"The church barbeque, an outing with people, sounds like fun," she finally admitted.
"A date?" Troy asked and then seemed to hold his breath awaiting her answer.
"We've gone together to social functions most of our lives."
Troy was already shaking his head. "No, Sheri. A real date. Don't misunderstand me. I guarantee, by the end of the barbeque, you'll see me as male. A man to your woman," definitely sounded like a masculine promise. "Not just your non-gender specific best friend."
Uh-oh. Unfamiliar territory again with Troy. Yet he had spoken with quiet firmness like the polished professional he was. Not just as her buddy, daring her to meet his challenge. More male confidence than even an executive in charge and expecting results from his edicts. Sheri gulped audibly.
When he reached over and stroked one knuckle over her closest cheekbone, her eyes flew to his. "I'm not going to hurt you, honey. You know that."
"Yes. I know that, Troy. You don't hurt people on purpose. You're not like that. You're a good Christian man."
Her heart rate picked up speed at the intensity in his steely regard. She inhaled unsteadily and caught a whiff of his scent. Since when did she notice her best friend's smell as distinct maleness?
He smiled, slowly, as if he understood. "Still immune?"
Obviously not, but there was no way she was about to answer. Instead, she rose to her feet to flee upstairs to safety.
Troy rose, too, though, and stepped in front of her. "Imagine my surprise when it happened to me, when I saw you as a gorgeous woman quite some time ago, . . . when I became aware of you as female."
This time, her heart thumped against her ribs and she tried to make light of his intensity. "Yeah, well, women have always been drawn to you, Troy. Drooling. You're just going through some sort of phase. A male ego thing to have no female immune to you."
Although she swerved around him, making time for the stairs, his rumbling laughter followed her. As did his smooth baritone. "You can run, Sheri, but you can't hide from the truth. You can't run from me. You can't run from God and His plan for your life. I won't let you."
That stopped Sheri in her tracks.
She whipped around, cocked her hands on her hips, and glared down at him. "I'm not ready to go to church, yet. You can't make me like you bullied me to quit smoking. And I could really use a cigarette right now, bud! What right do you have to interfere in my life? Who do you think you are, Troy Montgomery?"
"My right as your best friend. My right as the one person you trust and count on. My right as the man who loves you. Who do I think I am? I don't think, I know. God has confirmed it. I'm your future husband."
Sheri stomped one foot and growled in her throat, finding no nice words, before she pivoted and escaped into the bedroom. Out of his proximity. To safety. Since when did her heart consider her best friend a man and not safe? She growled again and childishly slammed the door on his confident laughter.
The seconds stretched out, marked by the howling wind and torrential rain pounding against the window. She didn't want to fight with Troy, or match wits. Sheri especially didn't want to come up against his speaking faith, positive attitude, and fierce determination; the combination always won him whatever he wanted. While pacing within the confines of the room, back and forth between the painted seascape and the huge bed, a knock rapped against the closed door.
She swung the door open to see Troy standing there holding out one large hand. In his palm rested a single cigarette and her lighter.
"Peace offering," he whispered. "You are clearly in the grips of a nic fit and this is your one emergency smoke." He paused and lifted his other hand toward her before he spoke even more quietly. "Or you could take my hand and we'll pray it away. Your decision."
Sheri looked from the cigarette to his cloudy gray eyes that at this moment were closed off, guarded, influencing her in no way. No judgment, nor condemnation. She wanted to smoke this very second, no mistake about it. Shutting her eyes, she groaned.
Troy stepped into the room, walking over to the painted wall while she decided, and Sheri again caught a whiff of his powerful persuasive male scent. She inhaled deeply, drawing the smell that was exclusively Troy into her lungs like a drag off a cigarette, swirling around inside her to curl around her heart.
Finally, she opened her eyes. "I'm sorry, Troy."
He shrugged. "I'm your best friend. Always. You can say anything to me, anytime. With me, you will forever be free to think aloud and I'll still love you."
Troy stretched out each hand to her again, palms up, waiting patiently. One with emergency cigarette and lighter. One offered as her prayer partner.
Tears unexpectedly stung her eyes and Sheri sniffled once. What was happening to her? What was happening with their relationship? "Oh, Troy," she breathed.
