought him in. I had my doubts that he'd survive the surgery. But he did and, as I said, he's strong."

She would have to be content with that. "Will he walk?"

"It's early to say, but I have every hope." He flexed his fingers, which were obviously still cramped from surgery. "He'll need extensive therapy."

"We'll want him to have whatever he needs. I don't think Mrs. Mendez understands about the insurance. Thornway has excellent coverage of medical expenses."

"Then I'll tell you frankly there'll be plenty of them. But with time and care he'll recover."

"That's what we want. Thank you, Doctor."

Abra leaned against the doorway and let her body go limp.

"You okay?"

She reached for Cody's hand. "Pretty good now. I was scared. He's so young."

"You were wonderful with her."

Abra glanced back to where Carmen sat on the couch composing herself. "She just needed someone to hold her hand. If I were in her position, I'd hate to wait alone. They're just kids." Weary, she rested her head on Cody's shoulder. "She was telling me how happy they were about the baby, how they were saving for furniture, how good it was that he had steady work."

"Don't." Cody brushed a tear from her lashes. "They're going to be fine."

"I felt so helpless. I hate feeling helpless."

"Let me take you home."

She shook her head, surprised by the sudden draining fatigue. "I don't want to leave her yet."

"We'll wait until her mother gets here."

"Thanks. Cody?"

"Yeah?"

"I'm glad you hung around."

He put his arms around her. "Red, sooner or later you're going to figure out that you can't get rid of me."

* * *

Later, when the sun was going down, Cody sat in a chair in her apartment and watched her as she curled up on the couch and slept. She'd exhausted herself. He hadn't known she could. He hadn't, he added as he lit a cigarette and let his own body relax, realized a good many things about her.

The explosion he'd witnessed after her mother's announcement that morning had told him a great deal. It hadn't been just the one incident, the one betrayal, that had made her so wary of relationships. It was her whole life.

How difficult would it be to trust yourself, to trust a man, after living in broken home after broken home? Damn near impossible, the way Cody figured. But she was with him. Maybe she still set up boundaries, but she was with him. That counted for something.

It was going to take time - more than he'd planned on - but he was going to see that she stayed with him.

Rising, he walked over to her and gathered her up in his arms.

"What?" Roused, she blinked her eyes open.

"You're worn out, Red. Let me tuck you in."

"I'm okay." She nuzzled her head in the curve of his shoulder. "I just needed a nap."

"You can finish it in bed." When he laid her down, she curled into almost the same position she'd been in on the couch. Sitting at the foot of the bed, Cody unlaced her shoes.

"I was dreaming," she murmured.

"About what?" He sat her shoes on the floor, then unbuttoned her jeans.

"I don't know exactly. But it was nice." She sighed, hoping she could find her way back to the dream. "Are you seducing me?"

He looked at the long line of her legs and at her narrow hips, which were bare but for a brief triangle of practical cotton. "Not at the moment."

She rubbed her cheek against the pillow, comfortably drowsy. "How come?"

"Mostly because I like seducing you when you're awake." He drew the sheet over her and bent to kiss the top of her head. He would have stepped back, but she reached for his hand.

"I'm awake." Her eyes were still closed, but her lips curved. "Almost."

He sat on the bed again, contenting himself with stroking her hair. "Is that a request?"

"Umm-hmm. I don't want you to go."

Cody pulled off his boots, then slipped into bed to hold her. "I'm not going anywhere."

Her arms curled around him as she settled her body against his. Then she lifted her lips to his. "Will you love me?"

"I do," he murmured, but she was already drifting with the kiss.

The light lowered, softened, glowed gold. She moved to him with the ease and familiarity of a longtime wife. Her fingers grazed him, exciting as the touch of a new lover. They didn't speak again, didn't need to.

Her lips were warm, softened by sleep, as they moved over his. Her taste was more than familiar now, it was a part of him, something he could draw in like his own breath. He lingered there, nibbling, then demanding, teasing, then taking, while she worked her way down the buttons of his shirt.

She wanted to touch him, to feel his strength beneath her hand. It was strange that she felt safe here, in his arms, when she'd never realized she needed safety. Protected, wanted, cared for, desired. He gave her all that, and she'd never had to ask. His heart beat fast and steady. The pulse of it against her was like an echo of her own.

This was what she had dreamed of - not just the pleasure, not only the excitement, but the simple security of being with the man she loved.

Cradling his face in her hands, she tried to show him what she was afraid to tell him.

She was overwhelming. Even though the loving was slow, almost lazy, she took his breath away. There seemed to be no bounds to her generosity. It flowed from her like honey, warm and thick and sweet.

No hurry. No rush. The shadows washed the room until the gold faded to a soft, soft gray. There was no sound but his lover's sigh and the quiet shifting of her body over the sheets. He looked at her as evening fell and the light faded. Her eyes, aroused now, no longer sleepy, were like the shadows - darkening, deepening.

Very slowly, as though some part of him knew he would need to remember this moment on some cold, lonely day, he combed his fingers through her hair until her face was unframed. Then he just looked and looked, while the breath trembled through her parted lips. Slowly, almost painfully, he lowered his head, his eyes on hers, watching, watching, until their lips parted, separated and were drawn back together.

With a small, helpless sound she pulled him closer, almost afraid of what his tenderness was doing to her.

But the demand didn't come, only the gift. There were tears in her eyes now, and an ache in her throat, as the beauty weakened her. She spoke again, but only his name, as the emotions that were flooding her poured out.

Then they were clinging together, as survivors of a storm might cling to one another. It was as if they couldn't touch enough, couldn't take enough. Wrapped tight, mouths seeking, they rolled over the bed. Sheets tangled and were ripped aside. Their tenderness was replaced by a greed that was every bit as devastating.

With their fingers locked, their needs fused, she rose over him, sliding down to take him into her. When he filled her she arched back, crying out. Not helplessly, but triumphantly.

Caught in the last light of day, they swept each other toward dusk and the welcoming night.