Sheri lifted her palms from over her misty eyes then held out one hand to Troy. When he immediately grabbed her hand, interweaving their fingers, she smiled at him.
Then she nodded at Clay before turning her smile toward Captain Connery. "It would be my pleasure to attend church in Troy's chapel, with the people closest to me as family, if you are still willing to preach, Captain Connery."
The burly sea captain winked at her. "The pleasure would be all mine indeed, lass, for such an honor. Do, please though, call me James."
With Troy holding her hand and Clay standing at her other side, James brought up the rear as they marched toward the tiny chapel.
Troy swung open the door, then entered and lit several candles as well as the colored lights.
Sheri sat in the middle of the front pew, staring at the stained glass window depicting Jesus on the cross. Tears glazed her eyes, thinking of how much suffering Jesus endured to save her soul, to forgive her sins, to show her how much He loved her.
By the time Troy sat on her right side and Clay sat to her left, James Connery stood behind the pulpit with Bible open and ready. Open and ready, just like her heart.
The retired minister started the first few strains of an old but dear remembered hymn. Troy's smooth baritone added to the gruff captain's voice, then Clay's deep drawl. Sheri closed her eyes, caught up in the wonderful familiarity to it all.
She blocked everything thing else and concentrated solely on worshiping Jesus, adding her voice to singing praises to Him. From one song of praise to another, they worshiped the Lord until His Presence hovered among them almost like a thick mist of peace in the air.
When they fell silent, quieted in their spirits, tears rained down Sheri's face. Oh how she had missed this!
With his big booming preacher's voice, James Connery read scripture about putting on the armor of God. He told a story about how when the hardest and most painful test comes, and God answers all prayer only not always the answer people seek, some Christians grow angry with God. At that instant, these previous prayer warriors yank off God's armor and throw it down, running from God into a season of rebellion. Unforgiving and furious with everyone in heaven and on earth, they step off of the straight and narrow path that leads to God, step out of God's will and His plan for their life.
Sheri sniffled once as the sermon fit her to a T.
Ignoring everyone else, Sheri turned around and knelt at the pew to repent, to ask Jesus to cleanse her heart of all the ugliness and unforgiveness, so He could, in turn, forgive her. Heart sincere, she asked forgiveness for her season of rebellion, her anger at God and at everyone else.
Even as Jesus took her sins and threw them as far as the east is from the west, threw her sins into a sea of forgetfulness, He changed her heart in that second. Jesus healed her heart, her mind, changed her back to be true to who God created Sheri to be.
Troy knelt beside her on the right, with one arm raised in praise, praying aloud for her, and with the other hand on her shoulder. Clay knelt beside her on the left, resting one of his hands on her other shoulder, praying aloud for her. Captain James Connery, acting as the minister he had been, covered one beefy palm over her crown and prayed blessings upon her.
No sooner had she prayed for God to reveal His plan for her life, than the three men echoed it, adding to it for God to tell her now and set her feet upon His path, obedient to His will.
Jesus covered them all with His thick blanket of peace, a peace that surpasses human understanding. Reacting to the gentleness of spirit in the chapel, they spoke more quietly while giving God the glory and honor and praise.
Sheri didn't know how long they worshiped God, or how long they soaked in the peace of Jesus until saturated with it. But suddenly, the joy of the Lord bubbled up from her spirit and Sheri laughed deeply from her belly. Like God's perfect medicine she laughed so infectiously genuine and hard, the men guffawed too.
Finally, Troy handed her his handkerchief as she rose to her feet.
They had spent hours in the chapel, more than an hour on their knees before the Almighty, so now it was time for lunch. Sheri headed toward the kitchen, wiping her eyes with Troy's cloth, before he stepped in front of her.
"Welcome back to the family of God, Sheri love." Although he hugged her hard, and his mouth lowered toward hers, Clay nudged between them.
"Hey! I want to welcome her back, too." Then Clay hugged her, just as hard but not nearly as long.
James Connery held open huge arms, the size of small oak trees, to welcome her into his embrace.
When they had all hugged, rejoiced, shouted praises to the Lord again, Sheri brewed a pot of coffee.
While the men sat at the table, she stood next to Troy and rested one hand on his shoulder. He turned to discover what she needed, but she leaned closer to his ear. "Would you be so kind as to show me the secret hiding place of your phone?"
"Certainly. Or I could bring it to you, if you'd rather."
"Bringing it to me would be great, so I can go off in the sunroom for privacy." Then she wrinkled her nose at him. "Now, if only you could supply the phone number I need."
Troy said nothing, but joined her in the sunroom within a few short minutes. He sat beside her, handed her the satellite telephone and a folded piece of paper.
Sheri accepted the paper first, unfolding it, only to gasp. The name Marvin Reynolds, the truck driver who had accidentally sideswiped her brother, handwritten in Troy's bold script as well as the trucker's Dallas address and home phone number. "You had it all along? But you never tried to force me to call and offer my forgiveness."
