Her lifelong best friend stepped silently beside her on the dock, slipping his muscular arm around her tense shoulders. "Don't do it, Sheri. Too long of a swim."
She snorted her disbelief. "Do you know me so well?"
"Yeah," he said with a curt nod. "I do. Want me to tell you why you changed everything about yourself?"
She stiffened under his arm, glancing up at his face. Razor stubble barely shadowed his dark good looks. His eyes were closed and his lips moved soundlessly. She knew that look; he was praying! Her prayer partner since childhood.
The ocean waves crashed in the background. Warm wind whipped her hair around her shoulders. Seagulls squawked overhead.
His arm over her shoulder pulled her in closer to his side before he continued. "You blame yourself for Stevo's death. Feeling alone in this world, guilt is eating you up and you are one angry woman. Rebelling against God, furious with Him for letting Steve die. Right or wrong, Sheri?"
Huffing out an exasperated sigh, she whispered, "Right."
His southern drawl charmed her, warmed her cold heart. "It's not your fault, Sheri. It's not God's, either, honey. You do still have family. There's Clay. And me."
This good Christian man silently extended his kind heart toward her in a way different than ever before. Or maybe it was only her, noticing him as potently male now. He knew her almost better than she knew herself. Her heart chugged to a faster, heavier, beat, aware of his strong arm around her, tucking her against his side when he'd done it a hundred times before and she never noticed his touch in this way.
She felt protected, safe, and loved.
Sheri pulled away from him at the instant the thought struck. "I need a cigarette," she grumbled.
Troy grabbed one of her hands in his much larger one. Just like that, he rebuked the craving, praying for Jesus to take away her every desire to smoke. Then he added for God to soften her heart, toward Him and Troy, ending with praise and asking for blessings.
She sighed heavily. "You can't make me stop smoking."
"No. I can't, but God can. And angry as it makes you, I'm doing this because I love you too much to sit back and watch you slowly kill yourself. Your own private rehab. God has a plan for your life and you're running from it."
Squeezing his hand in hers, she exhaled slowly. "Whew, Troy. You could be dangerous, knowing me so well."
He grinned innocently. "Dangerous, huh? Does that mean you're no longer immune to me?"
What she wanted was to slap one hand over her giveaway mouth. Hadn't she always been able to talk with Troy about anything and everything before? Why had she blurted that out? Why not tell him she never erected a wall around her heart that he couldn't simply scale with his southern drawl. Her guard wasn't up against her best bud.
Sheri grinned back at him. "I think you can charm a snake out of its rattler, but you can't charm me."
"Is that so?" rang with definite male challenge.
"No carving another notch on my account."
His silver eyes heated to melted steel. "So you see me as male now?"
Before she could either agree or dispute what really didn't sound much like a question in the first place, he leaned closer to her ear and smoothed out his slow drawl. "I am a man, Sheri, and I plan to make you aware of it if you aren't already. You've been my best friend all my life. It's like you belong to me."
"I don't belong to anyone."
"What about Clay?"
"What about him?"
"How do you feel about him dating potential bride material?"
"He deserves to be happy. He always said that's what he wanted, a wife, kids, and the Swinging D."
"You're really not still hung up on him, are you?"
"No. I told you; it was just a serious crush I outgrew."
He smiled in a purely male way and hopped to his feet before extending his hand to help her up. "Come along, Goldilocks. Time to get back to your jungle getaway."
Her stomach rumbled loud enough for him to hear it.
"Food, yes, that's what you need." He touched her impersonally, spanning his hands around her waist. "You've lost too much weight. Do you even weigh a hundred pounds anymore?"
"Ha! I'm not discussing my weight with you. Impolite."
He frowned as they walked toward the house. "I liked it better when you would tell me everything. I don't want to pay that price for you to notice me as a woman does a man."
Mr. and Mrs. Johnson sat at the table, waiting on them to join in blessing over the lasagna.
After eating and helping Mrs. Johnson wash and dry the dishes, Sheri wandered through the first floor.
The castle-like house seemed ancient yet timeless. Turning the knob on the door connected to the glassed-in sunroom, dark now with night, she held up her candle before her. A tiny chapel?
She shivered seconds before Troy leaned over her shoulder and blew out the candle. Then he flicked on the colored lights in the chapel, asking, "Have you been inside a House of God since the hospital chapel, on the night we prayed for God to spare Steve's life?"
"No," she said succinctly.
"Oh, baby," he groaned. "You don't have to hurt and suffer alone."
"Who says I'm hurting?"
"I do. You won't even allow yourself to grieve."
"True. I haven't shed the first tear."
"You're not alone. You can't be strong all the time, Sheri. It's healthy to grieve. Will you allow me to hold you while you cry?"
"I might never stop if I start."