Sheri wasn't exactly sure how it happened, propelled by the power of prayer or her own will, but she stepped into his personal space, then past it to rest her head against the steady reassuring thud of his heart.
His arms wrapped around her, pulling her into his protective embrace. Safe. Loved.
He rubbed one hand over her crown, down her hair, soothing over her back. "It's ok, sweetheart. It'll all be ok. I have faith enough for both of us."
Then he was praying for her, aloud, praying for more than God to take away her nicotine craving and the habit of smoking, praying that Jesus would knock down the walls around her heart so she could grieve her brother.
This time, aching deeply inside, Sheri couldn't blink away the tears. "If I start crying, I might never stop."
"You will when it hurts less. Lean on me. Give up control."
She tried to pull away, hide behind her barriers, but his hold strengthened, as did his decisive prayers. Not force, but determination. Troy held her more tightly so she couldn't run. Not from him. And not from grieving for Steve this time.
"It's my fault. I wouldn't come home to Texas for spring break. So Stevo was coming to me. A real cowboy inside the metallic jungle of the Big Apple? He had no wish to see New York City. It's all my fault he was killed in that wreck."
"No way!" Troy insisted. "Lies from the pit of hell and Satan. I promise you, Sheri, Steve's death was not your fault."
Sheri had no idea how long Troy held her, how long she wept, how long he prayed aloud for her. Eventually the storm outside the stonewalls and inside her soul, both, calmed. When her sobs turned to chest heaving sniffles, wrung through the emotional wringer, she became aware that somehow, in someway, everything had shifted and changed.
Troy must have sensed it also and let her go when she pulled back from his arms. Very gently, he wiped away her tears. "The pain will ease more with time. I miss him, too."
She glanced at his long fingers, glistening with her salty drops. Voice rusty, Sheri admitted, "I love you so much, Troy. I don't want to ruin what we have. This new territory, new awareness of you, well . . . it scares me."
He hitched one ebony brow and raked a hand through the spikes of his hair as if taking a second to come to grips with hearing her admit to being afraid of anything. A fairly rare occurrence for her to speak out loud, even if they both knew something scared her.
Finally, Troy shot her a lopsided grin. "There's nothing to fear with God on your side, Sheri love. We're a team, you and I. A winning team, you and me and God. Always and forever."
Suddenly drained, she yawned.
He nodded. "You've been through a great deal tonight. Exhausted. I'd better let you get some sleep."
"Troy," she said in a rush and reached for his hand. Before he could even react, she snagged the bent and wrinkled cigarette from his palm. Sheri looked him right in the eyes and smiled slowly. Then she broke her emergency cigarette in half. "I quit."
His eyes widened before he tilted back his head and hooted. Finally he mellowed and smiled gently. "I do love you, Sheri Knight." He strode to the exit. "Thanks for applying your wonderfully artist talent to my wall. I love it, too."
Right before he shut the door behind him, Sheri cleared her throat. "So, it's still a date tomorrow for the barbeque?"
"Yeah, honey. A real date."
She nodded once. "Ok then," she whispered. "A real one."
Troy flashed her his grin of boyish delight and shut the door. "Sweet dreams, Sheri."
"You, too," she uttered and fell backward on the bed without putting on her pajamas. Sleep swooped down upon her instantly.
In the morning, sunlight winked at her from the window. No more tropical storm. Her sleep had been restful and filled with happy dreams she couldn't quite recall right now. She smiled and glanced at the beach scene mural, filled with a certainty that today was going to be a great day.
Troy had told her the barbeque would be held in the late afternoon. After the church services she told him she wasn't ready to attend yet. "Soon though," she said aloud, testing the taste in her mouth for truth. Yes, soon.
She stood in front of the closet, scanning her selection of clothes, and shrugged. Troy wouldn't judge her. Only God had that right. Troy never cared how she dressed, but she wanted to look nice for their date. Her heart skipped a beat at the thought, so she turned toward the dresser and decided to wear shorts and a t-shirt until time to leave for the mainland.
