Sheri set out to wipe the smirk off his handsome face. "Which do I choose?" She walked to the utility room where she pulled a quilt off the upper shelf. After crooking her finger for Clay to follow her, she dashed out the back door.
Then she tossed the blanket onto the grass, spreading it out. She plopped down and then lay back on the blanket to stare in awe at the stars.
She patted her hand on the blanket. "You can't see the stars from New York City. You don't know how I've missed that. Come observe the universe with me and then I'll tell you."
He hesitated a heartbeat or two before shrugging and dropping onto his back on his side of the blanket. After he took off his hat, laced his fingers behind his neck, elbows cocked out, he whispered, "Well? Which one?"
Sheri propped up on elbow beside him, looking down in the dark at his shadowed handsomeness. "Oh, I think I'll stand and fight any woman trying to claim you." With that, she leaned forward, over his head, lowering her lips to his.
His baritone sounded breathless, a notch deeper, rougher. "Neither one of us can claim the other until you get right with God again. Until you are once more as devoted to Jesus as I am."
He unlaced his fingers and folded his arms around her. "First thing to work on, forgiving yourself for Steve's death. Forgiving God. Forgiving the truck driver."
When he pulled her head down on his shoulder, Clay drawled on and on about Steve. Stories she knew by heart, stories new to her ears. His southern accent more pronounced, a sign of his pain. His pain triggered hers as the stories pounded away at the barrier around her heart, finally demolishing her defenses.
Tears, scalding hot, pooled in her eyes before sliding down her face to land on his t-shirt. Stevo! How I miss you! Her grief broke through and she sobbed against Clay.
He smoothed one large hand down over her crown and back, rocking her slightly, praying aloud softly the whole time she cried.
Finally, she hiccupped and pushed back from the comforting haven of his strong arms.
When she sat up, he did, too, taking the end of his t-shirt to wipe her tear-streaked face. "It'll still hurt, Sheri, but the ache will lessen every day."
When she stood, he rolled to his feet, pulling the quilt into his arms. "Goodnight, Clay," she whispered.
Although she slept, grief exhausted, Sheri had fixed breakfast by dawn. She attacked the large ranch house, dusting, mopping, vacuuming, and changing bed sheets, until she finished with just enough time to cook lunch.
When the doorbell rang, Clay wiped his mouth on a napkin and started to rise.
"Let me get it. Please, finish your lunch." Even while Sheri walked to answer the door, she glanced at her watch. It was a few moments past noon. Clay's beauty queen date wasn't due until one. Oh yes, Sheri wanted to answer the door.
The doorbell rang again just as Sheri swung open the door and pasted on a smile as she looked the woman over. Wow. Beautiful. Poised.
The shapely blond demanded, "I'm Betsy and I've come for Clay."
Sheri stopped smiling. "I'm sure you have."
"Who are you?" Betsy demanded yet again.
"I'm Sheri. Clay's housekeeper."
Betsy pointed at the large suitcase on the porch. "Do get my bag."
"Of course," Sheri muttered, trying to decide which way would be best to fight for Clay. Like a she-cat, or kill the other woman with kindness? Sheri picked up the suitcase and stifled a grunt. "What do you have in here? And how long are you planning to stay?"
Betsy laughed, a tinkling sound. "As long as it takes."
Clay walked into the room and frowned at Sheri before grabbing the heavy suitcase out of her hand. Then he nodded in greeting to Betsy. "Howdy. I'm Clay and she's Sheri."
Betsy rested one perfectly manicured hand on his forearm. "I'm Betsy Austin."
"Nice to meet you, Betsy," Clay drawled. "Let me show you to your room."
Sheri watched as they disappeared upstairs.
Growling in her throat, she sped into the kitchen to clean up after their noon meal. As she wiped off the kitchen table, she heard Clay return downstairs with Betsy, heard the practiced tinkling laughter of Betsy. Wasting not another moment, Sheri squared her shoulders, trying to keep in mind her role in this household as housekeeper, trying to figure out a polite way to kick Betsy out of this house and far from Clay.
Clay sat on one end of the couch, Betsy the other, facing each other. Sheri cleared her throat. "May I get you something to drink? Lemonade? Iced tea? Soda?"
Betsy clapped her hands together once. "Let's have champagne to celebrate."
Celebrate what? Surely Sheri hadn't left them alone long enough to be toasting their nuptials!
Clay crossed his arms over his chest and looked directly at Sheri. "I don't drink alcohol at all. Ever. I don't do drugs, chew tobacco, snuff, or smoke. And I expect the same from my wife."
Sheri swallowed hard.
Betsy regained his attention. "Clay, I could live like that too. Addiction free."
Sheri hitched her thumb behind her to the kitchen. "I'll go get you some iced tea."
Yet that took almost no time before she was back. She carried in three glasses, one for herself, and smiled despite her actions. She sat down on the couch between Clay and Betsy, ignoring Clay's hitched brow and grin. She told him that she'd fight for him, and she would.
She picked a fine time to interrupt, too, since Betsy had just asked Clay to summarize what he was looking for in marriage, in a wife.
Clay once again stared at Sheri as he answered Betsy. "My wife must share my beliefs about Jesus and about God's will. Our marriage will be man and woman in love forever with God at their center."
"That's exactly what I've been looking for," Betsy said with her beauty queen smile.
"I'm sure you'll find it, Betsy," Clay drawled.
Betsy looked at Clay; then she looked at Sheri before glancing back at Clay. "Do you have a specific woman in mind for marriage?"
