CHANGE OF HEART:
Troy - Keep Relationship Platonic
Sheri snorted ineloquently and rose to her feet in a rush. Had she actually considered kissing Troy? Time to flee his proximity before their platonic bond broke.
He stood suddenly also.
"Sorry, bud, but I'm not susceptible to your charm."
"I think you might be," Troy suggested quietly. "And the possibility has you running scared."
Arching one brow haughtily, she repeated, "Scared?" Then she stuck an index finger in her ear as if clearing her hearing. "Did you just call me scared, Troy Montgomery?"
"Yeah. Scared to allow the woman in you to see and accept the man in me. A platonic relationship, a peck on the cheek, is so much safer to your peace of mind . . . and heart."
"Are you fevered or something?" To emphasize her sarcasm, she raised her hand and felt his forehead.
"Or something," he said in a smooth baritone. In a flash, he grabbed her hand from his forehead and lowered it to his mouth.
Heat tingled from where his lips pressed against her palm, then again at her pulse-pounding wrist. Sheri jerked her hand away from him and stomped out of the kitchen.
But Troy followed her retreat. "Running away again, green-eyed Goldilocks?"
Sheri pivoted and pointed one finger at his chest. "Clearly, you need to get off this island and go on a date. You need-"
"You, Sheri. I need you. Not another woman. I'm in love with you."
"Grr," she growled low in her throat and stomped one foot. "Troy!"
He shook his head in mocking dismay, tsking her. "The truth surely does make you mighty mad since you changed everything about yourself, honey. May I add that you are beautiful even in your unbecoming fury?"
"No. You may not. You're technique of infuriating me to elevate my heartbeat and therefore help me kick the smoking habit is going to get you kicked."
Troy lifted both hands and settled them over her shoulders, then massaged her tense muscles.
Ah, glorious! She groaned and relaxed under his gentle care. Now this was the Troy she had known all her life. Touching her impersonally, platonically, in a non-gender-specific way, non-threatening. Sheri sighed and closed her eyes.
Suddenly his voice cut the silence, very close to her ear. "Maybe I'm trying to give you yet another incentive to get right with God."
Her eyes flew open, heart pounding in her throat, as she inhaled his masculine scent. Oh no. Not awareness again, despite her silent pledge to remain platonic. She licked her lips before she realized she was staring at his.
Troy was a man of integrity, a good Christian man with high moral standards in line with Bible teachings. He would never allow anything more to happen than a kiss. Sheri swallowed hard. A real kiss?
"Think about it, Sheri. Pray about it. You're right, your priorities. Get right with God first. Find out His plan for your life as He has told me. Find out His choice for your husband.
He whispered in her ear again. Hand over complete control of your life to Him first . . . and then I can claim you as mine. Marry you and make you mine, my wife, in every way."
At that, she spun away. Her intent was indeed to run, to hide in the relative safety of the upstairs. Yet, she did not want to hear Troy practically flat-out call her a chicken again. So she paced and paced and then paced some more, downstairs. The churning turmoil inside her matched the howling wind and window pounding rain of the tropical storm surrounding them.
Troy had chosen to flop back on the living room sofa, in the middle of the downstairs, watching her make her rounds. He stuck close, knowing how she felt about storms. Thankfully, though, he held his silence instead of mentioning yet another thing that scared her.
Finally she stopped directly in front of him and held out her hand. "Give me my one emergency smoke. Now!" she demanded.
Steely silver orbs locked onto her. The silence between them stretched, yet the noise of the intensifying storm filled the gap. Troy was challenging her, testing her resolve to smoke, to let the moment of weakness pass.
Hand still held out waiting, the force of his will stronger than hers to out-wait her, Sheri added a quiet, "Please. I'm having a serious nic fit."
"My life. My lungs. My habit. My one emergency smoke. My decision."
This time, he expelled a cleansing breath. "I concede. Back in a flash."
Within a minute, he returned and held out his large palm containing her one emergency cigarette and lighter. "Your smoke, ma'am." Then he lifted his other hand, palm up and waiting patiently. "Or you can take my hand and we'll pray your nicotine fit and fear of this storm away. Your decision."
Looking back and forth from the hand with the cigarette and the hand of faith, Sheri groaned.
He closed his eyes and she knew he was praying again, praying for her. He was the one person on earth she could always count on. Her best friend, always with what was best for her in mind.
Tears unexpectedly stung her eyes and she blinked rapidly to avoid spilling them. Sheri sniffled once. What was happening to her? What was happening with their platonic relationship? "Oh, Troy," she breathed.
