As if her eyes had a will of their own, Sheri slid her gaze back to Clay.
He shot her with a streak of straight white teeth gleaming against tanned skin. One dimple pitted on his left cheek even as he drawled, "I knew you couldn't pass up Texas. It's in your blood. Your heart. Your native home." He held up two airline tickets to Dallas.
Heat crept up her neck to burn her face with embarrassment. She had chosen Clay and he knew it. So sure of her answer, he already bought them both a ticket home.
Disappointment flashed in Troy's silver orbs for a heartbeat or two. Then he shot her a lopsided grin, too, before cocking his elbow to escort her to her new departure gate. He handed her luggage to Clay, along with a low growl. "You better take real good care of her, Clay Dillenger."
Bending down, Troy brushed his lips over her cheek. "Have a great summer, Sheri. I'm only a phone call, or e-mail, away. You're in my prayers every day." With that, polished professional Troy Montgomery pivoted and walked away.
Clay shifted his weight before sauntering over to the check-in counter to tag and load her luggage.
Before she joined him at the counter, she studied him. Faded blue jeans sheathed his long strong legs. Large scruffy beat up cowboy boots, white t-shirt, golden hair curling under the rim of his black Stetson, gold rims circling his brown eyes with small wrinkles fanning outward from the hot sun. Pure cowboy putting on airs for no man. Hardly looking like the successful Texas rancher he was.
When she realized he was grinning at her as if he felt her taking his inventory, Sheri groaned and shut her eyes. It was a long time ago when she had a crush on him. She'd outgrown it. He was her brother's best friend, always treating her like a little sister. Yet his grin suggested something not so brotherly.
Clay shook his head once while he reached out one large calloused hand to sweep gently down her hair. "Blond? Green-eyed? Smoking? Who are you and what have you done with Sheri?"
Even as they were called to their seat on the jet, Sheri frowned. Yes, she'd changed everything about her, about her lifestyle, shortly after Steve was killed three months ago in a wreck while driving up to spend spring break with her in New York City. After they were seated on board, she confided softly, "I've changed, Clay."
He sighed deeply and nodded. "I know, but God's whispering in your heart to come back to Him. He has a plan for your life and you're running from it. I can't let you continue off course of God's will."
"What right do you have to interfere in my life at all?"
He stroked the back of his knuckles over her closest cheekbone. "Maybe I'm a part of the plan He has for you, Sheri. Maybe it affects my life, what you choose to do. Maybe He's laid you on my heart many times a day for the last three months."
Maybe she just wouldn't comment on what he said. Instead, she gripped the seat handles tightly as the jet started to roll down the runway, picking up speed. From her earlier near miss in an aircraft, Sheri heaved an unsteady breath and shut her eyes.
One large gentle hand curved over hers on the handle until their fingers laced together. When she glanced at Clay, his eyes were closed, lips moving almost unconsciously. She remembered that look. He was praying!
"Oh, Clay," she whispered as the jet lifted for take off. Why had she chosen to spend the summer with Clay? It would probably kill her when he treated her like his little sister, watching him date the Texas beauties chosen by his mother. It could never be more between them than the sibling type love. She knew Clay was a devoted Christian; knew she was not anymore.
Despite the smooth flight to Dallas, Sheri's mood darkened even more after Clay led her to his small four-seater airplane where she discovered the rancher magazine crinkled up and tucked next to his pilot seat. Indeed, the picture his mom sent in of Clay standing next to his horse, captured the humble good-looking rancher laughing unguardedly.
The cowboy in the photo appeared solid, dependable, devastatingly handsome and rugged. How many hundreds of women answered the ad of a single Christian man seeking a wife?
He hitched a brow when she scowled at him. "What's wrong, Sheri?"
She humphed him and turned her attention back out the window as he received permission from the tower for take off.
After he had them at the proper altitude, and had trimmed the plane to hold its course, Clay swiped the magazine from her hand with a frown of his own and crinkled it back into place beside his seat. His southern drawl smoothed over her, deep baritone sinking in all the way to her bones. "It's about choice, Sheri. Free will to choose. I may try to influence you, but all of it is your choice in the end."
For a heartbeat or two, she luxuriated in the golden brown velvet of his eyes, kind and gentle, almost caressing her, almost making her wonder if he meant more than her choice in her relationship with Christ. Almost. And just like that, she opened her purse and fingered her cigarettes nervously. She must need to smoke if she even for a second believed Clay was seeing her as a woman, and not just as Steve's little pest of a sister with a terrible crush on him.
He chuckled after heat again crept up her neck to set her face ablaze. The dimple in his cheek flashed. Clay pointed at the controls in front of her. "You wanna fly us?"
So he remembered teaching her to fly, helping her earn her private pilot's license? For some unexplainable reason, that pleased her greatly. They had spent hours upon hours alone while she learned to fly, during the year before she moved to New York City to attend the university.
She closed her fingers over the controls and pushed down slightly to get a feel for the airplane. In a few minutes, she pulled back on the controls to lift the nose until they reached an angle where the plane stopped climbing and stalled at zero gravity. Weightlessness on earth.
How many times had they prayed for God to grant them a hedge of protection before spending hours in the air, learning to stall and how to control the plane when it dropped or spun? Learned to control the plane even with a hood on, flying blind, testing for visibility rating. They both enjoyed the rush of adrenaline as they cheated death time and again.
Clay settled his hands over his controls, too, as the stall warning blew shrilly and the plane stalled as they reached weightlessness. He glanced at the pencil she released in the air, floating for a few seconds to defy gravity, before the plane dropped toward the right wing, sending them into a spin. He adjusted his feet on the rudder pedals as Sheri did the steering, restarted the engine, and pulled up and out of a downward spin.
