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For Bitter Or Worse
By Janet Daily
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1978 Janet Daily
All rights reserved.
STACY PAUSED at the opened bedroom door. Her fingers nervously smoothed the side of her hair pulled sleekly back in a clasp at the nape of her neck. A faintly medicinal scent tinged the air as she gazed around the empty room, masculine in its decor.
The house was quiet in the early-morning stillness. Distantly Stacy heard the soft bustle of Maria preparing breakfast. Anxiously her brown eyes, moving swiftly to search the living room, swept the foyer. They stopped at the sight of a wheelchair sitting in front of the veranda doors.
An achingly familiar dark head was resting against the chair back. Black hair in waving disarray glistened in the soft light of full dawn. The man in the chair sat unmoving in front of the window.
A quivering sigh trembled through Stacy. It was barely morning and Cord was already staring silently out of the window. It promised to be another one of those days. There had been so many of them lately it was becoming difficult to remember the good days.
Thank goodness Josh was staying with Mary and her boys for a couple of days, Stacy thought with weary relief. Cord's black moods were beginning to take their toll on their son no matter how Stacy tried to shield Josh from them. Unbidden, the admission came that her own nerves were strained to the point of rawness.
Her brown eyes darkened with anguish at the sight of the once proud and vital man confined to a wheelchair. She felt the mental torture and pain almost as intensely as her husband did. Worst of all to bear was her inability to help him.
As if he sensed her presence, a large hand gripped a wheel and pivoted the chair around. Hurriedly Stacy fixed a bright smile on her lips before she was impaled on the rapier thrust of Cord's dark gaze.
"Good morning, darling," she murmured smoothly. "You're up and about early today."
"Yes," was Cord's harshly clipped response.
He propelled the chair forward at her approach. His clean-cut features were rigidly drawn in forbidding lines. As Stacy bent to kiss him, Cord averted his head slightly and her lips were scraped by the roughness of his lean cheek covered by a shadowy day's growth of beard. His continuous rejection of any display of affection from her cut to the quick, but Stacy tried to conceal it.
"You forgot to shave this morning," she chided laughingly, and stepped behind his chair to push him into the dining room.
"I didn't forget. I just didn't see the need," he replied tautly.
"You haven't kissed a sheet of sandpaper lately or you might change your mind about that." The forced attempt at light humor made her voice sound brittle.
"No one is making you do it, Stacy."
Cord sounded so cold and insensitive that she had to close her eyes to remember that he really loved her. It was only his bitterness talking. She couldn't blame him for being bitter.
"No one is making me," she agreed, keeping the tone of lightness, however artificial it was. "I do it strictly out of desire."
She pushed his chair to the head of the table, already set for breakfast. As she released his wheelchair handles and stepped to the seat at his right, she felt the slash of his gaze.
"Since when did my passionate wife become satisfied with a mere kiss on the cheek?" Cord jeered softly.
Stacy flinched inwardly. "It's enough for the time being." She reached for the juice pitcher sitting in the middle of the table. "It won't be forever."
His mouth quirked cynically, and something sharp stabbed Stacy's heart at the action. Maria's appearance with the coffee forestalled any caustic response Cord intended to make.
"Breakfast will be ready in a few minutes," Maria announced, filling the coffee mugs and setting the pot on the table.
"Fine," Stacy smiled, using the break to change the conversation as the plump Mexican woman left the room. "Travis will be in shortly," she told Cord. "We want to go over the yearling list with you to get your recommendations on the ones we should keep as breeding prospects."
"Spare me a token involvement." His lips thinned, hardening his expression. "You and Travis have very capably operated the ranch this past year without my help or advice. I don't need any magnanimous gestures implying I still have a hand in running things."
Stacy's control snapped, pain bursting through her chest. Pressing her lips tightly together, she tried to breath deeply. She couldn't endure another bitter argument.
"Cord, please. Let's not get into this again," she begged tautly.
"Then don't patronize me!" he snapped.
"We aren't," she protested.
"Aren't you?" Dark eyes flashed like burning coals. "Go over the list of yearlings," he mocked sarcastically. "The Circle H is your ranch. Do what you like!"
"It was your ranch. It became our ranch, but it was never mine," Stacy cried out in frustration. "All Travis and I have been trying to do is keep it going until—"
"— Until I was well again?" Cord interrupted, a sardonic dryness in his tone. A contemptuous sound came from his throat. "It's very likely that I'm as well as I'm going to get."
"No." But it was a whispered word, half choked by an invisible stranglehold around her throat.
"Face the truth, Stacy," he demanded harshly. "It would have been better if Colter hadn't pulled me from the wreckage of the plane."