She wasn't exactly sure how it happened, propelled by the power of prayer or her own will, but she stepped into his personal space, then past it to rest her head against the steady reassuring thud of his heart.
His arms wrapped around her, pulling her into his protective embrace, so safe and loved.
He rubbed one hand over her crown, down her hair, soothing over her back. "It's ok, sweetheart. It'll all be ok. I have faith enough for both of us."
Then he was praying for her, aloud, praying for more than God to take away her nicotine craving, the habit of smoking, her fear of storms, praying that Jesus would knock down the walls around her heart so she could grieve her brother.
This time, aching deeply inside, Sheri couldn't blink away the tears. "If I start crying, I might never stop."
"You will when it hurts less. Lean on me. Give up control."
She tried to pull away, hide behind her barriers, but his hold strengthened, as did his determined prayers. Troy held her more tightly so she couldn't run. Not from him. And not from grieving for Steve this time.
"It's my fault. I wouldn't come home to Texas for spring break, so Stevo was coming to me. A real cowboy inside the metallic jungle of the Big Apple? He had no wish to see New York City, but he worried about me and hated me being there in the terrorist attacked city. It's all my fault he was killed in that wreck."
"No, babe," Troy insisted. "Lies from the pit of hell and Satan. I promise you, Sheri, Steve's death was not your fault."
Sheri had no idea how long Troy held her, how long she cried, how long he prayed aloud for her. Eventually the storm outside the stonewalls and inside her soul, both, calmed. When her sobs turned to chest heaving sniffles, wrung through the emotional wringer, she became aware that somehow, in someway, everything had shifted and changed.
Troy must have sensed it also and let her go when she pulled back from his arms. Very gently, he wiped her tears away. "The pain will ease more with time. I miss him, too."
She glanced at his long fingers, glistening with her salty drops. Voice rusty, Sheri admitted, "I love you so much, Troy. I don't want to ruin our rare gift, our intimacy, our perfect platonic bond as best friends. This new territory, this new awareness of you, kinda scares me."
He shot her a lopsided grin. "There's nothing to fear with God on your side, Sheri love. We're a team, you and I. A winning team, God and you and me. Always and forever."
"Troy," she said in a rush and reached for his hand. Before he could even react, she snagged the bent and wrinkled cigarette from his palm. Sheri looked him right in the eyes and smiled slowly. Then she broke her emergency cigarette in half. "I quit."
"Thank You, Jesus!" he praised.
Smiling, he crooked his arm and escorted her up the steps to the bedroom door. "You've had an emotionally exhausting day, honey. Sweet dreams."
She yawned, suddenly drained. "Sweet dreams, Troy." Sleep swooped down and claimed her as she dropped back on the bed.
The next morning, Sheri awoke refreshed. As she did every morning, she thought of Steve and it still hurt, bittersweet now, but not overwhelming. Forgiveness no longer seemed impossible. Despite becoming aware of the sounds from the tropical storm, she smiled and wondered if there were any way for them to make it to the mainland today. Yes, she wanted to attend church.
After dressing, she strode purposefully down the stairs to find Troy.
"Good morning," she greeted as she stepped into the kitchen. Troy was still sitting at the kitchen table, Bible open in front of him, as if he hadn't left her alone in the house during the stormy night. Sheri poured a cup of coffee and joined him at the table.
"Good morning," he returned.
Maybe he hadn't gotten enough sleep because his greeting sounded almost grumpy. So Sheri tried again. "Hey, handsome, you ok this morning?"
This time, he responded with a smile when she called him handsome and then nodded. "Yeah, I'll be fine, thanks." One ebony brow notched. "You surely are beaming this morning. All dressed up and, if I don't miss my guess, about bursting to tell me something."
Sheri laughed. "Yes, sir." She cleared her throat and announced, "I'd like to attend church this morning. Any way we can make it to the mainland?"
"Thank You, Jesus," he praised.
"So," she hitched a thumb in the direction of the window and the tropical storm beyond it. "How can we get there? I know the Johnsons have your boat."
"The waves are too choppy for my sized boat even if we had it available. And it's too windy for the helicopter to land."
Sheri smiled. "We could swim."
Troy smiled, slowly. "You sound determined to go." Then his dark brows puckered into a V for a heartbeat. "I wonder if you're anxious to attend church, or get off this island stranded with me?"
"I am determined; you're right."
"So am I, Sheri."
She knew all about his dogged determination, driving him to succeed at his every heart's desire. Did his heart actually desire her now as more than a platonic friend? Her heart skidded over a few unsteady beats. Surely she was as immune to him as a potent male as ever? Sheri gave a little laugh, as surely he meant being determined to make it to the mainland for church services and not that he was determined to claim her.