"Yeehaw!" she laughed and shifted her attention to Clay.
He caught her captive with his golden brown eyes and waggled his eyebrows. "Yahoo! Yeah, the Sheri I knew and loved is still a part of you. I wonder how much has changed?"
Instead of answering him, she pointed out the window at the plane's shadow surrounded by the rainbow circle of light on the clouds below them. "Look. Our halo."
Air control at the Dallas tower released them to descend for landing at the little private strip. After Clay replied to the tower, he pointed at the controls again. "Wanna land?" he asked with a chuckle.
Land? Ah, landing was the hardest thing for her to grasp when he taught her to fly. She could flare the nose, but at first bounced them down hard on the runway. She answered the challenge she heard in his voice. "I can do it."
"I know," he agreed solemnly.
She hoped she didn't make a mockery of his simple faith in her ability and slowed their descent, turning into a landing pattern, opening flaps, slowing to about sixty miles per hour to flare the nose on the aircraft and drop smoothly for touchdown onto the runway. She blew out a sigh of relief. She hadn't been sure she could still do it, but it was just like learning to ride a bike. You never truly forgot.
Clay took over control of the airplane, taxiing down the runway, steering with the rudder pedals until slowing to park in an open metal hangar. Within a few minutes, he tossed her luggage in the back of his dusty pickup.
She laughed out loud when she opened the passenger side with creaky hinges. "Glad to know some things don't change, cowboy."
He bowed slightly at the waist. "Yes, ma'am."
Sheri lifted one hand to stop him as he started the engine. "Don't yes ma'am, southern charm me. It's a wasted effort."
She cleared her throat then took a deep breath and dived into treacherous depths. "Tell me about these upcoming dates."
His brows scowled into a V as he drove. "Women my mom thinks will make a good wife. She's gone too far in her desire for grandchildren."
Clearly, he didn't want to talk about it. It appeared as if he didn't like to even think about it. Why wasn't he, a real life good man, married? He'd make a wonderful husband and terrific father.
Twin polar opposite reactions zoomed to the surface, tearing her with conflicting emotions. She wanted to see him happy. He deserved it. The part of her choking on jealousy warred with the part of her playing matchmaker.
The matchmaker prodded her. "Knowing your mom, she surely chose only the best as your future bride. Maybe you should take it seriously."
"Yeah, blind dates are really great."
"I'm sure they are beautiful Texas belles."
His lips thinned into a fine white line. "Yeah, wait until we get back to the ranch and I'll show you their letters and photos. Of course my mom did the interviewing. She didn't want me to find out she'd posted an ad like I was advertising for a mail-order bride."
Thinking of these great potential wives, jealousy rose from her heart to choke off the breath in her throat. "You've never lacked in female attention, so why aren't you married with children yet? A little miniature of you as heir to the Swinging D?"
He seemed to consider her question before he said slowly, "Maybe I'm on God's timetable, awaiting God's will for the right woman at the right time to come along. My marriage will be like a trio, man and wife with God at their center."
She lifted her eyebrows then rolled her eyes.
"Maybe I already know God's will. Maybe I already know who the right woman is even if she doesn't know it yet."
Jealousy zapped her like lightning again. So he had a special woman in mind for marriage? Planned to end his bachelor lifestyle? Some woman was unbelievably blessed.
Well, she wanted him to be happy. Didn't she? Should she try to play matchmaker, or should she try not to be jealous?
He turned right onto the long paved driveway leading to the sprawling ranch. She noticed a couple new corrals before locking her eyes onto his ranch. His old housekeeper lived downstairs in her bedroom, but he had a little cottage behind his house that his mother preferred living in.
"Will you stay in my home like Minnie did?"
"Is your mom staying in the guesthouse?"
"Whenever she's home."
She kicked one toe into the ground. If he didn't consider it improper, what with all the ranch hands and his mother darting in and out of the picture, then he must still be seeing her in little sister mode. Not as a woman. Ok, so she could stay in the house.
Although extremely familiar with his ranch, since Steve had lived there as ranch foreman for a decade, and she spent countless hours here, Sheri followed Clay into air-conditioned comfort. He carried her luggage to the cozy bedroom off the kitchen, Minnie's old room.
That's what she was here for, wasn't it? To keep the house clean and the meals cooked? She ignored the twinge to her conscious. Surely she hadn't chosen Clay because she still carried the torch of young love?
Before he sat down her bags, Clay drawled softly, "Would you rather stay upstairs in your old room? The room you used during school breaks spent visiting Stevo?"
The bedroom across the hall from Clay? "No, thank you. This is fine."
He tossed both bags onto her full-sized bed.
"Poor fella. Depending upon me to keep your house clean and your meals cooked. You'll probably starve in a messy house."
"Just so long as you protect me from the she-wolves my mother has chosen."
She laughed aloud at that. "Am I to be your bouncer, your knightess is shining armor?"
"Maybe." He leaned closer to her and breathed in deeply next to her hair, filling his lungs with her scent. "Mmm-maybe."
She scooted one step back from him. "Seriously, Clay, do you want me to play matchmaker? Or . . . ?"
"Or what?" he whispered.
Or what indeed. Suggest that the mere idea of him dating, seeking a mate to end his bachelor life, nearly choked the life out of her jealous heart? No, she wouldn't say that!
"Or what?" he prodded again.
"Just or what." She couldn't decide if she should play matchmaker, or be jealous. How should she react?