Best Laid Plans - Chapter Three

He had other things to think about. Cody let the hot spray of the shower beat over his head and reminded himself that Abra Wilson wasn't his problem. A problem she undoubtedly was, but not his.

Women that skittish were best avoided, particularly when they had those pretty feminine looks that contrasted with a mean temper. The Barlow project was giving him enough headaches. He didn't need to add her to the list.

But then, she was mighty easy to look at. Cody smiled to himself as he turned off the shower. Easy to look at didn't mean easy to handle. Usually he appreciated challenges, but just now he had enough on his plate. Now that his partner was married and expecting his first baby, Cody was doing what he could to shoulder the excess. With business booming, the excess meant twelve-hour days. In addition to overseeing the construction of the resort, there were innumerable phone calls to make and take, telegrams to send and receive, decisions, approvals and rejections.

He didn't mind the responsibility or the long hours. He was grateful for them. It didn't take much prodding for him to remember the boy who had grown up on a muddy farm on the Georgia-Florida border. The boy had wanted more, and the man had worked to get it.

Come a long way, Cody thought as he knotted the towel at his waist. His body was lean, the torso tanned. He still worked outdoors, though that was from choice now, rather than necessity. It wasn't only drawing boards and dreams with Cody. There was a house on a lake in Florida that was half-built. He was determined to finish it himself. A matter of pride now, rather than lack of funds.

The money was there, and he'd never deny he enjoyed its benefits. Still, he'd grown up working with his hands, and he couldn't seem to break the habit. He corrected himself. He didn't want to break the habit. There were times when he enjoyed nothing more than the feel of a hammer or a piece of wood in his hand.

He dragged his fingers through his wet hair. They were callused, as they'd been since childhood. He could run a tractor even now, but he preferred a slide rule or a power saw.

He strode into the bedroom of his hotel suite. The suite was nearly as big as the home he'd grown up in. He'd gotten used to the space, to the small luxuries, but he didn't take them for granted. Because he'd grown up skirting poverty he's learned to appreciate good material, good food, good wine. Perhaps he appredated them with a more discerning eye than someone who had been born to the good life. But he didn't think about that.

Work, talent and ambition were the keys, with a bit of luck thrown in. Cody remembered that luck could change, so he never avoided work.

He had come a long way from digging in the mud to make a living. Now he could dream, imagine and create - as long as he didn't forget that making dreams reality meant getting your hands dirty. He could lay a score of brick if it was required, mix mortar, pound in a stud or drive a rivet. He'd worked his way through college as a laborer. Those years had given him not only a practical bent toward building but a respect for the men who sweated to create them.

Which brought him back to Abra. She understood construction workers. He knew firsthand that many of the people who worked at drawing boards forgot the men who hammered the nails and hauled the bricks. But not Abra. Thoughtfully he slipped into a white terry-cloth robe with the vague notion of calling room service and eating in. Abra Wilson, he mused. She would have gone to the wall to get an extra thirty minutes' break for the men. She was a fiend about checking the water supply and the salt tablets.

She was also a woman who would step in between two angry construction workers to break up a fight. Or pour beer over the head of an insubordinate employee. The memory made him grin. No drinking on the job. And she'd meant what she'd said.

He appreciated that. He was a man who preferred frankness to subtleties in both his business and his personal life. She wasn't a woman who would play flirting games or give teasing hints. She would say yes or she would say no.

As she had on the side of the road, he remembered. She'd said no, Cody mused, and she'd wanted to say yes. Discovering the reasons for the contradiction would be interesting work. It was a pity he could only fit Abra into the business slot. They might have had some fun together, he thought, dragging a hand through his still-damp hair. The trouble was, she was too uptight to settle back and have a good time. Perhaps it would be fair to say that she was too honest to take intimacy on a casual level. He couldn't fault her for that, which made one more reason to keep things on a business plane.

And there was too much friction. Friction usually led to a spark, and a spark to a blaze. He didn't have the time to fight fires just now.

With a glance at the clock on the bedside table he calculated the time back east. It was far too late to make any calls to the East Coast. That meant he'd have to get up at five, pull himself together and make all the necessary calls and connections between 6:00 and 7:00 a.m.

With a shrug, he decided that what was called for was a quick room-service meal and an early night. Just as he picked up the phone, the buzzer sounded at his door.