Silver eyes studied her with great intensity, as if intent on reading the windows of her soul even though they were covered with the green blinds of her contacts. "You had a phone call last night, after you fell asleep."
"I knew you had a phone somewhere!"
"You know me well." One ebony brow lifted. "Don't you want to know who called?" His smooth baritone dropped a notch, gruffer, tainted with a touch of uncharacteristic uncertainty. "Clay."
"He wants to talk to you. He wants to see for himself that I'm treating you right, that you're doing ok, that you're returning to happiness and God's plan for your life."
She crossed her arms over her chest and humphed. "Just as well I missed the call then. He's not my guardian or my keeper. He's not Steve. He's not taking my brother's place."
Just then, a cough came from the living room, directly outside the kitchen doorway. Sheri started and glanced that way. There stood Clay, cowboy hat off and toweling dry his golden hair.
Unrelenting waves of heated embarrassment rose from her neck to set her face afire.
Troy continued, ignoring Clay. "Did I forget to mention that he's here?"
She hadn't meant for her groan to be out loud.
Clay nodded in her direction. "G'mornin', ma'am. I called on the life threatening boat ride over." He grimaced. "Rather ride a bucking bronco anytime."
Trying to cover from her faux pas, Sheri laughed. "So, I take it the mother-approved matchmaking dates are not going as well as she had wished. If you're here and they're there."
Then she shot Troy a quick glare before returning her attention to Clay. "If I had known Troy had a phone on his island get-away, I would have called to check on your potential brides."
"I'm surviving the dates," he said with a shrug. "But I haven't really clicked with any of them yet."
Troy watched them interact. Silent and so very intent, he watched her like he was weighing her reaction.
She practically heard the gears of his brilliant mind grind while he analyzed the situation with a professional detachment, as if solving a computer software problem. His eyes flashed. Then she saw past the executive. Did she know him so well to dare believe his mind and heart were at war?
Sheri smiled at Troy, hoping to lighten his intense mood. Trying to end his internal battle, she winked at him.
Troy smiled slowly, a male smile of satisfaction, and winked back at her.
She heard a grunt before realizing neither of them made a sound. Then she remembered Clay.
After another brisk rub of the towel over his golden hair, Clay settled his black cowboy hat on his head and sauntered into the kitchen to join them.
Another man followed on Clay's heels. Big and burly, deep grooves fanned out from his eyes as if he spent a great deal of time squinting in the sun.
He held out one meaty hand, engulfing her much smaller hand in his, and shook in greeting. "Good morning, lass. I'm Captain James Connery." He released her hand and pulled up a chair to join them at the table.
"I'm Sheri Knight."
The old man laughed, a hardy boom of delight. "Yes. And I'm beginning to see why the cowboy insisted we brave the wild waves in the middle of the night to get here."
Sheri cocked her head. "It does seem rather dangerous weather to be boating."
Captain Connery shrugged. "There was nothing to fear. God is always at the helm during the stormy tempests of life. He doesn't desert you at your darkest hour. He steers the ship through the storm for you. When you think you can handle no more, when you feel alone and overwhelmed, Jesus will carry you through."
Sheri realized her mouth was gaping and snapped it shut.
Troy rolled his eyes. "Sheri, this old sea dog is a retired minister and a close personal friend of mine."
Captain Connery hitched a thumb toward Troy. "And this boyo has spoken of you many times. He's like a professional pitbull once he sets his teeth, doggedly determined to succeed at whatever goal he's aiming. Matters of the mind. Or heart."
Troy and Clay exchanged a grin before Troy nodded. "With God's help, of course, and to His glory."
She glanced to her right at Troy, then across the table into Clay's brown eyes. Finally, she looked to her left into the sky-blue eyes of the retired minister turned sea captain. Great. Surrounded on all sides by good Christian men, obviously intent upon her repenting and returning to God.
She squirmed in her chair, remembering her intent to attend church this morning, despite the tropical storm, on the mainland. Instead, God had brought church to her.
Clay studied her then notched up his Stetson. "You ok, Sheri? Happy?" He tossed a warning and a measured glance at Troy. "She looks awful, worse than the green-eyed blond at the airport. You'd better have been taking real good care of her, Montgomery."
Then Clay looked back at her, demanding, "Private island rehab not agree with you, or has Mr. Charm lost his touch? How's Troy treating you?"
She tossed her hands in the air, instantly defensive on Troy's behalf. "He's not a pitbull going for my throat! He's my best friend. A good Christian man. How do you think he's treating me? He's Troy for crying out loud. He's wonderful to everyone!"