Troy stroked one knuckle over her cheekbone, so softly, as gentle as his smooth baritone. "I may give you incentives, sweetheart. I may not even be above trying to influence you into agreeing and seeing what is best for you, but it will never come down to flat-out force, honey. In the end, everything is your choice. Your decision, Sheri."
She understood Troy meant much more than calling the truck driver, much more than getting right with God. In the end, it was her choice to love Troy, her decision to follow God's plan for her life.
And God's plan involved Troy in a major way. God had confirmed His will to Sheri, confirmed that Troy was her future husband with God's blessings. "Thank you, Troy. You are truly a gift from God and I'm grateful for you."
"May I stay or do you desire total privacy? While you make the call, may I stay with you and pray?"
"Please stay with me," she whispered. "Marvin Reynolds will surely think I'm wacko to call him after all these months and offer my forgiveness. He most assuredly doesn't need it since Steve's death was accidental."
She shrugged. "Yet God seems rather insistent I call just the same, like it is a consequence I must deal with because of my season of rebellion. It's like I must face the past before I can move on into His future plan for my life."
"I agree," Troy said quietly before resting one hand on her shoulder and praying out loud even as she dialed the trucker driver's Dallas phone number.
On the third ring, a gruff but weary male voice answered. "Hello."
"Hello, Marvin Reynolds?"
"Who wants to know?" he growled.
"This is Sheri Knight, Mr. Reynolds. Steve Knight's little sister."
After a long pause, she heard a deep sigh. "Your brother was so young. His death has haunted me now for all these months. Have you finally called to give me a piece of your mind?"
Her heart thudded like a bass drum leading a runaway parade. "I called to give you a piece of my heart, Mr. Reynolds. Although the wreck was not your fault and you don't need me to forgive you, I called because God wants me to offer you my forgiveness. I sincerely apologize it has taken me so long to do so."
After a pregnant pause, Sheri added, "Steve wouldn't want his death to haunt you. My brother's death was an accident, a horrible accident. No one is to blame."
The gruff trucker sniffled once then cleared his voice twice. "I wish I could believe that."
Now Sheri's heart beat in triple time as she began to partly understand why God wanted her to call the truck driver. "It's true, Marvin. No one blames you. Steve wouldn't. I don't. And neither does God. Steve's in a better place now, a perfect place. He's joined Jesus and the rest of our family in heaven where there is no sorrow or pain."
Marvin Reynolds no longer tried to hold back and cried openly into the phone. "That's so close to what your brother said. Before the ambulance took him away, and he was hurt so very bad, Steve Knight took my hand and told me he didn't blame me. That it wasn't my fault. That it was just his time to join Jesus in heaven now. Your brother also told me that Jesus wanted me to know He loves me."
That sounded so much like something her big brother would do and say, Sheri sobbed.
Troy squeezed his loving support into her shoulder and prayed a little louder, a little harder. There was much more she wanted to say to this tortured soul, but nearly all she managed to do was cry.
"Marvin, Jesus loves you so much, He suffered and died on the cross for you. So that He could help you through this rough earthly life and give you eternal life in heaven with Him. Jesus will stick closer to you than even a brother. He wants you to invite Him to live in your heart, to heal your heart, to help you through this life."
She wasn't sure how much Marvin had understood as she was crying hard also.
He didn't immediately agree. Nor did he immediately disagree.
The Holy Spirit nudged Sheri as God spoke into her head and her heart. "Marvin, I would like you to speak with my best friend. He was Steve's friend, too. His name is Troy Montgomery and he's the truest Christian I know. God guides him and gives him great wisdom."
"Ok," Marvin agreed shakily between sobs.
Before Sheri handed Troy the phone, he pressed his lips to her forehead and wrapped one steadying arm around her waist.
When he accepted the phone, Sheri rested her head against Troy's chest, laying her hand over his heart, and prayed as hard as she could for God to use Troy. She didn't know how long Troy spoke with the trucker driver, how long she prayed, but finally Troy led Marvin Reynolds in the sinner's prayer.
After he disconnected, Troy wrapped both arms around her waist and swung her around so her feet left the floor. Together they whooped, praising God, giving Jesus the glory and honor and praise.
When Troy set her on her own feet again, he smiled. "The angels are rejoicing in heaven right now, Sheri love."
She laughed with pure delight. "Thank You, Jesus!" Then she raised one arm in the air as victory and praise. "I felt like God wanted me to hand you the phone, kinda like we are tag team."
Troy pressed his forehead against hers and smiled. "We are a team, you and I, with God at our center guiding us. You and I are a winning team with God as our coach."
Clay sauntered into the room with coffee cup in hand. "What's all the noise?"
"Lass," Captain Connery boomed with laughter. "You're practically beaming. Do tell us what has happened."
So after Troy helped her relate the story of God's goodness and His plan, Sheri mentioned once more needing to cook lunch before they all dropped over from hunger.
Clay and James said they were almost ready to eat about anything that didn't eat them first, and headed back into the kitchen.
Once Troy claimed her again in a hug, he pulled her off a short distance from the other men. "We'll manage to cook a celebration lunch if there's something you'd rather do?"