If there was one person he hadn't been expecting, it was Abra.

She stood there, balancing a brown grocery bag on one hip. Her hair was loose - it was the first time he'd seen it unbraided or unpinned - and curled wildly to her shoulders. She still wore jeans and a T-shirt, but she'd changed from work boots to sneakers. The next surprise was that she was almost smiling.

"Hi," she managed. It was ridiculous, but she'd never been so nervous in her life.

"Hi." He leaned against the doorframe and took a long, lazy scan. "Passing by?"

"Not exactly." Her fingers dug into the stiff brown paper bag. The telltale rattle made her relax them again. "Can I come in?"

"Sure." He stepped back, and she stepped through. From behind her, she heard the door click closed. Her heart jerked with it. "This is nice."

The living room of the suite was done in desert colors, mauves and umbers and creams. There were sketches on the walls and narrow louvered blinds at the windows. The room smelled of soap. He smelled of soap. Abra braced herself to turn.

"I wanted to apologize."

His brow lifted in an unconscious gesture as he studied her. She was doing her best, Cody realized, and hating every minute of it. Amused, he decided to draw the scene out.

"For what?"

She nearly ground her teeth. On the trip over she had prepared herself for the likelihood that he wouldn't make it easy. "For being rude and ungrateful this afternoon."

Cody slipped his hands into the pockets of his robe. "Just this afternoon?"

Venom nearly poured out, and it was hard to swallow. An apology was due, and she was damn well going to get it over with. "Yes. We're dealing with a specific instance. You helped me this afternoon, and I was ungrateful and unkind. I was wrong, and when I am I like to think I can admit it." Without asking, she moved over to the counter that separated the living space from the kitchenette. "I brought you some beer."

"To drink or to wear?" he asked when she pulled out a six pack.

"Up to you." She broke down enough to smile, really smile. The flecks in her eyes brightened. Her lips softened as if by magic. Cody felt his heart stop for two full beats. "I didn't know whether you'd eaten, so I tossed in a meatball sub and some fries."

"You brought me dinner?"

Uncomfortable, she shrugged. "It's no big deal, just a sandwich." She pulled out a twelve-inch tube wrapped in white paper.

"Some sandwich."

"Yeah." She took out the Styrofoam dish that held the french fries. If it killed her, she told herself, she was going to get the words out. And it might kill her, she thought, if he kept looking at her as though he'd rather nibble on her than the sub. "I wanted to thank you for acting so quickly this afternoon. I don't know whether I'd have gotten out of the way in time or not, but that's not the issue. The fact is, you made certain I wasn't hurt, and I never really thanked you at the time. I guess I was more shaken up than I realized."

As he had been, Cody thought. He crossed over to stand beside her. She was holding the empty bag, folding and unfolding it. The gesture showed him more than words could have how much it had cost her to come. He took the bag from her and tossed it on the counter.

"You could have written that down in a nice little note and slipped it under the door. But I don't suppose that's your style." He resisted the urge to touch her hair, knowing it would be a mistake for both of them. He would only want to touch her more, and she already looked as though she'd jump out of her shoes at the first advance. Instead, he pulled a bottle out of the pack and turned it to read the label. "Want a


She hesitated only briefly. It looked as if he was going to make it easy for her after all. "Sure."

"Half a meatball sub?"

She relaxed and smiled again. "I could probably choke it down."

A truce, undeclared but understood, had been negotiated. They shared cold beer and spicy meatballs on Cody's terrace. A small in-ground spa swirled silently at their feet. Orange and red blossoms, their scent heavy, trailed up and along the high walls that closed them in. The sun was low, and the air was cooling.

"All the comforts of home," Abra mused as she sipped her beer.

Cody thought about his house, where everything was familiar, where so many walls were still unfinished and so many yards of trim were still unpainted. "Not quite home. But it's the next best thing."

Abra stretched the toes of her sneakers toward the water. Lord, she'd like to sink into that, close her eyes and let every muscle hum. With a soft sigh of regret, she dismissed the idea. "You do much traveling?"

"Enough. You?"

"Not really. Well, around the state. Up into Utah a couple of times. I like hotels."