After finding no sign of Troy in the house yet this morning, Sheri headed to the beach. Wow. The stormy waves of yesterday had washed up seashells and pieces of driftwood. Smiling, she pulled her oversized t-shirt out to form a little pouch and collected a treasure of beautiful shells.
Much later, she returned to the house and plunked her loot onto the kitchen table to show Troy.
When she still didn't see him, Sheri cooked breakfast for them. Before their meal could grow cold, she ventured to the stone guesthouse and knocked. No reply. Troy, always an early riser, would have awoken hours ago. Had he gone to the mainland, and church, without her?
Sheri sighed and followed where her feet willed, to the tiny chapel inside Troy's castle. The door stood slightly ajar, so she pushed to swing it open and enter. Troy was kneeling beside the front pew, obviously in communion with the Almighty. His own brand of true praise and worship even if he weren't attending a public church.
He opened his steely silver orbs and watched her watch him. Was he gauging her reaction?
Heat flooded her face to have intruded upon such a personal and private moment, the type of moments they used to share, but still he said nothing. Waiting, silent and patient.
Sheri walked into the chapel, sat in the pew next to where he kneeled, and intertwined her fingers in his. Right before she bowed her head, Troy smiled his pleasured approval at her. Although she didn't pray aloud, as he did, she did speak agreement to his prayers.
Soon, she thought again. Soon they would be prayer partners again, intercessors, both mighty prayer warriors.
Troy climbed to his feet, then tugged her hand to pull Sheri to stand also.
She grinned. "Let's go nuke our breakfast in the microwave."
That playful, innocent yet excited, boyish grin flashed before Troy glanced at his watch. "Brunch." Then he rubbed his hands together as if in anticipation. "If I recall rightly, you're a mighty fine cook, Miss Knight."
She snorted, secretly pleased, and warmed their food. Once they had eaten, Sheri changed into a pretty pink dress for their date. Feminine, delicate, it was definitely not a power business suit.
Whew. Troy, always a southern gentleman, a good Christian man, was already in complete charm mode. She wondered if she would melt from the full force of it before their date ended.
A real date. Sheri exhaled a shaky breath as her mind recalled Troy's words. The kind of date that ended with a kiss. She doubted he had in mind, or would settle for, a platonic peck on the cheek like she had always given him. Warning bells tolled in her head, a red alert, yet she smiled and chose to ignore them.
It wasn't until after the helicopter ride over to the mainland and arriving at the beach by the coastal church, that Sheri learned Troy attended regularly. Congregation members greeted him warmly before welcoming her. She realized being seen as a couple in front of so many of his Christian friends would lend weight, add importance, to their date. Clearly, from people's comments, Troy stayed often on his island and attended church here, but had never brought a date to any of the church social functions.
Troy introduced her to Pastor Shaw shortly before the minister blessed the food, the fellowship, and the barbeque kicked into high gear. Two lines formed on either side of the long tables piled high with edibles.
Sheri mashed her molars as yet another young pretty woman approached Troy. She used to tease him about it, his affect on the fairer sex, without him even trying. Now, it did not amuse her. He was entirely too gorgeous, too powerful, oozing too much southern gentleman charm. And with a great heart, a good Christian man to boot.
He stepped closer behind her in line and leaned his mouth near her ear. "You're scowling, Sheri love. Why?"
Because I'm actually jealous, she wanted to shout. She clamped down on that unfamiliar, unwelcome, urge.
He knew her maybe even better than she did herself sometimes, because he shot her a confident, purely masculine, smile.
"Oh, why don't you just go charm some other woman?"
"Nope," he drawled before pressing a swift kiss on her scowling forehead. "Saved all my charm for you today."
"Great," she muttered before moving along in the chow line. And how would she manage to survive his persuasiveness turned on her full force? Hadn't he guaranteed before the barbeque was over, she would fully recognize he was male? An interested male at that.
She ignored the little voice from her heart, or her head, she wasn't sure, telling her how very much the woman in her wanted Troy to woo her. Her heart had a mind of its own, however, and fluttered hopefully. "Grr." She hadn't meant to growl out loud.
Worse yet, Troy heard it and laughed.
After they had their food, Troy led her to a shaded picnic table overlooking the white sand and foamy blue ocean waves. She plopped her plate on the table and he set his very gently beside hers before he suggested, "Smile. Or you'll get indigestion."
