She was definitely worth a second look.
There were more reasons – more basic reasons – than the fact that she was one of the few women on the building site. It was human nature for a man's eyes to be lured by the female form, especially when it was found in what was still predominantly a man's domain. True, a good many women donned hard hats to work construction, and as long as they could hammer a nail or lay a brick it didn't matter to Cody how they buttoned their shirts. But there was something about this particular woman that pulled his gaze back.
Style. Though she wore work clothes and stood on a mound of debris, she had it. Confidence, he mused as he rocked back on the worn heels of his boots. He supposed confidence was its own brand of style. It appealed to him as much – well, nearly as much – as black lace or white silk.
He didn't have the time to sit and speculate, though. He'd been almost a week late making the trip from Florida to Arizona to take over this project, and there was a lot of catching up to do. The morning was a busy one, with plenty of distractions: the noise of men and machines; orders being shouted and followed; cranes lifting heavy metal beams to form the skeleton of a building where there had been only rock and dirt; the vivid color of that rock and dirt under the white sun; even his own growing thirst. But he didn't mind distractions.
Cody had spent enough time on building sites to be able to look beyond the rubble, through what to the uninitiated might seem like confusion or even destruction. He saw instead the sweat, the strain, the thought and the possibilities.
But just now he found himself watching the woman. There were possibilities there, as well.
She was tall, he noted, five-nine or five-ten in her work boots, and lean rather than slender. Her shoulders looked strong under a dandelion-yellow T-shirt that was dark with sweat down the back. As an architect, he appreciated clean, economical lines. As a man, he appreciated the way her worn jeans fit snugly over her hips. Beneath a hard hat as bright as her shirt was a thick short braid the color of polished mahogany – one of his favorite woods to work with because of its beauty and richness.
He pushed his sunglasses farther up on his nose as the eyes behind them scanned her from hard hat to boot tip. Definitely worth a second look, he thought again, admiring the way she moved, with no wasted gestures as she leaned over to look through a surveyor's transit. There was a faint white outline worn into her back pocket, where he imagined she tucked her wallet. A practical woman, he decided. A purse would get in the way on the site.
She didn't have a redhead's pale, fragile complexion, but a warm, golden tan that probably came from the blistering Arizona sun. Wherever it came from, he approved, just as he approved of the long, somewhat sharp angles of her face. Her tough-looking chin was offset by elegant cheekbones, and both were balanced by a soft, unpainted mouth that was even now turning down.
He couldn't see her eyes because of the distance and the shade from the brim of her hat, but her voice as she called out an order was clear enough. It sounded more appropriate for quiet, misty nights than for sweaty afternoons.
Tucking his thumbs in the pockets of his jeans, he grinned. Yes, indeed, there were endless possibilities.
Unaware of his study, Abra continued to frown as she swiped an arm over her damp brow. The sun was merciless today. At 8:00 a.m., it was already blistering. Sweat rolled down her back, evaporated, then rolled again in a cycle she had learned to live with.
You could only move so fast in this heat, she thought. You could only haul so much metal and chip so much rock when the temperature hovered in the nineties. Even with water barrels filled and salt tablets dispensed, every day was a struggle to stay ahead of the clock. So far they were pulling it off, but… There couldn't be any buts, she reminded herself. The construction of this resort was the biggest thing she'd been involved with in her career, and she wasn't going to mess it up. It was her springboard.
Though she could have murdered Tim Thornway for tying Thornway Construction, and her, to such a tightly scheduled project. The penalty clauses were outrageous, and in the way Tim had of delegating he'd put the responsibility for avoiding them squarely on her shoulders.
Abra straightened as if she could actually feel the weight. It would take a miracle to bring the project in on time and under budget. Since she didn't believe in miracles, she accepted the long hours and hard days ahead. The resort would be built, and built on time, if she had to pick up hammer and saw herself. But this was the last time, she promised herself as she watched a steel girder rise majestically into place. After this project she was cutting her ties with Thornway and striking out on her own.
She owed them for giving her a shot, for having enough faith in her to let her fight her way up from assistant to structural engineer. It wasn't something she'd forget – not now, not ever. But her loyalty had been to Thomas Thornway. Now that he was gone, she was doing her best to see that Tim didn't run the business into the ground. But she'd be damned if she was going to baby-sit him for the rest of her career.