She was relaxed enough to ignore his smirk. She bit into the sub and savored the blending of meat, sauce and cheese. "I like being able to take a shower and go out and come back to find fresh towels. Ordering room service and eating in bed. Stuff like that. You must like them, too." She watched him tilt back his beer. "You don't strike me as someone who'd keep doing something he didn't care for."

"I don't mind moving around." The fries were greasy and loaded with salt. Perfect. He took two. "I like knowing I've got some place to go back to, that's all."

She understood that very well, though it surprised her that he felt the sentiment - and the need. "Have you always lived in Florida?"

"Yeah. Can't say I care much for the snow-shoveling, finger-numbing weather in the North. I like the sun."

"Me too." She dug out fries. "It only rains here a handful of times a year. Rain's an event." With a grin, she finished off her half of the sub. The best meal, she had to admit, she'd had in weeks. It was hard to believe, but his company wasn't such a trial after all. She settled back to nurse her beer and wait for nightfall. "I'd like to see the ocean, though."

"Which one?"

"Any one."

Her eyes were gray in this light, he noted. Gray and a little sleepy. "It's a short flight to the West Coast."

"I know." She moved her shoulders and continued to watch the sky darken. "I always figured I needed a bigger reason to make the trip."


"I've been pushing pretty hard the last few years. This may be the age of women's liberation, but there are still walls to break down when you're an engineer who happens to be a woman."

"Why are you an engineer?"

He reached lazily for more fries, and so did she. Their fingers brushed companionably. "I always liked to figure out how things worked - or what to do to make them work better. I was good with numbers. I like the logic of them. If you put them together and figure out the formula, you're always going to come up with the right answer."

"The right answer's not always the best answer."

Crossing her legs at the ankles, she turned her head enough to study his face in the lowering light. "That's artistic thinking, which is why an architect needs a good engineer to keep him on track."

He took a lazy swallow of beer and smiled at her. "Is that what you're doing, Red? Keeping me on track?"

"It isn't easy. Take the design of the health club."

"I figured you'd get around to it."

Mellowed by the casual meal, she ignored his sarcasm. "The waterfall on the east wall. We'll overlook the fact that it's an impractical piece of fancy."

"You've got something against waterfalls?"

"This is the desert, Johnson."

"Ever hear of an oasis?"

She sighed, determined to be patient. It was a nice night. The food had been good, and the company more pleasant than she'd expected. "I'll give you your little whimsy."

"Bless you for that."

"But if you'd put it on the west wall, as I requested - "

"It doesn't work on the west wall," he said. "You need the windows on the west wall for the evening light, the sunsets. And the view's best in the west."

"I'm talking about logistics. Think plumbing."

"I leave that up to you. You think plumbing, I'll think aesthetics, and we'll get along fine."

Typical, typical, typical, she thought with a shake of her head. "Cody, my point is that this project could have been half as difficult as it is with a few minor adjustments."

The challenging light had come back into her eyes. He nearly smiled. The evening wouldn't have been complete without at least one argument. "If you're afraid of hard work, you should have found another profession."

That had her head snapping up, and her eyes, already filled with anger, narrowing. "I'm not afraid to work, and I'm damn good at what I do. It's people like you, who come along with your six-story egos, refusing to make any adjustments, who make things impossible."

He had a temper of his own, but he managed -  barely - to check it. "It's not my ego that keeps me from making adjustments. If I made them, I wouldn't be doing the job I'd been hired to do."

"You call it professional integrity, I call it ego."

"And you're wrong," he said with deceptive calm. "Again."

She could have drawn in then and tried tact and subtlety - if she had thought of it. "Are you telling me it would have compromised your integrity to move that silly waterfall from east to west?"


"That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. But typical," she said, rising to pace the tiny walled-in terrace. "God knows it's typical. Sometimes I think architects worry more about the color of paint than stress points."

He watched her as she paced. Her stride was long and loose, the kind that ate up ground from point to point easily. A woman going places, he mused. But he wasn't about to be walked over so that she could get there.

"You've got a bad habit of generalizing, Red."

"Don't call me Red," she muttered, then tugged an orange blossom off the vine. "I'll be glad when this project's finished and I'm out on my own. Then I can pick what architect I want to work with."

"Good luck. It might just be difficult for you to find one who's willing to put up with temper tantrums and nit-picking."

