CHANGE OF HEART:
Something nudged her heart and Sheri looped her arm through Troy's, caught in his silver gray gaze a heartbeat or two before he smiled confidently in a purely masculine way. "Let's go, Sheri love."
Sheri love? She rolled her eyes. Despite feeling safe with him, her platonic best friend her entire life, she had forgotten how Troy drew women. Southern charm and devastating dark looks wrapped up as a powerful polished gentleman. Practically oozing professional success while managing to be a truly good man, a fully committed Christian.
She shot him an exasperated stare, thinking it might be a long summer after choosing to spend it with Troy. "You're wasting your time, pouring out that southern charm, honey dripping that deep drawl. You forget, bud; I'm immune."
Clay smirked at Troy. "Yeah, bud. You better take extra special care of her, Troy Montgomery."
When Clay's golden gaze settled on her, something flashed in their depths as he looked into her eyes. "Have a good summer vacation, Sheri. Pick up the phone and call me if you ever need anything."
Then Clay leaned down and kissed her slowly on the forehead before pulling out two airline tickets. He handed one to her. "It's open-ended. One way. Home to Texas."
"Anytime," Clay added in a soft drawl before sauntering toward his destination gate to Dallas. "Be happy, Sheri. May God bless you and keep you."
Grabbing the suitcase Clay sat next to her, Sheri looked up to find Troy studying her intently.
"Hmm," he grunted. "I'm not sure if I can tell how you feel about saying goodbye to Clay. It's harder to read your pretty blue eyes when they are springtime green." With one finger, he flicked her hair. "Blond," he added before practically growling, "Smoker."
"Thanks for reminding me," she said with a wink. "Let's get out of here."
She was fairly certain Troy was not amused. He held his silence, handsome face revealing nothing, until they reached the parking garage where she lit another cigarette.
"How long have you had that death wish, Sheri?" he asked as he lengthened his strides toward his car.
She stopped trying to keep up with him, toting her heavy bag, and dragging nicotine into her lungs before exhaling slowly. "Since spring break," she answered quietly.
"Three months, huh?" It didn't sound like a question. Then Troy lifted his hand and pushed to disarm his car alarm. The lights flashed quickly on the red sports car.
Sheri hitched one brow. "Wow, dude. Nice ride."
He swung the keys in front of her eyes and chuckled. "Want to drive?"
"You betcha," she laughed.
Troy tilted his head back and laughed; then he shook his head negatively a couple times. "You forget; I know how you drive."
"Yeah, better than you."
"So one thing stays the same. I wonder, Sheri, how much you've changed." Silver orbs probed the windows of her soul. Something distinctly male flared the intensity of his stare. "Are you still immune to me?"
Instead of answering him, she chose the safer route. For a second there, it felt like Troy was pursuing her like a man would a woman. Not a platonic best bud. But in case she was mistaken, she wasn't going to admit to him that she had noticed his maleness instead of a simple non-gender specific friend.
She opened the passenger side door and stuffed the suitcase behind the seat. She was already fastening her seatbelt when he opened the driver's side. "New car smell."
After he stuffed her second suitcase behind his seat, he climbed in. "No smoking in my car. Get ready for a long ride."
"Where to?" she asked. "Do you really have an island now, Troy?"
"A very tiny one," he chuckled. "Off Georgia, east coast. And yes, that is where we are headed."
"I'd imagine your bevy of belles like it," she teased him with a smile.
He didn't smile back, instead backed out of the parking slot to start their drive. Very quietly, his deep baritone smoothed over her. "I've never taken a woman there. Would you consider it romantic if it were, say for example, Clay, taking you?"
"I chose you, didn't I, Troy? What I have with you runs much deeper than a male/female thing. You're bonded as my best bud. Always." She wrinkled her nose. "So you have to accept me as I am."
"Yeah, we're best friends. That's why I know who you are exactly, even if you don't right now."
"I've changed, Troy," she admitted quietly. "Totally."
He swept one hand toward her hair and face. "So I see. Tell me, do blonds have more fun?"
"I'd rather work long hard exhausting hours than have fun."
"Why? Sheri used to have fun even if she were working."
"So I can sleep at night, instead of laying there wide awake, thinking."