She took a moment to wish for one of the cold drinks stashed in the cooler, then picked her way around and over the rubble of construction to supervise the placing of the beams.
Charlie Gray, the ever-eager assistant Cody had found himself stuck with, all but tugged at his shirt. "Want me to tell Ms. Wilson you're here?" Cody tried to remember that he, too, had once been twenty-two and annoying.
"Got her hands full at the moment." Cody pulled out his cigarettes, then searched through two pockets before he found some matches. They were from some little hotel in Natchez and were damp with his own sweat.
"Mr. Thornway wanted you to get together."
Cody's lips curved a little. He'd just been thinking that it wouldn't be such a hardship to get together with Abra Wilson. "We'll get around to it." He struck a match, automatically curling his fingers around the flame, though there wasn't a breath of wind.
"You missed yesterday's meeting, so – "
"Yeah." The fact that he'd missed the meeting wouldn't cause him to lose any sleep. The design for the resort was Cody's, but when family problems had cropped up his partner had handled most of the preliminary work. Looking back at Abra, Cody began to think that was a shame.
There was a trailer parked a few yards away. Cody headed for it, with Charlie scrambling to keep up with him. He pulled a beer from a cooler, then pried the top off as he walked inside, where portable fans battled the heat. The temperature dropped a few precious degrees.
"I want to take a look at the plans for the main building again."
"Yes, sir, I have them right here." Like a good soldier, Charlie produced the tube of blueprints, then practically stood at attention. "At the meeting – " he cleared his throat " – Ms. Wilson pointed out a few changes she wanted made. From an engineering standpoint."
"Did she now?" Unconcerned, Cody propped himself on the thin, narrow cushions of the convertible couch. The sun had mercifully faded the vivid orange-and-green upholstery to a nearly inoffensive blur. He glanced around for an ashtray and settled on an empty cup, then unrolled the blueprints.
He liked the look of it, the feel of it. The building would be dome-shaped, topped by stained-glass at the apex. Floors of offices would circle a center atrium, giving a sense of open, unstructured space. Breathing room, he thought. What was the use of coming west if you didn't have room to take a breath? Each office would have thick tinted glass to hold out the brilliance of the sun while affording an unhampered view of the resort and the mountains.
On the ground level the lobby would curve in a half circle, making it easily accessible from the entrance, from the double-level bar and the glassed-in coffee shop.
Patrons could take the glass elevators or the winding staircase up a floor to dine in one of three restaurants, or they could venture a bit higher and explore one of the lounges.
Cody took a long swallow of his beer as he looked it over. He saw in it a sense of fantasy, even of humor, and more basically a marriage of the modern with the ancient. No, he couldn't see anything in his basic design that needed, or that he'd allow to be changed.
Abra Wilson, he thought, was going to have to grin and bear it.
When he heard the door of the trailer open, he glanced over. She was even better close up, Cody decided as Abra stepped inside. A little sweaty, a little dusty and, from the looks of her, a lot mad.
He was right about the mad. Abra had enough to do without having to chase down errant laborers taking unscheduled breaks. "What the hell are you doing in here?" she demanded as Cody lifted the can to his lips again. "We need everyone out there." She snatched the beer away before Cody could swallow. "Thorn-way isn't paying you to sit on your butt, and nobody on this project drinks on the job." She set the beer on the counter before she could be tempted to soothe her own dry throat with it.
"Ms. Wilson – "
"What?" Her patience in tatters, she turned on Charlie. "Oh, it's Mr. Gray, right? Hold on a minute." First things first, she thought as she rubbed her damp cheek against the sticky sleeve of her shirt. "Listen, pal," she said to Cody, "unless you want your walking papers, get yourself up and report to your foreman."
He grinned insolently at her. Abra felt reckless, unprofessional words bubble to her lips and battled them back with what control she had left. Just as she battled back the urge to jam her fist into his cocky chin.
A good-looking sonofa – She caught herself there, as well. Men with those kind of rough-and-ready looks always thought they could smile their way out of trouble – and they usually could. Not with her, though, Abra reminded herself. Still, it wouldn't do any good to threaten a union employee.