As she realized she'd spoken her thoughts aloud in an emotional outburst, and waves of heat rolled up her neck to bake her face, Clay leaned forward on his elbows. "Is that so?"
Captain Connery chuckled and sent a silent salute to Troy.
Sheri growled low in her throat and shot Troy a stare as if her slip were his fault.
He greeted her glare with his innocent boyish grin. "Furious again?" Then he glanced back at Clay. "Not at all the Sheri we know and love. She's spent the majority of the time stranded here, mad at me. Nicotine withdraws." Troy shuddered. "Not a pretty sight to behold."
"Thanks a lot," she mumbled.
Clay ignored her muttering and notched his hat even higher on his forehead. "Hmm. Interesting. So, he made you quit smoking?"
She exhaled hard. "Yes. No."
Captain Connery leaned forward on one elbow. "Which is it, lass?"
Troy took pity on her discomfort and slid his hand across the table to cover her fist. "Her decision to quit. Isn't that right, Sheri?"
She no sooner sighed her relief and nodded than Troy smirked, adding, "Of course, it took extremely intense prayer for her to reach that decision."
Clay interrupted, "Still resistant to walking away from her season of rebellion?"
Sheri pointed her finger rudely at Clay. "Stop talking about me like I'm not here!"
Smiling as if he were awaiting just such a comment, Clay agreed, "Fine. I'll interrogate you directly."
"You, Clay Dillenger, are not my guardian or my keeper. You are not taking over for Steve!"
"Ah. So you haven't forgiven yet. You haven't called the trucker. Have you grieved your brother, Sheri?"
Clay pointed one finger at her this time. "I was Steve's best friend, have known you since birth, and as close to family as you have. He'd expect me to watch out for you; expect me to see you get right with God."
Sheri swallowed hard around the sudden swell of emotion, fighting tears, knowing Clay was correct.
Her brother's best friend pushed harder as if the cowboy in Clay knew he was breaking through her barriers like he broke through a wild horse's. "Satan's a liar, Sheri, but you're buying into his foul deceptions. Steve's death wasn't your fault; it wasn't the trucker's. It's not God's fault either. Stop running from His plan for your life."
Clay lowered his drawl to a whisper. "Stevo wouldn't want you to change everything about yourself on account of feeling guilty for his death. No; he wouldn't like it one bit. I don't. Troy doesn't. Neither does God, but He loves you still and wants you back. Jesus wants to heal your broken heart, change you back into the real Sheri in an instant."
Although Troy had been as blunt with her since taking her to his island, the protective best friend in him held up one hand. "Enough. She said she wanted to attend church this morning on the mainland."
Captain Connery cleared his throat. "Truly?"
She nodded and agreed with a rusty, "Yeah."
The retired minister rubbed his meaty hands together. "I do believe Troy has a chapel here." His laughter boomed. "And I do believe I have a ready made audience of three. If you'd like that, lass? Or I would be more than happy to sail us through the storm to the mainland?"
All three men seemed to wait with baited breath.
God certainly did move in mysterious ways sometimes. The two men closest to her, Troy and Clay, most like family, were here. She was certain they had both spent countless hours on their knees, praying for her since Steve's death. Both had loved Steve as if he were their brother, as much as if they shared his blood like her. Her family, as much as she had belonged to the family of God.
They had not blamed God and run into a season of rebellion. They had forgiven. They had made sure she knew she was not abandoned and alone. They loved her, but Jesus loved her more even with all the ugliness and unforgiveness in her heart.
Sheri slapped her palms over her eyes, hit with a sudden pang as she recalled her relationship with God. God had given her free will, but He was definitely convicting her, calling her to return to His family. "Help me, Jesus," she beseeched on a wisp of breath.
A hand touched her back, rubbing up and down, soothing her. Troy. She knew his touch even with her eyes covered. Even before she heard his smooth baritone praying. Troy, her prayer partner.
In that instant, she realized he meant so much more to her than a platonic best friend. Jesus had placed Troy in her life, all her life, and her love for Troy had changed somewhere along the way. She also knew they could never have more than friendship if she didn't repent.
Her heart swelled, ached, and called out for God. How had she gotten so far off track? She had changed everything about herself very publicly and now she wanted to change back.
Should she stay here, with her family, and have a private ceremony in the church? Should she stay here and finally forgive? Or should she attend church on the mainland, a more public repentance as was her rebellion?
Ready to forgive, where should she attend church services? Attend private services with her loved ones in Troy's chapel? Attend public church services on the mainland?
Private chapel? Mainland church service?