"How can you say that!" she breathed in sharply. Her hands were trembling. She stared at them, remembering the agony she had suffered nearly a year ago when she had thought Cord might not live. "I love you. How could you possibly think anything would be better if you were dead?"
"Look at me." When she didn't immediately obey his order, his fingers dug into the bones of her slender wrist and twisted it until her widened brown eyes met the chilling darkness of his. There was an arrogant flare of his nostrils in challenge. "Look at me, Stacy, and tell me if it's love you feel or pity."
Stacy obeyed, slowly inspecting his masculine features. A year's convalescence had paled his sun-browned skin to a golden hue. The chiseled lines were blunted by a weight loss that hadn't been completely regained. Yet the rugged leanness only seemed to increase his compelling looks. Marriage had not lessened the physical attraction Cord held for her, only heightened it.
There was nothing about his handsome face to pity, nor the wide shoulders and strong arms. But when her gaze slipped to his long, muscled legs that had once enabled him to tower above her, Stacy was forced to remember that Cord sat in a wheelchair.
Her heart cried at the injustice of it. It was like seeing a noble savage, proud and arrogant and chained against his will. Yes, it tore at her heart, but it did so because she loved him.
"I love you, Cord," she answered at last, lifting her gaze to his face.
He sighed heavily and released her wrist. His hand closed around the juice glass. There was a suppressed violence about him, as if he wanted to hurl the glass and see it shatter into a thousand pieces.
Stacy laid a hand on his forearm and felt him stiffen at her touch. "Cord, you have to believe you'll walk again." She leaned toward him earnestly. "It isn't as if you're without hope. This last operation, you did regain some feeling in your legs. It's just a slow healing process until the doctors can test how extensive the recovery will be."
His hard gaze shifted to her with lazy cynicism. "Or how limited," he reminded her dryly. "Forgive me if I'd rather prepare for the worst," he mocked, shrugging his arm away from her touch. He released the brake in the wheelchair and pushed it away from the table. "Tell Maria that I'm not hungry."
"Cord, you have to eat!" Stacy protested as he rolled toward the living room.
"I don't have to do anything," he replied without a backward glance.
Stacy started to follow him, then sat back in her chair. Their somewhat embittered discussion had stolen her appetite, too. It revealed so much of the frustration they had known in the past year since the engine of Cord's plane had failed on takeoff from a friend's ranch and he had crashed.
Her own father had been killed in an air crash of a private plane, which Stacy had survived. The memory of that had been vivid when Stacy had flown to San Antonio, uncertain whether Cord would be dead or alive when she arrived. Even when she got there, it was days before the doctors felt confident about his recovery. Their immediate concern had been stopping the internal bleeding and making the necessary repairs to keep him alive.
The operation to relieve the pressure on the main nerve trunk to his legs had been too delicate and complicated to attempt in his critical and weakened condition following the crash, so the decision had been made to wait until he had recovered his strength before attempting it. At the time, Stacy had been too grateful to have him alive to risk losing him on the operating table, so she had agreed with the medical opinion.
Given a second chance, Stacy knew she would make the same decision. The operation to relieve the pressure had been performed only a short time ago. It was successful to the point that he now had some feeling in his legs, although he hadn't regained the use of them.
That, the doctors felt, would depend on the body's healing process, which required time and hope. For Cord, hope was becoming threadbare from overuse. He could no longer hold on to it with any certainty that it would be fulfilled.
After being an invalid for nearly a year, his patience was gone. He had expected immediate results from the operation. Numbed legs instead of no feeling had not given him enough encouragement. After living a life that demanded physical exertion of all sorts, Cord faced the looming prospect of limited activity with growing bitterness. In this bitterness, he lashed out at everyone, and most especially Stacy.
If he was trying to break her tenacious hold on hope, she wondered how long she would be able to hold on to it under his attacks. The strain of the last months was wearing on her, too. Sighing, she reached for the coffee.
"Stacy?" A male voice questioningly called her name with quiet concern.
She sensed he must have spoken before, only she hadn't heard him. She glanced up and smiled at the dark-haired man standing beside the table. It was a haunted smile, a ghost of the animated warmth that it usually carried.
"Hello, Travis. I'm afraid I didn't hear you come in," Stacy apologized, gesturing toward a chair opposite hers. "Have some coffee."
"I saw Cord out on the veranda. Isn't he coming with us?" Travis McCrea sat down, smoothing a silvered wing in his otherwise dark hair.
Maria walked in carrying the breakfast plates for Stacy and Cord, enabling Stacy to avoid Travis's question for the time being. Maria frowned at the empty space at the head of the table and glanced at Stacy.
"Where is Mister Cord?"
"He's out on the veranda. He said he wasn't hungry, but why don't you take him a tray in case he changes his mind," Stacy suggested, knowing that Cord would probably leave the food to sit or feed it to Cajun, the German shepherd.