"You're not allowed in here." Frustrated, she bit the words off and snatched up the blueprints. Maybe if the morning had gone more smoothly she wouldn't have been ready to bite someone's – anyone's – head off. But he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. "And you certainly have no business poking around in these." She wondered what color his eyes were behind his dark glasses. If for no other reason than his continued grin, she would have been delighted to blacken them.
"Ms. Wilson…" Charlie said again, desperately.
"What, damn it?" She shook off his hand even as she reminded herself to be polite. The devil with polite, she thought. She was hot, tired, frustrated and delighted to have a target. "Have you got that illustrious architect of yours out of his hot tub yet, Gray? Thornway's interested in seeing this project move on schedule."
"Yes, you see – "
"Just a minute." Cutting him off again, she turned to Cody again. "Look, I told you to move. You speak English, don't you?"
He did, but not as she'd expected. Lazily, like a cat stretching before it jumps off a windowsill, he unfolded his body. It appeared that most of him was leg. He didn't look like a man afraid of losing his job as he sidled between the table and the sofa, plucking his beer from the counter. He took a long, easy sip, leaned against the compact refrigerator and grinned at her again.
"You're a tall one, aren't you, Red?"
Barely, just barely, she caught herself before her mouth fell open. Building might still be primarily a man's trade, but no one Abra worked with had the nerve to be condescending. At least not to her face. He was out, she told herself. Schedule or no schedule, union or no union, she was going to issue him his walking papers personally.
"Find your lunch bucket, get in your pickup and make tracks, jerk." She snatched his beer again, and this time she poured the contents on his head. Fortunately for Cody, there was only a swallow left. "File that with your union representative."
"Ms. Wilson…" Charlie's face had gone bone white, and his voice was shaking. "You don't understand."
"Take a walk, Charlie." Cody's voice was mild as he lifted a hand to tunnel his fingers through his damp hair.
"Yes, sir." More than willing to desert a sinking ship, Charlie fled. Because he did, and because he'd called the lanky, pretty-faced cowboy "sir," Abra began to suspect that she'd taken a wrong turn down a blind alley. Automatically her eyes narrowed and her shoulders tensed.
"I don't guess we've been introduced." Cody drew his shaded glasses off. She saw that his eyes were brown, a soft, golden brown. They weren't lit with anger or embarrassment. Rather, they assessed her with a flat neutrality. "I'm Cody Johnson. Your architect."
She could have babbled. She could have apologized. She could have laughed off the incident and offered him another beer. All three options occurred to her but, because of his calm, unblinking stare, were rejected. "Nice of you to stop by," she said instead.
A tough one, he decided, despite the hazel eyes and the sultry mouth. Well, he'd cracked tough ones before. "If I'd known what a warm reception I'd get, I'd have been here sooner."
"Sorry, we had to let the brass band go." Because she wanted to salvage her pride, she started to move past him, and discovered quickly that if she wanted to get to the door, the sofa or anywhere else she'd have to move through him. She didn't question why the prospect appealed to her. He was an obstacle, and obstacles were meant to be knocked down. An angling of her chin, very slight, was all she needed to keep her eyes level with his.
"Questions?" she asked him.
"Oh, a few." Like who do I have to kill to have you? Does your chin really take a punch as well as you think? And since when is a hard hat sexy? "Do you always pour beer on your men?"
"Depends on the man." Leaving it at that, she started by him again – and found herself lodged between him and the refrigerator. He'd only had to turn to accomplish it. He took a moment, keeping his eyes on hers. He didn't see fear or discomfort in them, only a spitting fury that made him want to grin again. So he did.
"Close quarters in here… Ms. Wilson."
She might be an engineer, she might be a professional who had come up the hard way and knew the ropes, but she was still a woman, and very much aware of the press of his body against hers, the hard line of hip, the solid length of thigh. Whatever her reaction might have been, the glint of amusement in his eyes erased it.
"Are those teeth yours?" she asked calmly.
He lifted a brow. "Last time I checked."
"If you want to keep it that way, back off."
He would have liked to kiss her then, as much in appreciation for her guts as in desire for her taste. Though he was often impulsive, he also knew when to change tactics and take the long route. "Yes, ma'am."
When he moved aside, she slipped past him. She would have preferred to walk through the door and keep going, but she sat on the sofa and spread the prints out again. "I assume that Gray filled you in on the meeting you missed?"
