Sheri glanced at the sun, estimating the time before sundown, two, maybe three hours of sunlight. How long would it take to swim to the east coast? She shivered when she thought of the sharks swimming beneath her, down beneath the dark depths, under the midnight velvet sky. Before she could lose her courage, she dove into the water, swimming strong and sure, plotting her course, and escaping Troy.
After no more than fifteen minutes later, she heard the revving engine of a speedboat. Tossing a glance over her shoulder, she treaded water. The red and white speedboat coasted into sight with engines off.
Troy leaned over the railing with arms crossed over his chest as if extremely aggravated, but he managed to sound nonchalant. "It's a long swim, Sheri. Thirty miles as the crow flies. Long night, swimming in the dark with sharks. Long way to go to smoke."
In most unladylike fashion, she spit a stream of water back into the ocean. His voice had gotten quieter and quieter, deeper and deeper. No doubt about it, Troy was furious! She no sooner realized it, the telltale signs, than he leaned over and clamped one iron fist onto her blouse collar.
"Get into this boat with me, right this second. Or turn around and swim back. You know they never could escape Gilligan's Island. Yes, ma'am, you're my guest for the entire summer. You're done running away, from God, and from me."
Out of pure stubbornness, she stated, "I'll swim back."
"You know I would never hurt you, Sheri, no matter how angry I get, don't you?" he asked quietly.
She nodded, "Yeah, I know. You're not that kind of man."
"Excellent," he growled while yanking her onto the boat deck with him. "Then you understand that I will protect you, even from yourself."
He wrapped a beach towel around her shoulders as water pooled off her pantsuit onto the gleaming wooden deck. "What are you so afraid of? Quitting smoking? Getting right with God? Or me?"
"Why would I be afraid of you, Troy?"
He lowered his head toward her face, staring at her lips. "You said you changed everything about you, dated a different dude each night. Yankees probably fought for your heart. I wonder how much you really have changed, Sheri?"
Inches away from her mouth, he whispered, "Are you still a virgin?"
Waves of sizzling fluid crept up her neck to set her face aflame with embarrassment.
"That's what I hoped." Then he brushed his lips over hers.
Sheri jerked back like he struck her with lightning and raised one shaky hand to cover her tingling lips.
Not at all, she wanted to shout. Not about to tell him, she stared at one of the buttons on his chest. "I just don't see you in that way."
"Is that so?" rang with distinct male challenge.
He swung one strong arm around her shoulders. He'd done it a hundred times before and she never noticed her female radar picking up on his charms. Troy tightened his arm, tucking her up close to his side. Red alert! He'd somehow changed to a potent male.
"I am a man, Sheri," he smoothed out in a southern drawl. "And I plan to make you aware of that fact if you aren't all ready. You've been my best friend all my life. It's like you belong to me."
"I belong to no man."
"Not even Clay?" he asked as quietly.
"I told you, Troy, I outgrew my puppy love and crush."
The boyish grin flashed again. "Yes, ma'am, I believe you did."
It was making her nervous, this awareness of him, and she grumped into the twilight, "I need a cigarette."
"You need deliverance from smoking. You need to turn from your season of rebellion. You need to forgive yourself, the truck driver, and God, for Steve's death."
"I need a lot of things, Troy. Right now it's a nic fit craving."
He grabbed one of her hands in his and rebuked her craving right on the spot, praying for Jesus to take away her unhealthy habit, to soften her heart toward God and Troy.
When her quiet, "Amen," joined his, Troy returned his attention to driving the speedboat back to the island.
They didn't speak again until they entered the back door and Mrs. Johnson announced dinner.
After Sheri changed into another female power suit, and Troy said the blessing, she ate a hearty meal. Full, she washed and dried the dishes.
Carrying a candle in the darkness, she explored the castle-like downstairs. A glassed-in sunroom led to another door. She turned the knob, swung the door open, and lifted her candle.
She shivered a second before Troy leaned over her shoulder to blow out her candle. He reached around the doorway to flick on the colored lights.
A tiny chapel!
"Have you been inside a House of God, since the chapel at the hospital when we prayed for Jesus to spare Steve's life?"
"No," she said succinctly.
"Oh, Sheri, you don't have to hurt alone, sweetheart."
With all haste, she sped from the chapel entrance into the glassed-in sunroom, dark now with night. "Who says I'm hurting?"
"I do. You're refusing to grieve at all, right?"
"Yes. I haven't shed the first tear."
"May I hold you, Sheri, while you cry, mourn the loss of your big brother?" Strong arms enclosed her in a comforting haven against his chest.
"If I start, I might never stop."
"You would when it hurt less." It sounded like his personal guarantee.
Her heart chugged a breathless beat, only too aware of him as a man. She relaxed and let him hold her. She felt protected. Safe. Loved.
As soon as she dared to think it, she pulled back away from him.
"You can't be strong all the time, Sheri. Know that I'm waiting. Turn it over to God." He pivoted and walked from the room.
Tilting her neck back, she stared out the glass ceiling windows and soaked in the twinkling stars. Awed as always at God's power.
She entered the tiny chapel before sitting on the first short pew. "Forgive me, Jesus. Take away my cigarette cravings. And please give me back my immunity to Troy."