"You will when it hurts less."
Uh-oh, treading on unfamiliar territory with her best friend again. She sidestepped the issue, walking several feet out of his reach, and changed the subject. "How come I don't see any computers?"
He laughed. "Online withdraws this time, huh? The artist who mastered logic can't be without a computer?"
She hitched a thumb toward the stairway leading up. "I brought my laptop. You don't seriously think I could do without it; do you? My computer, my cell phone, and I, pretty much have a love triangle relationship."
He nodded. "You think I of all people don't understand that?" Troy shrugged. "No phone lines installed here. No towers to pick up your cell phone signal. We're going to work on your triangular relationship until it includes God, your true love, and you, working in harmonic concert."
A heartbeat before he walked away, he added, "I think your laptop is lost in the twilight zone."
She dashed upstairs to the master suite. Scanning the bedroom for her briefcase and laptop, she growled, "Troy!"
"Blessed dreams, Sheri," he called from downstairs before the backdoor banged shut.
When she awoke in the morning, her first conscious thought was a craving for a cigarette.
After putting in springtime green contacts, a shield from sad dark blue sapphires reflected in the mirror, she brushed blond hair that hung about halfway down her back.
She tapped one small foot impatiently as she surveyed her clothes now hanging in the closet. What to wear? What! She never considered the way she looked when around Troy.
Miffed at him for affecting her so, she slipped into a businesswoman's black dress.
Barefoot, she trotted down the stairs and out of the house, before wading in lapping foamy waves on the beach. She sunk her toes into the wet white sand, tuning in her female radar, aggravated to have picked up on Troy arriving behind her. "Where is my carton of smokes?"
He tsked her before laughing. "Good morning, sunshine."
She pivoted, grabbing the neckline on his short-sleeved knit shirt. "It's not funny. I need a cigarette!"
"Exercise, that's what you need. To quit, you need to exercise, fake out your heart by how you're speeding it up." Just like that, he scooped her into his arms and tossed her out into the ocean. "Let's swim."
After sputtering to the surface, cool businesswoman, drenched again by the oncoming wave, she growled, "Troy!"
As if oblivious to his jean shorts and shirt, he dived through the wave to surface next to her. He stood; towering over her, raking one large hand back over the wet ebony spikes on his head, and again pierced her with his steely gray regard.
Slipping one hand to tip her face to his, Troy leaned closer to her mouth. "There are other ways to speed up your heartbeat if you'd prefer not to swim."
She held up one hand, stopping his forward invasion, virtually ordering a full retreat. Her heart pounded hard, breaths heaving, as she caught his scent above the salty smell of the sea. Since when did his male scent affect her so? Blowing out a quick exhale, she stepped back from him. "Infuriating me, is that your plan to speed up my heart?"
"Maybe," he purred. "Maybe not."
Sheri slapped her hands down upon the aquamarine water. "I'm not swimming with you, thank you very much."
He stepped toward her and tapped one long finger over her nose. "Then you can eat in place of smoking. And drink lots of water."
"Since when did you become the big expert of how to quit smoking?"
"Since I could hear you smoking while we talked on the phone about coming to Atlanta."
She growled, slogging in soggy dress toward the house.
"There's another way, Sheri. Turn it over to God. Repent and ask Him to take away your habit, your cravings."
Mrs. Johnson said not a word about their soaked clothing, wetness dripping to pool on the hardwood floor, only that the biscuits and gravy were done. Sheri ate a hearty portion after changing into a yellow cotton sundress. When Troy went to change clothes, after eating, Sheri found her feet cutting their own way toward the chapel.
She swung open the door, taking in the sunlight reflecting off the colored glass window depicting Jesus on the cross. Sucking in a deep breath, she stepped inside and sat in one of the short pews. Bowing her head, she whispered, "Please take away my cravings to smoke. Forgive me for sinning purposefully. Show me Your plan for my life. Give me back my immunity to Troy."
"I rebuke your last request in the Name of Jesus."
Rubbing one hand over her forehead, massaging out the stress, Sheri groaned. "You have a hellish sense of impeccable timing, Troy."
"First you must give Jesus total control of your life again, then you belong to me, Sheri. As if all the bonds joining us together so far in life were only leading up to that moment."
"You're freaking me out, bud." She stomped from the chapel into the warm rays of sunshine in the glass sunroom.
He followed her retreat into the room full of tropical plants, stopping beside her at the little waterfall in the stone fountain. "I'm only trying to get you to listen with your heart." When she didn't reply, he sighed. "How about using pure logic, Miss Computer Science?"
Troy clicked off fingers and reasons. "One, you love me already and I love you. Two, we know everything about each other, no nasty surprises down the road. Three, you accept me unconditionally as I accept you."