Maria agreed, clicking her tongue as she hurried back toward the kitchen. "He will never be strong again if he doesn't eat."
Stacy sighed, drawing Travis's brown gaze. Perceptively he noticed the slight droop to her shoulders. There were faint shadows beneath her eyes and a trembling line to her mouth.
"Has he let loose already this morning?" Travis inquired gently.
"Yes," she nodded with a wry twist of her mouth.
There was no point in lying or in pretending that she didn't know what Travis was talking about. He had known Cord much longer than she had. He had even been there when Cord was pulled from the plane wreckage.
At the time Travis had been the foreman for Colter Langston, Cord's best friend and best man at their wedding. And Travis had been the one who had met Stacy at the San Antonio airport and driven her to the hospital where Cord had been taken.
A few days after the accident, he had stopped by the hospital. It was then that Travis had told her he had quit his job with Colter and was striking out for parts unknown.
Stacy had never delved into the precise reason that Travis had left after working so many years for Colter, although she had her suspicions. Aware that Cord's convalescence would be a long one, without being aware how long, Stacy had asked Travis if he would temporarily fill the post as foreman on the Circle H until Cord was able to take over again. Almost a year later, he was still here, temporarily filling in.
"I suppose I should be used to Cord's outbursts of frustration by now." Stacy rubbed a hand across her forehead, a gesture of mental tiredness.
"No one ever gets used to it," answered Travis.
"I suppose not," she sighed.
Maria walked through the dining room with an attractively set breakfast tray for Cord. The fluffy omelet on her own plate didn't arouse Stacy's appetite, but she began eating it anyway. There was too much to be done this morning to attempt to accomplish it on an empty stomach.
The sound of the sliding glass doors opening to the veranda was heard, and unconsciously Stacy tensed as Maria's shoes clattered onto the cobble-stoned veranda. The musical lilt of Maria's voice speaking in her slightly accented English was carried into the dining room, although her exact words were not distinguishable.
There wasn't any difficulty understanding Cord.
"Dammit! I told her I wasn't hungry!" His angrily shouted words were followed by a resounding crash as the breakfast tray was obviously hurled away. "Maria, I —" This time there was a faintly apologetic tone in his voice, but Cord didn't complete the sentence.
Tears burned the back of Stacy's brown eyes. Her gaze ricocheted away from the grim line of Travis's mouth. It was all she could do to keep from crying.
"He's in rare form this morning," Travis commented dryly, sipping at his coffee. "I hope he doesn't explode like that around the colts. They're high-spirited at the best of times."
"There's no need to worry. He isn't coming with us," Stacy said tightly, concentrating on the omelet on her plate.
"He's not?" A dark eyebrow flicked upward in a measuring look.
"No," she repeated.
"Did he give a reason?"
"Oh, yes," she nodded wryly. "He said he wasn't interested in a token involvement. He felt we were patronizing him by pretending he still made decisions about how the ranch was run."
"The entire breeding program for the quarter horses is his. Did you mention that?" Travis laughed without humor. "How are we supposed to know what he was trying to develop?"
"I don't think Cord cares anymore." There was a lump in her throat, large and painful. "He said we've run the ranch very capably without him and we can keep on doing it." Her eyes were clouded by inner distress as she glanced at the brawny man sitting opposite her. "He's convinced he isn't going to get any better."
"A man like Cord doesn't give up no matter what he says. Inside he keeps on fighting," Travis stated.
"Does he?" Stacy's chin quivered. "Today he said that he wished Colter hadn't pulled him out of the plane. I understand how he must feel, but —" she pressed a hand against her mouth to check the sob that rose in her throat "— he doesn't seem to care anymore about anything, not even the ranch." Or me, she could have added, but didn't.
"He denies that he cares because he cares too much."
"I wish I could believe that." Heaven knew that she tried. "It's my own fault that he feels the way he does about the ranch. Whenever there was a problem this past year, I wouldn't let you tell him about it until it was solved. I didn't want him worrying when it was so important that he rest. I let him think everything went smoothly. If I'd listened to you, Travis, Cord wouldn't think I was patronizing him now."
"Stacy, you can't tear yourself apart wondering if things would have been easier if you'd decided differently. What's done is done and we have to go on from here. Today we have a crop of yearlings to look at, so eat your breakfast." His voice was mockingly gruff but his smile was understandingly gentle.
Stacy returned the smile. "What you really mean is to get hold of myself." Her mouth curved in a self-deprecating line. "I don't know what I would have done if you hadn't been here to help this past year. And to listen."
Excerpted from For Bitter Or Worse by Janet Daily. Copyright © 1978 Janet Daily. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
What a great continuation of fiesta san antonio. Love this book, esp. The characters.