Sheri snatched the oxygen mask to cover her nose and mouth as it dropped down from the compartment above while the DC-9 lost the second and final engine and prepared for an emergency landing at the Atlanta International Airport. Despite the stewardess advising the passengers to lean over in the seat with their head between their knees, Sheri sucked oxygen into her lungs and watched out her small jet window.
If this was the ending moment of her life, she knew she needed to get right with God. Ever since her brother Steve died while driving up to New York City to visit her at the university, Sheri had been angry, backsliding from God, unforgiving toward the trucker who sideswiped Steve. She changed everything about her life immediately after Stevo's funeral during spring break.
At that instant, the DC-9 bounced down hard onto the flight line. Careening along the runway, crisis rescue vehicles in pursuit, the jet finally came to a screeching halt.
The stewardesses immediately directed shaky passengers out the emergency exits. Sheri grabbed her briefcase and jumped onto the inflated yellow slide, zipping down to the solid footing of the runway. Commuters loaded into carts to taxi them to the airport.
She no sooner entered the building than she saw to her surprise, two men, different as day and night, awaiting her. With little more than a nod in greeting, she made time for the room in the airport designated for smokers. After the anxiety of nearly dying, she needed a cigarette. Both men followed her to the smokers' lounge, yet neither one entered.
As she sucked nicotine deeply into her lungs, she studied the men. Troy Montgomery, her best friend all her life, dressed in a black power suit, looking handsome as always and every inch the polished professional he was. And Clay Dillenger, her older brother Steve's best buddy, the man she had such a crush on as she grew up in Texas, dressed in broken down boots, black Stetson, and looking exactly like the handsome rugged cowboy he was.
She noticed both men stood outside the lounge scowling at her while she smoked. Neither had seen her smoke before. Of course, neither had seen her since she changed her dark brown hair to blond and her deep blue eyes to green with contacts. She'd changed everything, from appearance to taking up smoking after Steve's death. She was surprised either one of them recognized her at all.
What were they doing here? Yes, both knew she had just graduated with her masters degree in computer science, coming to Atlanta to secure a job in software security.
All of them, her brother, Clay, and Troy had been raised in a small Texas town, attending the same church. All of them accepted Jesus as their Savior around the same time. Steve had raised her since she was ten when drunk drivers crashed into their parents' car, killing them instantly. She had pretty much cut off most communications with Troy and Clay after they all attended Steve's funeral over spring break.
As soon as she left the bluish-white cloud of smoke in the lounge, back into the main part of the airport, Troy slid one arm through hers to escort her. Clay frowned at her, but followed along at her other side. Troy stopped in front of an airport pub.
Troy cocked one ebony brow and pointed toward the bar. "Is this your next stop? Getting drunk?"
Sheri rolled her eyes. "I'll pass, thank you. I don't drink, but you're lucky I only smoked one cigarette after that close call on the runway."
Clay stroked one large calloused hand down her long blond hair. "I hardly recognized you. You looked better as a brunette with the prettiest blue eyes I've ever seen."
She swept her eyes from the top of his black cowboy hat where golden hair curled at his nape, down over t-shirt, blue jeans, and scuffed brown boots. Then she grinned. "You look the same, Clay. Pure cowboy. Texas rancher practically stamped on you."
After giving Troy the once over too, ebony hair cropped into a short spike, expensive executive black suit and highly polished dress shoes, Sheri propped her hands on her hips. "Why are you here? Both of you? Either of you?"
The men exchanged looks before responding. She looked first at her lifelong best friend, into Troy's silver eyes, then into the deep brown eyes of Clay. "Well?"
Clay cleared his throat. "You had plans with Steve to spend the summer in Texas after you finally graduated."
She frowned. "Steve isn't in Texas now."
Troy jumped into the conversation. "He's in heaven now with the rest of your family. That leaves us to watch out for you."
"In case you boys didn't notice, I'm all grown up. I can take care of myself. Besides, Troy, you promised me a job in your software company. We always said we'd move to Atlanta and together make our mark."
Troy nodded and grinned the same playful grin he had since a boy. "That's right, but not until after the end of summer vacation."
