CHANGE OF HEART:
Clay - Be Jealous
Play matchmaker? Ha! I don't see that ever happening, bemoaned her heart. Jealous? Her? Yes, and it made her mad enough to spit.
So she faced the ugly truth. She had never gotten over Clay. Never stopped loving him. She'd sooner play saboteur than matchmaker for his dates.
"Tell me, Sheri, what all those emotions racing across your lovely face mean?"
She cocked her elbows on her hips. "Means, scat, cowboy, out of my bedroom, so I can unpack."
Alone to unpack, she rushed through it, anxious to learn more about the women he was supposed to date, consider as potential wife material.
Sheri found him sitting in front of his computer in the den. Scowling at the screen, he rubbed the bridge of his sculptured nose with forefinger and thumb. "Hi," she said with a grin.
He scooted one finger up to the brim of his hat, saluting her. "Howdy, ma'am."
His honey-dripped baritone oozed between the cracks in the wall around her heart. How she had longed for home and a southern drawl when surrounded by the harsher New York accent! His voice had always melted her bones to a pile of mush. She'd had a crush on him since about the time her parents died, since she was ten.
She grinned at him again. "Howdy, cowboy. Whatcha doin'?"
He waved one arm toward the computer screen and sneered at it. "My least favorite part of my job. Paperwork."
For a second, she started to walk around and read over his shoulder. Did he need a computer program written specifically for the Swinging D? She nearly succumbed to her field of expertise before recalling why she had come to find him in the first place. "May I have a look at those photos and letters of your mother-approved potential brides?"
He snorted, but reached into his desk. "Sure, why not?"
Now what had she done to disappoint him? Something that resembled pain flashed for a heartbeat or two in his golden brown gaze.
After returning her attention toward the six photos, Sheri let out a low whistle. "Well, well, well."
Clay tugged on the rim of his black Stetson, pulling it lower on his forehead, hiding his eyes. He stood before walking around to lean against his desk. He crossed one scruffy boot over the other at the ankle when she started reading the letters.
Wow. Not only gorgeous, but seemingly perfect in religious beliefs as well. From rodeo cowgirl to beauty pageant queen, covering every angle, a wide spectrum, to meet with his approval. Jealousy closed its evil hand around her throat until she gasped in one deep breath. "Which woman do you like best?"
He crossed his arms over his chest and held his silence.
"Which one would Stevo have wanted you shackled to?"
This time, Sheri was certain that flaring emotion in his eyes was hurt. She understood hurt only too well.
Clay raked one large hand down his face. "Stevo knew and approved of my choice."
Steve had known? At least three months ago? Her heart slammed out a beat like a bass drum in a parade. Her ears started ringing. "I need to smoke," she muttered, turning on her toe, ignoring him when he called her a chicken.
After fetching her cigarettes and lighter, she escaped out the backdoor, respectful of the Dillenger ranch. No one else smoked.
Yet she no sooner torched the end and took a deep drag, than the backdoor swung open. Tall, solid, handsome, Clay filled the doorway before stepping forward to spin her toward him.
"Steve would tan your hide if he saw you smoking."
She blew out a bluish white stream of smoke and shrugged. "Steve isn't here anymore."
"Maybe I should tan your hide for smoking."
"I'm not answerable to anyone, all alone in the world."
Was he trying to kill her with the kindness emanating from his eyes? "You're not alone. You've got me. Got Troy. Got family. But one day you'll answer to God as you know."
"Yeah, sure. I know."
"How long until that day depends on how long you continue to consume these cowboy killers. How long have you been smoking?"
She made a move toward his hand, to retrieve her smoke, but he extended his arm up out of her reach. "Clay, give it back! I started smoking after my flight home, the night we buried Steve."
"Why?" He took off his hat and shook back his golden locks.
"For the same reason I changed everything about me."
"What are you running from? Besides God?"
"Give me my cigarette back and I'll tell you."
He handed it back and scowled when she took another drag.
After exhaling, she whispered, "It's my fault. Steve's death. He was coming to visit me, coming to a place he hated, coming to visit me over spring break so I'd come back to Texas this summer."
Clay yanked the cigarette out of her hand and ground it out beneath his boot heel. "No. It's not your fault, Sheri. Steve was set on visiting his baby sister in the metallic jungle, seeing how you survived alone in the big bad city."
He added softly, "I very nearly came along with him to see you, very nearly rode with him. Very nearly."
Forgetting he had just smashed her cigarette, she very nearly fainted when he stepped in closer, into her comfort zone of personal space.
He bent over, leaning his mouth closer to her ear, speaking softly in his southern drawl. "It's not your fault. It's not God's fault either. He doesn't do bad things to people. Stevo's in a much better place, looking down on us now."
She snorted. "God wants me to be totally alone."
"Not true," he whispered. "Lies from Satan. Can you believe God could take something as tragic as Steve's death and create something good out of it?"