"Yeah." He slid behind the table and sat down. As he'd said, the quarters were close. For the second time, their thighs brushed, denim against denim, muscle against muscle. "You wanted some changes."
She shouldn't be defensive. It did no good to be defensive. She couldn't help it. "I've had a problem with the basic design from the beginning, Mr. Johnson. I made no secret of it."
"I've seen the correspondence." Stretching out his legs was a bit of a trick in such cramped quarters, but he managed it. "You wanted standard desert architecture."
Her eyes narrowed fractionally, and he caught the glint. "I don't recall the word standard coming up, but there are good reasons for the style of architecture in this region."
"There are also good reasons for trying something new, don't you think?" He said it easily as he lit another cigarette. "Barrow and Barrow want the ultimate resort," he continued before she could comment. "Totally self-contained, and exclusive enough to draw in big bucks from the clientele. They wanted a different look, a different mood, from what can be found in the resorts sprinkled around Phoenix. That's what I'm giving them."
"With a few modifications – "
"No changes, Ms. Wilson."
She nearly ground her teeth. Not only was he being pigheaded – a typical architect – but it infuriated her the way he drew out "Ms." in that sarcastic drawl. "For some reason," she began calmly, "we've been unfortunate enough to have been chosen to work together on this."
"Must have been fate," he murmured.
She let that pass. "I'm going to tell you up front, Mr. Johnson, that from an engineering standpoint your design stinks."
He dragged on his cigarette, letting the smoke escape in a slow stream. She had amber flecks in her eyes, he noted. Eyes that couldn't make up their mind whether they wanted to be gray or green. Moody eyes. He smiled into them. "That's your problem. If you're not good enough, Thornway can assign someone else."
Her fingers curled into her palms. The idea of stuffing the plans down his throat had a certain appeal, but she reminded herself that she was committed to this project. "I'm good enough, Mr. Johnson."
"Then we shouldn't have any problems." He crossed his booted ankles. The noise from the site was steady. A productive sound, Cody had always thought. He didn't find it intrusive as he studied the woman across from him. It helped remind him that there was a time for business and a time for…pleasure.
"Why don't you fill me in on the progress?"
It wasn't her job. She almost snapped that at him. But she was tied to a contract, one that didn't leave much margin for error. By God, she'd pay her debt to Thornway, even if it meant working hand in glove with some overconfident, high-flying East Coast architect. She pushed the hard hat back on her head but didn't relax.
"As you've probably seen, the blasting went on schedule. Fortunately, we were able to keep it to a minimum and preserve the integrity of the landscape."
"That was the idea."
"Was it?" She glanced at the prints, then back at him. "In any case, we'll have the frame of the main building completed by the end of the week. If no changes are made – "
"None will be."
"If no changes are made," she repeated between clenched teeth, "we'll meet the first contract deadline. Work on the individual cabanas won't begin until the main building and the health center are under roof. The golf course and tennis courts aren't my province, so you'll have to discuss them with Kendall. That also goes for the landscaping."
"Fine. Do you know if the tiles for the lobby have been ordered?"
"I'm an engineer, not a purchaser. Marie Lopez handles supplies."
"I'll keep that in mind. Question."
Rather than give him a go-ahead nod, she rose and opened the refrigerator. It was stockpiled with sodas, juices and bottled water. Taking her time with her selection, she opted for the water. She was thirsty, she told herself. The move didn't have anything to do with wanting to put some distance between them. That was just a side benefit. Though she knew it was nasty, she screwed the top off the bottle and drank without offering him any.
"Is it because I'm a man, an architect or an Easterner?"
Abra took another long sip. It only took a day in the sun to make you realize that paradise could be found in a bottle of water. "You'll have to clarify that."
"Is it because I'm a man, an architect or an Easterner that makes you want to spit in my eye?"
She wouldn't have been annoyed by the question itself, not in the least. But he grinned while he asked. After less than an hour's acquaintance, she'd already damned him a half-dozen times for that smile. Still, she leaned back against the counter, crossed her own tinkles and considered him.
"I don't give a damn about your sex."
He continued to grin, but something quick and dangerous came into his eyes. "You like waving red flags at bulls, Wilson?"