She held up one hand to halt his flow of logic. Although she couldn't force her eyes to meet his, couldn't lie to his face, she flung her fabrication his way. "I am not romantically attracted to you. It's as simple as that."
As she dreaded, he did indeed slide one finger under her chin to raise her eyes to his molten steel stare.
"Look me in the eye and tell me that." When she held her silence, Troy softly drawled, "Should I prove your words a lie, to me, to you?" He narrowed his eyes on hers before staring at her mouth.
His dark head descended until her heart pumped pure adrenaline into her system, shooting her with weakness instead of strength, as he brushed his lips over hers.
Heat flash-fired from her mouth to her stomach and she jerked back like he had struck her with a lightning bolt. One hand lifted to her lips, covering the tingling sensation.
"How much have you changed, Sheri? You said you tried having a different date every night of the week. Even a Yankee couldn't turn a blind eye to you."
He brushed one gentle hand down over her hair and she wanted to step into his petting and purr.
Troy whispered, "Still a virgin, honey?"
Like the day before, uncharacteristic embarrassment crept in waves of heat up her neck and over her face.
He laughed softly. "That's what I was hoping even if you are a fiery woman who accomplishes every task she sets her heart on." Troy pulled her hand away from her lips before brushing his lips over hers again. "Set your heart on me, Sheri, like I have set my heart on you."
Aw man! Goal-orientated, successful, Troy had set his heart on claiming her? She wondered if she stood a snowball's chance in Hades of not succumbing.
He didn't try to kiss her again all week. On Saturday morning, he disappeared with Mr. Johnson, coming back later with damp clothing and sacks full of supplies.
"You do have a boat stashed somewhere," she accused.
He shot her a mocking grin. "The Johnsons will be taking it to the mainland this weekend as they usually do every weekend. In a few minutes, you'll be stranded alone with me."
Troy tossed the colored tubes of paint onto the table, along with a sketchpad and various sized paintbrushes. "I'm a firm believer in the reward system, little artist. You've made it a week without smoking. You've even participated in our nightly Bible reading and prayer."
She smirked at him and walked away. She'd fix his wagon; transform his masculine bedroom with a woman's touch.
Adding squirts of color to white paint, Sheri worked on tattooing one white wall with a beach scene, from gritty tan sands to the fathomless abyss of the ocean. Lost for untold hours in her work, she didn't notice the winds picking up, the torrential downpour as rain slashed the windows, until Troy knocked on the bedroom door.
For a heartbeat, she panicked. What would he do when he saw what she had done to his bedroom? There was no time to debate it, since Troy swung open the door.
"Hmm," he grunted.
"The room was too cold in stark white. You aren't a cold man, Troy." She paused a heartbeat. "I could repaint it white if you'd rather."
"No," he shook his head. "It's so real its uncanny."
A shuttered banged downstairs and she jumped.
"Tropical storm, sorry to say."
Did he remember she never cared for storms? Did he know they still scared her a little?
"It'll be all right, honey. Why don't you come downstairs with me for a while?"
Alone in the house? Together? At that instant, the electricity popped off and blackness replaced the lights.
He slid one arm through hers to escort her downstairs in the dark before lighting a kerosene lantern. "I'll go crank up the generator. God will protect us. He's bigger than the bogeyman or any hurricane."
After eating the supper he had prepared, surrounded by electric lights, she sighed.
Troy read aloud from the Bible like he did every night, ending with a prayer.
"I want to kiss you, Sheri."
She uttered a wordless protest, but didn't pull away as he gave her plenty of time to decide, slowly descending his lips to slant over hers.
"Kiss me back, sweetheart," he purred persuasively.
"No," she said firmly, pushing his chest away from her proximity. "It'll change everything. Ruin it."
"I don't agree. Maybe you'll change everything back when you can't change me. Kissing me will enhance not destroy our love."
"Will you agree to be my date for my church barbeque picnic? Or will you simply attend church with me? We need Christian fellowship and edification."
He hadn't again interfered with her short visits to the chapel every morning. Did he realize the downed lines between her and God were being re-established? Did he realize she was repenting sin by sin, day by day, and her thirst for God's Word deepened into an ache to attend real church services?
Troy fisted his hands and held them up before her. "Pick one," the boyish smile taunted her. "One, a real date with me to the barbeque picnic? Or, one, weather permitting, we travel to the mainland to attend church services like we have all our lives?"
"A real date?" She hadn't meant to ask aloud.
The smile flashed a straight streak of white teeth against his tanned handsome face, sending a male message to her femininity. "Yep. You and me. The kind that ends in a kiss."
She exhaled a cleansing breath, a little rattled by his confidence. Go to church with him, tightening their bonds with familiar beliefs? Or a real date, with a kiss?
Light in the tropical storm