As they walked the long distance to await her luggage, Sheri refuted, "I don't see the point in waiting until the fall. If you won't give me a job this summer, I'll find another. I'll stay in a hotel until I find an apartment."
Troy shook his head. "You are taking the summer off, one way or the other."
Clay drawled, "I surely need a housekeeper for the summer. Minnie moved to Dallas to help out her daughter and son-in-law. Her daughter is gonna have twins. The doc ordered bed rest."
She lifted her lips in a lopsided grin. "I have my masters in computer science, not housekeeping."
Clay frowned again. "Listen, Sheri, you promised Steve to spend the summer in Texas. Besides, my mom's really gone and done it. Without consulting me, she placed an ad and photo in one of the rancher magazines, as a bachelor needing a wife. Then out of the hundreds of women who responded, she handpicked a half dozen for me to date."
Sheri couldn't help it. She hooted as red crept up his neck to cover his handsome face. If this good-looking successful rancher wanted a wife, he could no doubt have his pick of Texas beauties. She wondered why he had never married.
Troy touched her elbow again. "But if you want to stay in Atlanta, I'll take you to an island off the east coast to vacation for a while."
Now, Troy had always had females swooning at his feet. Whoever he was currently dating would not appreciate Sheri coming into the picture. Even though they had always been best friends, platonic friends only.
Why did she get the idea the men had some type of secret plan? As if to confirm it, Troy added, "You've changed, Sheri. You're running from God now. You need to forgive the trucker who crashed into Steve."
Clay jumped in. "We're just gonna help ya get right with God again."
To her ultimate relief, luggage started shooting out the top slot, sliding down into the rotating luggage pick-up. The very first bag was hers. Unfortunately for her, the very last bag was her second piece of luggage. Clay grabbed one and Troy the other.
What was she going to do about them? She didn't want to return to the land of her heart, where painful memories of Steve would haunt her. Nor did she want to vacation on an island. She wanted to find a job and work long hours until she could fall into bed at night exhausted and sleep, instead of laying there thinking, gears in her mind grinding a hundred miles per hour, brain unwilling to shut down, heart urging her that she was missing some major element in her life.
Both men pivoted to face her.
Caught in the golden brown gaze of Clay, her stomach flipped over when he drawled softly, "Come with me to my ranch for the summer. Come back to Texas. Come with me, Sheri."
She blew out a hard exhale and broke eye contact with Clay only to lock onto the silver gray stare of Troy. His baritone smoothed over her. "Stay with me, Sheri. Stay on my island for the summer. Stay with me and we'll take over Atlanta, just like we planned."
The rugged cowboy who she once had such a crush on, her brother's best friend, or her own very best friend? Obviously, they were going to ensure she took the summer off with one or the other.
Sheri tossed up her hands in the air and again made time for the designated smoking room in the airport.
This time though, she no sooner lit a cigarette than both men shadowed her footsteps into the smoking lounge. She took a deep drag of nicotine into her lungs before slowly blowing it out her mouth.
Troy hitched a thumb toward Clay. "Choose. Him or me."
Clay snatched the cigarette right out of her lips before handing it to Troy who broke it in half and ground it out in overflowing ashtray.
Sheri fisted hands on her hips. "Hey! Do you know how expensive those are?"
One side of his mouth tipped into a lopsided grin, dimple flashing, as Clay replied, "Nasty habit. Cowboy killers."
Troy nudged her cocked elbow with his. "Think of the money you'll save, Sheri."
She mashed her molars before grinding out, "Maybe I'm not going with either of you for the summer."
Clay lifted one finger to slide up his Stetson a notch. "Try to leave without one of us and I'll rope you right in the airport and take you to Texas with me."
Before she could even sputter her indignity, Troy whispered in an amused tone, "I recall when at one time, you would have liked to hear him say that about lassoing you. But we both know he just made you mad as a shaken wasp nest, so let's get out of here, Sheri. You and me."
Who should she choose? Rugged rancher, handsome cowboy Clay? Or polished professional, gorgeous yet platonic best friend Troy? Both good upstanding Christian men, although different in looks and mannerisms as day and night.