She whirled back. She knew she had a temper. She wouldn't deny it or apologize for it. But as to the rest... "I don't nitpick. It's not nit-picking to make a suggestion that would save laying an extra hundred feet of pipe. And only an egocentric, hardheaded architect would see it that way."

"You've got a problem, Ms. Wilson." He saw and enjoyed the way she stiffened at that. "You've got a low opinion of people in my profession, but as long as you pursue yours, you're stuck with us."

She mangled the flower she was holding. "Not everyone in your field's an idiot. There are some excellent architects in Arizona."

"So it's just architects from back east you don't like."

She wasn't going to let him put words in her mouth and make her sound like a fool. "I have no idea why Tim felt he had to hire a firm from out of state to begin with. But since he did, I'm doing my best to work with you."

"Your best could use some polishing up." Setting his beer aside, he rose. His face was in shadows, but she could tell by his stance that he was as angry as she was, and primed for a fight. "If you've got any other complaints, why don't you get them out now while there's just the two of us?"

She tossed the bruised flower, like a gauntlet, between them. "All right, I will. It infuriates me that you didn't bother to come out for any of the preliminary meetings. I was against hiring an East Coast firm, but Tim wouldn't listen. The fact that you were unavailable made things more complicated. Meanwhile, I've got to deal with Gray, who bites his fingernails and is always looking up codes or shuffling papers. Then you come out and swagger around like the cock of the walk, refusing to modify even one line of your precious design."

He took a step toward her, out of the shadows. He was angry, all right, she noted. It

was just her luck that his temper made him more attractive. "In the first place, I had a very good reason for missing the preliminary meetings. Good personal reasons that I don't feel obligated to discuss with you." He took another step. "The fact that your employer hired my firm over your objections is your problem, not mine."

"I prefer to think of it as his mistake, not mine."

"Fine." When he took the next step toward her, she had to fight back the urge to retreat. His eyes could be very dark, she discovered, very intense. He didn't remind her of a casual beachcomber now, or an easygoing cowboy. More like a gunslinger, she realized, but she held her ground. "As to Gray, he might be young and annoying, but he also works hard."

She felt a flush of shame and jammed her hands into her pockets. "I didn't mean..."

"Forget it." He took a final step that brought him so close that their bodies nearly brushed. Abra kept her jaw set and her eyes on his. "And I don't swagger."

She had a ridiculous urge to laugh, but something in his eyes warned her that that was the most dangerous thing she could do. Instead, she swallowed and lifted both brows. "You mean you don't do it on purpose?"

She was baiting him, plain and simple. He hadn't missed the light of amusement in her eyes. She wanted to laugh at him, and he'd be damned if she'd get away with it. "I don't do it at all. You, on the other hand, put on that hard hat and those steel-toed boots and stomp around the site trying to prove how tough you can be."

She opened her mouth in utter astonishment, then snapped it closed. "I don't stomp, and I don't have to prove anything to anyone. I'm doing the job I was trained to do."

"Then you do yours and I'll do mine."

"Fine. See you at sunup."

She started to spin toward the door, and he caught her by the arm. He didn't know what demon had prompted him to do it, to stop her when her angry exit would have been best for both of them. Now it was too late. The move was already made. Their faces were close, his hand was tight on her arm, and their bodies were turned toward each other. A half moon was rising. Outside the walls a woman's laugh ebbed and flowed as a couple strolled by beneath its light.

The friction had given birth to a spark - no, dozens of sparks, Cody thought as he felt them singe his skin. The heat from them was quick and dangerous, but still controllable. If he fanned them, they would flame. And then...

The hell with it, he thought as he closed his mouth over hers.

She was braced. She was ready. The desire and the intent had been plain to see as they'd stood there for that long, silent moment. Abra was honest enough to admit that the desire had been there all along. It had cut through her time and time again. So she was braced. She was ready.

It didn't do any good.

She should have been able to hold back her response, something she'd always been able to give or subdue as she chose. As she chose. It was frightening to learn in one split second that the choice wasn't always there. Response ripped out of her before a decision could be made and shattered her opinion of her own free will.

She was holding on to him without any recollection of having reached out. Her body was pressed hard against his without any memory of having moved at all. When her lips parted it was as much in demand as in invitation. His rough answer was exactly what she wanted.