Then he swung his long legs over the bench and settled in next to her, less than a foot separating them.
Annoyed, perhaps alarmed, at her heart's ecstatic reaction to his nearness, Sheri turned the full force of her smile on him. She'd just see what he thought of the woman in her responding to the man in him. She had some southern charm of her own, or so she'd been told many times in New York City.
He sucked in an unsteady breath and then shook his head. "When I pictured this moment, you always had deep navy-blue tell-all eyes and long dark mahogany-brown hair."
She let the comment hang, took a bite and swallowed, until she could resist no longer. "When you pictured what moment?"
He stared out over the ocean, grinning like she had taken the bait, like he dared not look at her when he spoke or he might laugh aloud. "The moment when you could no longer deny it."
"You are no longer immune to me. The woman in you finally sees and accepts the man in me."
Instead of commenting, since she was momentarily dumbstruck, Sheri took another bite. So did Troy. They finished their delicious meal in silence.
Troy picked up his napkin and dabbed her left cheek, turning the wipe around to reveal barbeque sauce.
"Thanks." Her heart had pounded a little too anxiously for her comfort, so she decided to take a temporary break from his powerful proximity. She grabbed their empty plates and plastic silverware, heading toward a trashcan.
Off in the distance, in several different directions, congregation members were breaking into groups. Some playing softball, volleyball, or other less strenuous games. Some sitting in lawn chairs watching and talking. The squeal of childish laughter whipped past them in the warm wind.
Sheri stared at the children playing and smiled gently. She loved kids. Yet another common bond she shared with Troy as they worked together with the youth when they had lived in Texas. Troy would make a wonderful father someday. A wonderful husband, too, popped into her head without her permission.
Her eyes flew to Troy, who had also rose to stretch his long legs. Although he spoke with many folks, he kept his silver orbs aimed at her. He caught the wildly flung Frisbee flying by and handed it to a little boy who must have said something funny because Troy laughed.
Hearing the deep, rich, infectious timbre of his laughter, watching him with the child, melted the last of her resistance. Sheri ambled in his direction, smiling at him, just for him, in a purely feminine appreciative way. "You're a mighty good man, Troy Montgomery," she said softly when she reached him.
Then she stretched to tiptoes and pressed a quick kiss on his handsome cheek. "Good looking, too," she added in a whisper. Teasing him further, she sighed dramatically, patted one hand against her chest, and exaggerated her southern drawl. "Be still my beating heart."
He notched one ebony brow. "Wanna play, huh?" When he waggled that same brow, she giggled and ran toward the sandy beach.
Troy obliged her, chasing her to the edge of the water, but when he caught her, he slid one arm around her shoulders and dropped his mouth to her ear. "I'm not playing games with you, honey. At least not ones to wound your heart or mind."
From fun to serious in a half-heartbeat, although he released her immediately. Sheri searched his steady silver gaze, until she almost squirmed from the intensity.
She lifted one side of her mouth in a lopsided smile and queried him as her best friend. "What am I going to do with you, Troy?"
She rolled her eyes.
Sheri snorted. "You're hopeless."
"No," he stated in his firm yet quiet way. "I'm extremely hopeful."
With that, he led her from one group to another and introduced her to his Christian friends. The afternoon passed into evening as they joined in the fellowship and sports.
Being summer, twilight arrived much later that night. Sheri discovered Pastor Shaw had canceled the Sunday night service in favor of the church social. As the congregation slowly said their goodbyes, packed up, and headed home, Troy fetched the blanket he had brought along.
He grabbed her hand, intertwining their fingers, and ambled toward dry sand. After shaking out the blanket, spreading it open on the beach, he waved his arm toward it. "Ma'am." Then he waved his other arm toward the night sky. "Your observatory."
Oh how she loved to stare into the blue-black velvet universe, watching the stars glitter like angels winking, taking it all in until she was totally saturated with awe at God's handiwork. Troy knew that about her. He knew her. The real her. Only too well.
Sheri settled on the blanket and dropped back to soak in the magnificent scene. While Troy stretched out on his back, on the other side of the blanket, she remarked, "Something the Big Apple didn't offer. You couldn't see the stars from New York City."