"And what do you think about?"
She glanced toward him, pausing. All her life, she and Troy could talk about anything. But to tell him what her deepest thoughts were now? Heat crept up her neck to set her face afire.
His silver eyes caught hers as she blushed. He laughed aloud. "I see. So are you seeing any special guy in the Big Apple?"
"No time to date lately, dude. No special guy. But I did try it for a while, like you, a different date everyday. How about you? Any special woman?"
Troy reached over with one long finger and tilted her head to meet his eyes. "Yes, there's a special woman."
Now why in the world did that prick a sour note inside her? Why was she seeing Troy more as a man, instead of her genderless confidant?
They rode along with the radio tuned to a Christian station, until he stopped for gas. Then they took a short trip into a department store.
When Troy ventured into the women's hair color aisle, she stopped dead in her tracks.
Troy rubbed one finger down along his jaw, saying, "Hmm." Then he scooted two dark brown colors closer together before nodding and picking one. He held it up next to her blond hair. "Yep. This is the one."
"I hope that's for you, bud."
"Ok, in a matter of speaking, it is for me."
She pivoted and made time for the cartons of cigarettes. After selecting her brand, she glanced toward the swimsuits. Wouldn't she need one if they were going to an island? Nah, she didn't plan to stay long, a day or two at the most. No, she wouldn't swim even though they'd spent untold hot Texas hours together in the water as they grew up.
She made her purchases, then pointed toward the outside, miming like she was smoking a cigarette toward Troy. He scowled, but nodded as he put his purchases on the checkout counter.
Yet, as soon as he exited, Troy yanked the half-smoked cigarette from her mouth and ground it beneath his black polished shoe. In the next instant, he opened her door for her. When she pierced him with a scowl of her own, Troy smiled the innocent yet teasing grin from his boyhood. "No smoking in my car, remember?"
Before she could tell him she hadn't been in his car while smoking, he hopped into the driver's seat and revved the sports car engine. He sighed as if it hurt him to ask, "Want to drive now?"
She humphed him. "But of course."
They switched places and she drove according to his directions. After turning off on an exit, they rode in silence for a few minutes before she parked the car in a boat docking area. "Thanks for letting me drive all of ten minutes."
He laughed. "You are most welcome. Now, would you rather take a speed boat to the island, or helicopter ride?"
She shrugged. "I really don't care either way. I'm still having a little bit of trouble with you owning your own island. Why did you fail to ever mention it?"
"Maybe I was saving it for a surprise." He punched in some numbers on his cell phone before ordering a helicopter to pick them up and fly them over.
She hopped out of his car and lit another cigarette. When he joined her, she blew out a bluish-white exhale then asked, "We're not going to be stranded on your island, right?"
He crossed his arms over his chest and grinned. "Just like Gilligan's Island."
"Very funny, buddy. I'm only planning to stay a day or two. You surely have a boat already there for the return trip?"
"Surely," was his only cryptic answer.
Before she could voice another question, he grabbed both her suitcases as the helicopter came into view for landing. She snatched the sacks from their recent shopping trip, locked the doors, activated the car alarm, and followed Troy inside the helicopter.
Within fifteen minutes, the helicopter descended over a lush green island with white sandy beaches. She noticed an enormous old stone two-story house and a little stone guesthouse behind it. Stone? Ah yes, the better to withstand tropical storms and hurricanes.
When she glanced at Troy, he was watching her intently, gauging her reaction. Her heart pumped double-time for a few seconds as she read the male gleam in his silver eyes. She shivered and looked away. Her imagination was out of control if she thought for even a heartbeat that Troy was seeing her as a woman, not just a female friend.
She hopped out and the humidity hit her. Swiping the back of her hand over her forehead, Sheri walked toward the ocean beach dock.
As soon as she reached the end of the dock, she stared off into the aquamarine waters by the beach, deepening to midnight blue as the ocean met the horizon. With a flick of her lighter, she lit another cigarette.
Troy startled her, coming up behind her, growling, "Six."
She whirled around to face him. "Huh?"
"I've seen you smoke six times in about three hours." His deep baritone purred several shades quieter than normal. Recognizing a sign of his anger, she confirmed it by glancing into his cold silver steel eyes. But he continued, "Would you say I am your best friend? The person closest to you?"