He dragged her against him, amazed that need could rise from a simmer to a boil so quickly. Another surprise. What flared between them came as much from her as from him. She hadn't protested or struggled angrily away, but had met him force for force, passion for passion. With temper adding an edge to desire, he caught her hair in his hands and took as ruthlessly as his need demanded.

He nipped at her lip. Her low, throaty moan was as arousing as the play of her tongue over his. Now he gave himself freedom, letting his hands run over her, testing, tormenting, taking. Her body shuddered against his, then pressed closer. She didn't hold back, didn't seem to believe in it.

She should think, oh, she knew she should think. But it wasn't possible when her pulse was pounding in her head and her muscles were like water. How could She think when his taste was spreading through her, filling her?

He was as breathless as she when they drew apart. She was as willing as he when they came together for one last long, lingering kiss. When they parted again they stayed close, his hands on her shoulders, hers on his arms. Anger defused, passion ignited, leaving them both weak.

"What are we going to do about this?" Cody asked her.

She could only shake her head. It was too soon to think and too late not to.

"Why don't you sit down?"

She shook her head again before he could lead her to a chair. "No. No, I don't want to sit." It was harder than she'd thought it would be to step away from him. "I've got to go."

"Not quite yet." He needed a cigarette. He fumbled in the pockets of his robe and swore when he found his hands weren't steady. It amazed and infuriated him. "We have to resolve this, Abra."

She watched the match spark and flame, then drew a steadying breath. Flames could be lit, she reminded herself, and they could be put out just as easily. "It shouldn't have happened."

"That's beside the point."

It hurt, more than a little, that he hadn't disagreed with her. But of course he couldn't, she told herself. She was right. "No, I think that is the point." In frustration she dragged both hands through her hair, and he remembered all too clearly what it had felt like tangled around his own hands. "It shouldn't have happened, but it did, and now it's over. I think we're both too sensible and too professional to let it get in the way of our working relationship."

"Do you?" He should have known she'd handle this the same way she would a fouled-up order for concrete. "Maybe you're right. Maybe. But you're an idiot if you think it won't happen again."

She had to be careful, very careful. It wasn't easy to speak calmly when her lips were still warm and swollen from his. "If it does, we'll simply have to deal with it - separately from business."

"We agree on something." Cody blew out a long stream of smoke. "What happened just now had nothing to do with business." Through the screen of smoke his eyes met hers and held them. "But that's not going to stop me from wanting you during working hours."

She felt a warning chill race up her spine. It made her straighten her shoulders. "Look, Cody, this is -  was - a momentary thing. Maybe we were attracted, but - "


"All right, all right." She tried to find the right words. "I have to think of my future. We both know there's nothing more difficult, or awkward, than becoming involved with an associate."

"Life's rough," he murmured, and pitched his cigarette high over the wall. He watched the glow fly up and arc before he turned back to her. "Let's get something straight, Red. I kissed you and you kissed me right back. And it felt damn good. I'm going to want to kiss you again, and a lot more than that. What I'm not going to do is wait until it's convenient for you."

"You make all the decisions?" she snapped. "You make all the moves?"

He considered a moment. "Okay."

Fury didn't make her speechless. Taking a step forward, she poked a finger at his chest. "It's not okay, you arrogant pinhead. I kissed you back because I wanted to, because I liked it. If I kiss you again it'll be for the same reasons, not because you set the time and place. If I go to bed with you, the same rules hold. Got that straight?"

She was wonderful. Infuriating, but wonderful. He managed not to grab her. Instead, he grinned. When a woman called a spade a spade, you couldn't argue. "Straight as an arrow," he agreed. He tucked an errant strand of hair behind her ear. "Glad you liked it."

The sound that hissed out between her teeth was anything but pleased. His grin just widened. Rather than punch him in the face, she knocked his hand aside and turned for the door.


She yanked the door open and stood gripping the knob. "What?"

"Thanks for dinner."

The door slammed at her back, and then he did laugh. He waited ten seconds and heard the front door of the suite slam in turn. On impulse, he stripped off his robe and, turning on the timer for the spa, eased into the hot, bubbling water. He hoped it would soothe out the aches she'd left him with and clear his mind enough to let him think.