"Nor from the bright lights of Atlanta," sounded close to a whispered warning.
"Did you miss Texas, Troy?"
He rolled up on one elbow. Although she couldn't make out his handsome features from that distance in the dark, she could virtually feel the power of his stare. "I missed you."
"You, Mr. Successful Security Software Businessman, were a workaholic. A very busy genius CEO. You didn't have time to miss me. Besides, any free moments, some drooling female snagged you away for a date."
Troy scooted a little closer. "I did miss you, Sheri. So much, in every way. And now I'm your date."
"Imagine that." She steered clear of uncharted waters, but stuck with the truth. "I missed you, too, Troy. Talking over the phone, chatting online, even e-mail, just isn't the same as being with you."
"Did you miss Texas?"
Sheri swallowed hard, thinking of her brother. "I missed Stevo."
"How about Clay?"
"Jealous?" she smirked.
"Sometimes," he said hoarsely with a note of disgust.
"It doesn't become you, Troy. Jealousy's a sin."
"Yes it is, Sheri Knight, and it leaves a wretched taste in your mouth, does it not?"
Her own jealousy earlier in the day must have been flagrant. She didn't bother to deny it, just grunted a wordless agreement.
He paused before reiterating, "Did you miss Clay?"
"Sometimes. I've known him my whole life, too. But not like you, bud. And now I'm your date."
"True enough," he murmured in a husky male timbre.
Alerted by his tone, Sheri rolled up on one cocked elbow and faced him. "Troy, how did that happen?"
"My best friend is male!" she interrupted. "A man. A potent one at that." Sheri slapped one hand over her mouth before removing it. "Sorry. Force of habit, telling you all my secrets."
His gleam of straight white teeth reflected off the moonlight. "Easy, honey. Don't run from me. Don't shut me out. Remember, you trust me more than anybody."
Her heartbeat accelerated to a drum roll against her ribs, pounding more loudly in her ears than the crashing roar of the waves. Over the salty tang in the warm wind, she could smell Troy's maleness. Sheri inhaled deeply and shut her eyes. "Mmm."
"Come closer, Sheri."
She opened her eyes in a millisecond.
He scooted, still up on elbow and facing her, until nearly at the middle of the blanket. "Meet me halfway."
She scooted until there was slightly more than a foot separating them.
"That's my girl." He reached over and covered her hand with his, dragging it to the middle of the blanket between them, interlocking their fingers.
"Now, Sheri, I'll tell you what I missed. I missed my lifelong best friend, my confidant. I missed my prayer partner. I missed your brilliant mind." Troy squeezed her fingers. "I missed the gorgeous woman with whom I am in love."
"Troy," she breathed, a little panicky about her new, but intense, attraction to him. As her best friend and the one person she could always count on to be there for her, she was bonded more tightly with him than with any other person on earth. But what now with this new depth between them?
"You belong to me, Sheri. Maybe not quite all the way yet. But soon, I will claim you as mine. Marry you. As soon as you get right with God. It's His plan for you. For me. For us."
"You sound confident of that, Troy."
"I am. I claim it in the Name of Jesus!"
"I see," she uttered. "Practically a done deal then."
Without conscious thought, she stared at his mouth and licked her own lips. She'd never really considered how kissable he was.
"Go ahead, Sheri." He leaned toward her. "Kiss me." Troy leaned closer still. "A little added incentive to get right with God." Then he grinned. "And not a peck on the cheek."
"Oh." She swallowed hard again. He knew her too well.
"You know I won't let it go any farther than a kiss. A real kiss. Let me commit your taste to memory until I can claim you."
She groaned and shut her eyes. Kiss him, a real kiss? Right here, right now? Stake her future claim?
Or wait until she repented and was on the right track with Jesus forever as the Bible warned against believers and non-believers? She was a believer, just a backslid one. What to do?
Kiss Troy, for real, right this second? Wait to kiss him until she changed back into the real Sheri of old, the woman who Troy loved and wanted to claim?
Troy and Sheri, under the stars, on the beach
Stars twinkle and wink, waiting to see what she decides.