"I rebuke that last request in the Name of Jesus. Soften her heart ever more to You. To me."
Impersonally, he scanned her waist with his hands. "Do you even weigh a hundred pounds anymore?"
"It's impolite for a man to ask a woman's weight."
"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."
Uh-oh, unfamiliar depths with her best bud again. Sheri rose and wandered the downstairs, changing the subject as he followed her from room to room. "How come I don't see any computers?"
He chuckled. "Online withdraws this time."
She shivered. "You could be dangerous, Troy, knowing me as well as I know myself."
"Dangerous, huh?" He stepped closer to her. "Does that mean you are no longer immune to me?"
"We were talking about computers, or the lack therein."
"The artist who mastered logic can't be without a computer for her private rehab?"
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, all working in harmony."
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 roared, "Troy!"
"Blessed dreams, Sheri," he called from downstairs before the back door banged shut.
The next morning, she craved nicotine as her first conscious thought after she awoke. In a foul mood, suffering withdrawals, she hopped up and opened the closet. What to wear? Oh no! She never considered what to wear when she was around Troy.
Settling for a businesswoman's black power suit, she pulled on the fitted dress. Black, a perfect reflection of her mood.
Quickly, she popped her green contacts over sad blue sapphire eyes. After running a brush midway down her back, over blond tresses, she humphed Troy in annoyance to her new reactions to him.
Barefoot, she skipped down the stairs, out the backdoor, to wade in the lapping waves on the shore. She dug her toes into the wet white sand.
Her female radar bleeped, and her annoyance grew to realize Troy had joined her. "Give me my carton of cigarettes!"
He chuckled. "Tsk, tsk. Temper, temper."
"It's not funny." She fisted one hand over the neckline of his knit shirt. "I need a cigarette!"
"You need to elevate your heart rate, so you can fake out your body into thinking you just smoked."
"Since when are you an expert on quitting smoking?"
"Since I could hear you smoking over the phone while we talked about your arrival in Atlanta."
"Grrr," she growled in her throat.
"Swimming is great exercise." With that, he scooped her into his arms and flung her out into the water.
She surfaced, trying to find the cool woman in the business suit, only to be saturated once more as a wave rolled over her. "Troy!" she sputtered.
Ignoring his jean shorts and shirt, he dived into the wave and surfaced next to her. One large hand raked over the glistening ebony spikes of his hair as he again captured her full attention with molten steel eyes. With one finger, he reached to tilt her head to his, leaning closer and 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?"
"Whatever works. You could go satisfy a craving by eating breakfast. And drink a lot of water."
Saltwater running rivers from her clothes, she stomped toward the house.
"Or you could simply turn your nicotine addiction over to Jesus." Troy caught up with her, closing one hand over her arm to spin her toward him. "First you must give Jesus complete 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."
He released her and she ran inside to change into a flowered dress.
After they both had eaten breakfast with the elderly Johnson couple, he escorted her into the chapel. From the podium, he lifted the Bible and quietly read to her for a while. He'd been her prayer partner since childhood. How many times had they read the Bible to each other? Prayed together?
Without warning, she rose from the pew and made time for the sunroom. Yet, Troy followed her retreat into the room full of tropical plants and an angel water fountain.
"Listen with your heart." When she didn't reply, he sighed. "Ok, Miss Computer Science, how about pure logic, plain and simple? Top ten list."
Troy clicked off fingers and reasons. "One, I love you and you love me already. Two, we know everything about each other. Three, you accept me unconditionally as I accept you."
She held up one hand to halt his flow of logic. Unable to meet his eyes, she lied. Bold as newly polished brass. "I am not attracted to you. It's as simple as that."
As she feared, he didn't let it pass. Cupping one side of her face, he raised her eyes to his liquid gray regard.
"Stare into my eyes and say 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.
"You've always succeeded in everything you set your heart on. 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? Mr. Faith-Speaking Positive? The man who accomplished every single thing he attempted?
He didn't try to kiss her again for a week, instead cemented his place in her heart as her best friend. Talking to him was probably saving her thousands in therapy. There was no lying to him, or herself; he knew and wouldn't allow it.
On Saturday morning, he disappeared with Mr. Johnson, coming back later with damp boxes full of supplies.
"Been boating?" she quipped.
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 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 to transform his masculine bedroom with a woman's touch.
Adding squirts of color to white paint, Sheri worked on one white wall to depict a beach scene mural. 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? An entire wall? There was no time to debate it, since Troy swung open the door.
"Wow, woman, making your mark on my territory?"
"It was too cold, all white. I've never considered you a cold man." Watching him study it, she rushed, "I can repaint it white again."
"No. Leave it. So real it's uncanny."
A shutter banged downstairs and she jumped.
"Tropical storm, unfortunately." He paused. "Come downstairs for a while."
The electricity blinked off. Blackness cloaked the room.
Troy slipped his arm around her waist, pulling her to his side. "I'll crank on the generator. Don't worry. God will protect us."
Later, after supper and Bible study, Troy scooted his chair right next to hers. "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."
Should she kiss him back? Or keep it platonic?
Sheri and Troy alone and safe