"Yes." It was her turn to smile. Though the curving of her lips softened her mouth, it did nothing to dim the flash of challenge in her eyes. "But to finish my answer – architects are often pompous, temperamental artists who put their egos on paper and expect engineers and builders to preserve it for posterity. I can live with that. I can even respect it – when the architect takes a good, hard look at the environment and creates with it rather than for himself. As for you being an Easterner, that might be the biggest problem. You don't understand the desert, the mountains, the heritage of this land. I don't like the idea of you sitting under an orange tree two thousand miles away and deciding what people here are going to live with."
Because he was more interested in her than in defending himself, he didn't mention that he had made three trips to the site months before. Most of the design work had been done almost where he was sitting now, rather than back at his home base. He had a vision, but he was a man who drew and built his visions more than a man who spoke of them.
"If you don't want to build, why do you?"
"I didn't say I didn't want to build," she said. "I've never thought it necessary to destroy in order to do so."
' 'Every time you put a shovel in the ground you take away some land. That's life."
"Every time you take away some land you should think hard about what you're going to give back. That's morality."
"An engineer and a philosopher." He was baiting her, and he knew it. Even as he watched, angry color rose to her cheeks. "Before you pour that over my head, let's say I agree with you – to a point. But we're not putting up neon and plastic here. Whether you agree with my design or not, it is my design. It's your job to put it together."
"I know what my job is."
"Well, then." As if dismissing the disagreement, Cody began to roll up the plans. "How about dinner?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Dinner," he repeated. When the prints were rolled up, he slid them into their cylinder and rose. "I'd like to have dinner with you."
Abra wasn't sure it was the most ridiculous statement she'd ever heard, but it certainly ranked in the top ten. "No thanks."
"You're not married?" That would have mattered.
"Involved?" That wouldn't have.
Patience wasn't her strong suit. Abra didn't bother to dig for it. "None of your business."
"You've got a quick trigger, Red." He picked up his hard hat but didn't put it on. "I like that."
"You've got nerve, Johnson. I don't like that." She moved to the door, pausing just a moment with her hand on the knob. "If you have any questions that deal with the construction, I'll be around."
He didn't have to move much to put a hand on her shoulder. Under his palm he felt her coil up like a cat ready to spring. "So will I," he reminded her. "We'll have dinner some other time. I figure you owe me a beer."
After one self-satisfied glance at the top of his head, Abra stepped out into the sun.
He certainly wasn't what she'd been expecting. He was attractive, but she could handle that. When a woman took root in male territory, she was bound to come into contact with an attractive man from time to time. Still, he looked more like one of her crew than a partner in one of the country's top architectural firms. His dark blond hair, with its sun-bleached tips, was worn too long for the nine-to-five set, and his rangy build held ripples of muscle under the taut, tanned skin. His broad, callused hands were those of a work-ingman. She moved her shoulders as if shrugging off the memory of his touch. She'd felt the strength, the roughness and the appeal of those hands. Then there was that voice, that slow take-your-time drawl.
She settled the hard hat more securely as she approached the steel skeleton of the building. Some women would have found that voice appealing. She didn't have time to be charmed by a Southern drawl or a cocky grin. She didn't, when it came right down to it, have much time to think of herself as a woman.
He'd made her feel like one.
Scowling against the sun, she watched beams being riveted into place. She didn't care for Cody Johnson's ability to make her feel feminine. "Feminine" too often meant "defenseless" and "dependent." Abra had no intention of being either of those. She'd worked too hard and too long at self-sufficiency. A couple of… flutters, she decided, just flutters … weren't going to affect her.
She wished the can of beer had been full.
With a grim smile she watched the next beam swing into place. There was something beautiful about watching a building grow. Piece by piece, level by level. It had always fascinated her to watch something strong and useful take shape – just as it had always disturbed her to see the land marred by progress. She'd never been able to resolve that mixture of feelings, and it was because of that that she'd chosen a field that allowed her to have a part in seeing that progress was made with integrity.
But this one… She shook her head as the sound of riveting guns split the air. This one struck her as an outsider's fantasy, the domed shape, the curves and spirals. She'd spent countless nights at her drawing board with slide rule and calculator, struggling to come up with a satisfactory support system. Architects didn't worry about mundane matters like that, she thought. It was all aesthetics with them. All ego. She'd build the damn thing, she thought, kicking some debris out of her way. She'd build it and build it well. But she didn't have to like it.