This time Clay leaned up, reaching over Sheri to clasp Betsy's hand. "I'm sorry, Betsy. My mom advertised and conducted interviews without my knowledge. If she'd asked me, then I'd have told her my heart belongs to a dark-brown-haired girl with deep blue eyes. She is the woman God has chosen for me, His will, once she is as totally committed to Him again as I am."
Betsy's beautiful face look pain-stricken and she whispered, "I could color my blond hair to brown?"
"You have gorgeous blond hair," Sheri uttered in response.
Clay squeezed Betsy's hand in his. "You are perfect the way you are and you are going to make some good Christian man a terrific wife."
Betsy narrowed her eyes on Sheri before glancing again at Clay. "You are obviously a good Christian man. Kind. Handsome. Successful. And unfortunately, taken. Is it a waste of my time to stay here for a while, for us to get to know each other better?"
Clay released her hand and answered quietly. "You are welcome to stay the weekend at the Swinging D. With Sheri and I."
"I think I'll leave now."
"As you wish," Clay nodded. Then he headed upstairs to retrieve her luggage and load it in the car.
Betsy glanced at Sheri and whispered, "You heard him; your hair's not brown or eyes blue, so you don't stand a chance either. Why do you appear so pleased?"
Sheri ran one hand over her hair. "I know the woman who he wants to claim as his own."
Betsy walked to the car to join Clay. He brushed his lips across her cheek and shut the driver's door after Betsy slid in.
As soon as Betsy drove off, Sheri dashed back into the house and tried to get her smirk under control.
Hearing the front door click shut, she spun around to face Clay. Gold-rimmed eyes glowed around his brown pupils.
"The woman I'm after is running. But I'll get her even if I have to rope her and take her to church with me."
She stepped backward, slowly retreating, until backed against the wall. Her heart and breaths hitched unsteadily.
"Do you forgive God yet for Steve's death?"
"Yeah," she whispered.
"Do you forgive yourself?"
"Ready to tell the truck driver who sideswiped Steve that you forgive him?"
"The choice must be given in free will." Clay braced his arms on either side of her, trapping her between the wall and his chest. "But I'm not above trying to influence you." He lowered his head and buried his face in her hair, beside her ear. "If you'll only get right with God again, Sheri, then you are the woman who God promised me as my wife."
She shivered as he breathed deeply in her ear. His brawny arms caged her in place. He lowered his mouth and shut his eyes, while his lips moved in silent prayer. All she had to do to kiss him was meet him halfway. She rocked up on her toes, raising her hands to his broad shoulders, and lightly pressed her lips to his.
At first he froze before groaning quietly and slanting his lips over hers.
Sheri jerked back, banging her head on the wall behind her. She lifted one shaky hand over her tingling lips, burning like he had zapped her with a thunderbolt. Ducking under his arm, she fled.
He didn't try to kiss her again for two weeks.
She participated in their nightly Bible reading and prayer. Little by little, repenting sin by sin, she was drawing closer to God.
The next Friday morning, Sheri toted the laundry basket of Clay's clean clothes up to his bedroom. The door was pulled to, but not clicked closed. She pushed one arm against the wooden door and it silently swung open. There was Clay, kneeling beside his bed with the open Bible on the mattress before him. He was the real thing, lived what he believed, a good Christian man.
Before she could flee, he looked up and saw her.
Holding the clothesbasket in front of her like a shield, she walked over to his dresser where she stacked the clean clothes. Although she dashed from the room, her radar picked up that he was following her downstairs.
Another of his mother-approved potential bride dates, the rodeo cowgirl, was scheduled to arrive this afternoon.
Sheri returned the clothesbasket before going into the den to sit in front of his computer.
She signed online and checked her e-mail. Last night she sent an e-mail to Troy; told him the torch she carried all these years for Clay was blazing out of control. Yes, she sent her best bud a SOS.
Clay sat in a leather chair facing her. "Writing Troy again?"
She looked up and smiled. "Yeah."
"Sheri, are you sure you aren't in love with Troy?"
"Not the way you mean, I'm not. How about you? Ready for another blind date?"
"That depends a lot on you, Sheri. Are you ready to forgive that trucker, hand over complete control of your life to Jesus forever?" Before she could answer, he added, "Or are you ready to watch me date another woman right in front of your face?"
"Date away. I have somewhere to go this weekend, so you're on your own Saturday. When I return, I'll use the guesthouse since your mother is on a cruise."
He raised one brow and rose from his chair, coming around to lean against the desk next to her computer chair. "Where are you going?"
"Where God seems persistent that I go. To Dallas."
He sucked in an unsteady breath. "To talk with the trucker who sideswiped Stevo?"
Sheri frowned, looking down, but his slid one finger under her chin to tip up her eyes to his. "Yeah," she whispered.
"Want me to come along, Sheri?"
She lifted her lips in a tiny lopsided smile. "You've got a hot date."
He laughed. "I thought you were going to fight for me. Betsy didn't even make it an hour. How long will it take you to get rid of Rhonda the rodeo cowgirl?"
She laughed, too, until Clay bent over and placed his face a couple inches from hers.
"I want to kiss you, darlin'."
She gulped audibly.
"And I want you to really kiss me back this time."
Her palms broke into a sweat. Did she dare kiss him again before she was fully back in God's good graces? If she kissed him, wouldn't it solidify them into a couple? "Do you want to become a couple first, going with me to see the trucker? Or do you want Jesus to have complete control of my life first, before we become man and woman honoring God?"
He stroked his knuckles over her cheekbone. "I told you, I may try to influence you, but in the end, it's all your choice."
Should she forgive the trucker on her own? Or should she kiss and commit to Clay first?