"No," she choked. "I can't."
"Honey, you don't have to hurt all alone. I loved him, too, closer than brothers by blood, so I know how much it hurts." He closed brawny arms around her and pulled her into a comfortable haven against his chest.
Sheri relaxed and drew strength from him while he prayed quietly, drawing strength from God above. She felt so safe, protected, loved. As soon as she thought it, she pushed against his chest to escape his embrace.
One fat tear slipped by her barriers, scalding a wet path down her cheek to water-bomb his shirt. No! She couldn't cry. She hadn't cried once since Steve was killed. She couldn't cry, especially in front of Clay. He already thought her a little sister.
"You need delivered from smoking."
"I need a lot of things, Clay. Trust me, you wouldn't want to be anywhere within a ten mile radius of me if I were to try and quit smoking. I'm liable to be hot-tempered when the nicotine calls my name."
He grabbed her hand and shook it confidently. "Deal. You quit smoking and I'm dealing with a bold brat again."
"I'll try. Maybe I like to smoke, ever think of that?"
"Maybe I need to pray for you more often than a dozen times a day."
She humphed him. "I'm hungry. How many for supper?"
"Six. You and me. Angelo, Slim, Matt, and mom."
Nodding her understanding, Sheri walked back into the house to defrost a roast in the microwave. Quickly, she peeled and added vegetables to the glass cookware. What should she cook for Clay and his beauty queen date tomorrow? Mashing her molars together, she decided he might find his date less than perfect. With her help, wedded bliss might elude him yet. After sliding the food into the oven, she spun at the smooth sound of his voice.
"Why are you scowling now?" Clay asked, grabbing one of her hands, escorting her to sit beside him at the table.
"Wouldn't you like to know?" Despite her flippant answer, that unfamiliar trait struck again and her face baked in waves of heat, hot enough to sizzle an egg.
"Now I really want to know, Sheri."
She snagged one particular photo off the table where she had spread them for further study. "What would you like me to fix you and your beauty queen tomorrow night?"
His face darkened, closing off. "Doesn't matter."
"Fine. I boil you both a hotdog."
"Atta girl. Gourmet meal. That'll keep them from coming back. I knew I could count on you to come through for me."
"Is that what you really want, Clay? Don't you want to get married and have kids?"
"Yes, I want to marry the wife of my heart, have children from our bond of love, blessed by God."
"Then I think you should take it seriously. And perhaps I shouldn't plan to sabotage your dates."
He laughed, reaching across the kitchen table to squeeze her hand.
The contact jolted her senses, aware of him as a strapping male. "I need another cigarette," she admitted.
"Nic fit cravings, huh?"
He squeezed her hand again, before quietly insisting, "Close your eyes, Sheri. Try to be accepting and repentful, not running and rebellious."
Then he slid off his hat onto the table before lowering his blond head and praying softly for her. Praying that God would take away the cravings, take away the habit; take away her blinders as He whispered into her heart to come back to Him.
Again, tears pricked the back of her eyes when she added a quiet, "Amen."
Saved from making a bigger idiot of herself, she hastened to turn off the oven buzzer. Clay stepped outside to ring the chow bell. She had set the six table settings earlier, and took Angelo, Slim, and Matt's good-natured teasing about her hair and eye color, her cooking, before placing the roast in the center of the table.
Her stomach rolled over, protesting, her heart mimicking it, as she listened to Marge Dillenger talk about the six perfect women she had set up with her son; listened to Clay's mom practically beg for grandchildren.
The instant supper was over, Sheri couldn't get busy soon enough, loading the dishwasher and cleaning up. Ignoring the other five people in the room, she slipped out the backdoor.
She lifted her eyes to the night sky. Awesome! It had been a long time since she had been able to see the vastness of the stars, been a long time since she was humbled and awed.
The backdoor shut with a click. Clay walked over to her, carrying a blanket. He spread it out on the grass before waving one large hand toward it. "One more thing stays the same. Sheri loves to watch the stars, take in the universe as a whole."
With a grin, she dropped back on the blanket and marveled at the night sky. "You can't see the stars from New York City."
"You love the Texas skyline, no matter if you spent years in some major city. Everything's bigger and better in Texas."
"Spoken like the rancher you are."
"Stop fighting against God's will, Sheri. He has a plan for you, your life, knew your name even in your mother's womb."
"I was wondering if I should accept it, that you are about to start dating bride material, or . . .?"
"Or what?" he purred persuasively for the third time that day.
She met the challenge in his eyes, the dare to tell him precisely or what. "Or stand and fight for you before some other woman claims you. Grr. Makes me mad enough to hit you or kiss you. Or both; I don't know which."
He snickered. "And? Which do you choose?"
So he found her jealousy amusing? Should she react with anger, or kiss him, to get his full attention?
Sheri and Clay stargazing