With the sun baking her back, she bent over the transit. They'd had the mountain to deal with, and an uneven bed of rock and sand, but the measurements and placement were right on. She felt a tug of pride as she checked angles and degrees. Inappropriate or not, the structure was going to be perfectly engineered.
That was important – being perfect. Most of her life she'd had to deal with second best. Her education, her training and her skill had lifted her beyond that. She had no intention of ever settling for second best again, not for herself, and not in her work.
She caught his scent and felt the light tickle of awareness at the back of her neck. Soap and sweat, she thought, and had to fight not to shift uncomfortably. Everybody on the site smelled of soap and sweat, so why was she certain Cody was behind her? She only knew she was certain, and she determinedly remained bent over the eyepiece.
"Problem?" she said, pleased with the disdain she was able to put into the single word.
"I don't know until I look. Do you mind?"
She took her time before stepping back. "Be my guest."
When he moved forward, she hooked her thumbs in her back pockets and waited. He'd find no discrepancies – even if he knew enough to recognize one. Hearing a shout, she glanced over to see two members of the crew arguing. The heat, she knew, had a nasty way of bringing tempers to a boil. Leaving Cody to his survey, she strode across the broken ground.
"It's a little early for a break," she said calmly as one crewman grabbed the other by the shirtfront.
"This sonofabitch nearly took my fingers off with that beam."
"If this idiot doesn't know when to get out of the way, he deserves to lose a few fingers."
Neither man had much on her in height, but they were burly, sweaty and on the edge. Without thinking twice, she stepped between them as fists were raised. "Cool off," she ordered.
"I don't have to take that sh – "
"You may not have to take his," Abra said levelly, "but you have to take mine. Now cool off or take a walk." She looked from one angry face to the other. "If you two want to beat each other senseless when you're off the clock, be my guest, but either of you takes a swing on my time, you're unemployed. You." She pointed to the man she judged the more volatile of the two. "What's your name?"
The dark-haired man hesitated briefly, then spit out, "Rodriguez."
"Well, Rodriguez, go take a break and pour some water over your head." She turned away as if she had no doubts about his immediate obedience. "And you?"
The second man was ruddy and full faced and was smirking. "Swaggart."
"Okay, Swaggart, get back to work. And I'd have a little more respect for my partner's hands if I were you, unless you want to count your own fingers and come up short."
Rodriguez snorted at that but did as he was told and moved away toward the water barrels. Satisfied, Abra signaled to the foreman and advised him to keep the men apart for a few days.
She'd nearly forgotten about Cody by the time she turned and saw him. He was still standing by the transit, but he wasn't looking through it. Legs spread, hands resting lightly on his hips, he was watching her. When she didn't make a move toward him, he made one toward her.
"You always step into the middle of a brawl?"
"When it's necessary."
He tipped his shaded glasses down to study her, then scooted them up again. "Ever get that chip knocked off your shoulder?"
She couldn't have said why she had to fight back a grin, but she managed to. "Not yet."
"Good. Maybe I'll be the first."
"You can try, but you'd be better off concentrating on this project. More productive."
He smiled slowly, and the angles of his face shifted with the movement. "I can concentrate on more than one thing at a time. How about you?"
Instead of answering, she took out a bandanna and wiped the back of her neck. "You know, Johnson, your partner seemed like a sensible man."
"Nathan is sensible." Before she could stop him, he took the bandanna from her and dabbed at her temples. "He saw you as a perfectionist."
"And what are you?" She had to resist the urge to grab the cloth back. There was something soothing, a little too soothing, in his touch.
"You'll have to judge that for yourself." He glanced back at the building. The foundation was strong, the angles clear, but it was just the beginning. "We're going to be working together for some time yet."
She, too, glanced toward the building. "I can take it if you can." Now she did take the bandanna back, stuffing it casually in her back pocket.
"Abra." He said her name as if he were experimenting with a taste. "I'm looking forward to it." She jolted involuntarily when he brushed a thumb down her cheek. Pleased with the reaction, he grinned. "See you around."
Jerk, she thought again as she stomped across the rubble and tried to ignore the tingling along her skin.