She nodded a little warily. "Uh-huh."
"So you accept I may be the one person on earth who loves you the most?"
This time she gnawed upper teeth against her bottom lip. "Ok."
He nodded. "Good. Then know this, I won't sit back and watch you slowly smoke one nail in your coffin at a time." With that, Troy snagged the package of cigarettes out of her hand. He shook out one, tucked it behind his ear, before crushing the cigarette package into a little ball and heaving it way out to sea.
"Congratulations, Sheri. You just quit smoking."
"That's not funny, Troy. You're not the king issuing orders even if this is your island." She motioned out where he threw her ruined smokes. "I'm not quitting. Believe me, you wouldn't want to be spending time with me if I tried to quit."
He tapped the cigarette by his ear. "One emergency smoke. It takes about three weeks just to get over the nicotine addiction. Longer than that to break the habit. You're stranded here with me, and you're quitting, so go ahead and rage at me. After all, I'm your best friend; I have to accept you as you are."
She mumbled uncharitable epitaphs under her breath as he tossed her own words back in her face. She took a long last drag on her cigarette.
Seemingly unaware or unconcerned with her anger, Troy smiled and turned away from the beach. "Let me show you my home away from home."
Although he pulled off his black suit jacket in the hot sun, folding it over one white long-sleeved arm, Troy toted her suitcases off the landing pad toward the big stone house.
Sheri followed behind him, noticing he also confiscated the shopping bag with her carton of cigarettes. He couldn't force her to stop smoking, his island or not. The whole island couldn't be labeled as a nonsmoking section.
After climbing the front steps, the heavy front entrance wasn't locked. "Ah," Troy commented. "The old couple who keeps up the place is here." He continued through the foyer, past the living room, dining room, to the back of the house at the kitchen.
Sheri studied the rotund wrinkled old lady who sat sipping a cup of tea.
"Mrs. Johnson," Troy began in greeting, "This is my best friend since boyhood. Sheri Knight, meet Hannah Johnson."
Sheri shook the small meaty hand outstretched toward her. They exchanged greetings.
"I'd like you and Hubert to stay in the house with Sheri, so I can stay in the guesthouse."
"If anyone should be in the guesthouse, it would be me."
Again he gave her a purely male smile before toting her luggage up the steps to the second floor, going directly into the master bedroom suite. It had a distinctly male flavor, mahogany woodwork, not a woman's touch to be seen in the room.
"No," she shook her head. "I'm not kicking you out of your own bedroom."
"I'm staying in the guesthouse, ma'am. But I imagine I'll only be there to sleep. I'll hang around you so much you'll get sick of me, as you take your anger out on me while suffering from nicotine withdrawal. Deliverance."
"Some vacation," she muttered. Plucking the airline ticket out of her pocket, she waved it in front of his face. "What if I changed my mind and said I wanted to go to Texas now?"
"To Clay?" he whispered, bending down to put his eyes level with hers, as if he were trying to read her very soul. "Are you still in love with him after all these years?"
"No, Troy. I outgrew my crush."
Was that relief shining brightly for a heartbeat or two in his silver orbs? Before she could decide, it was gone and he was grinning like a little boy again.
"In that case, Sheri, I'd say you have a long hard swim just to make it to the coast. Then the airport is still quite a ways off. Yes, ma'am, I do believe you are my guest for the summer."
Sheri stomped one foot in frustration before storming past him, out the house, and back down to the sandy beach. She stood, staring off at the horizon, staring the direction of the States. She hoped.
Now what? Stay with Troy? What was with this male propriety thing she kept picking up on her female radar? Yes, she knew Troy was distinctly masculine, but she didn't usually pick up on it, immune to his charm and looks.
She was safe with Troy. She never used to notice him as male, more like a non-gender specific buddy. In fact, she had thought she could probably parade naked in front of Troy and still he wouldn't notice her as female.
Did she accept him as more than her lifelong best friend? As a good Christian man with a kind heart extended toward her? Or did she simply dive off the end of the dock and start swimming, escaping Troy, his island, and his rules? Should she accept her new feelings toward him, or escape by swimming?