How did he know, she wondered? "Ok." Sheri winked at him. "I'd really appreciate that, handsome. See ya soon."
Still bubbly with joy, she laughed all the way upstairs. The men were in for a big surprise when next they laid eyes on her. Jesus had transformed her heart, her mind, everything about her insides in an instant, so now it was her turn for the final outward touches.
As quickly as possible, Sheri showered and followed the directions off the box of hair color; the exact shade Troy had proclaimed was naturally hers and bought before they ever arrived on his island.
Before she wiped the steam from the bathroom mirror, Sheri plucked out her green-tinted contacts and flicked them into the trashcan. After combing out and drying her hair, she cleared off a circle in the steamed up mirror. A familiar face greeted her, long mahogany hair and large expressive navy eyes. "That's the real me," she giggled.
She smelled the spicy scent of chili as she descended the stairs before making her way toward the deep timbre infectious sounds of male laughter. Sheri exhaled one deep cleansing breath and then stepped through the kitchen entry.
Troy was the first one to see her, sobering instantly.
Clay and James turned to see what had Troy so suddenly intense.
Troy wrapped his arms around her even before Clay could let out a low whistle. Troy placed his mouth next to her ear. "Welcome back, gorgeous. The real Sheri love, inside and out, at last."
Ignoring the other men in the room, Troy lowered his mouth to slant over hers.
When he finally pulled back, Sheri discovered her knees had turned into gelatin and refused to support her. Although Troy scooted her back until her knees folded and she dropped down on the kitchen seat, she heaved unsteady breaths as her heart stampeded out of control. Clay asked her a question, but all she could manage was to blink at him. Her brain, it seems, was functioning at level zero, zippy, negative, none.
Clay tilted back his head and laughed while hitching a thumb in her direction. "Those pretty blue eyes are glazed and I'm not so sure she can think right now, Montgomery. You'd best be setting a wedding date before I leave here if you plan to kiss her like that again. I intend to walk her down the aisle for your marriage ceremony. I'm gonna fill her brother's shoes from this minute on."
Troy laughed before squatting down in front of her. "Is that brilliant brain offline right this second, sweetheart?"
"I-I can't think, Troy," she whispered a little panicky.
He lowered his smooth baritone for her ears only to hear his husky reply. "Just you wait until I set out to rock your world." Then slightly louder he added, "I love you, Sheri Knight. For more than two years now."
"Two years, Troy!"
He shook his head, taking her hands in his. "See how much God has used you to help teach me the virtue of patience? When He revealed His plan for my life, which included you as His chosen wife for me, I wanted to make it happen right then."
Troy sighed. "But that was not God's timetable. You didn't see me as more than a non-gender-specific best friend and were attending college. So I bought this island two years ago on faith for God's promise of our future together. And for any future children we will produce."
"Not my island, Sheri. Our island."
She didn't realize her mouth was gaping until Troy slid his index finger under her chin and gently pushed it closed.
Then he grinned, that innocent yet excited boyish grin from childhood. "Wow, woman, since I actually seem to have you without words temporarily, I suppose I'll drop some more truth in your lap. When we made plans for you to work with me, I did not mean as an employee, but with me as a full partner in our successful security software empire. I want you as my full partner in every aspect of life."
Troy lifted one finger. "Oh, and by the way, we have a state-of-the-art high-tech office here from which we could run our firm like if we were actually in Atlanta; if we choose to do so."
Captain James Connery cleared his throat. "Lass, do you love Troy?"
"Uh-huh," she replied although still nearly dumbstruck first from his kiss and then from all his truths.
Clay raised one hand in the air. "I've got a question. When and where is the wedding?"
Troy frowned at Clay, then James, before returning his full regard to Sheri. Intense silver eyes studied her as he lifted one of her palms first to his lips, then down to cover his thudding heart. "Sheri Knight, I love you. Would you please make me the happiest and most honored man on earth by consenting to become my bride?"
Sheri wondered if she were dreaming. Nah, if she were dreaming, then Troy's romantic proposal would have come without an audience.
She turned the full force of her radiant happiness and smile on Troy. "It would be my utmost pleasure to accept your proposal, and share the rest of my life with you as my husband."
Troy whooped and pulled her to stand, pulling her out of the kitchen and outdoors where the storm had stopped, before hugging her tightly to his chest.
When he pulled back slightly, he stared into her eyes. "Then I claim you, Sheri, as mine, in the Name of Jesus and with God's abundant blessings." This time his private kiss staked his claim that she did indeed belong to him.
He scooped her into his arms, carrying her down to the beach before setting her feet in the wet sand by the still large crashing waves. "Where would you like to have the wedding? Here? Atlanta? Texas?"
She blinked once, then smiled and waved one arm toward their glorious natural surroundings. "Here please."
He smiled, obviously pleased. "Ah, I thought you might say that. In fact, since I've had a few years to ponder what type of wedding ceremony might make you happiest, I have a few ideas I'd like to run by you."
Sheri giggled and hugged his chest. "Shoot."
"Picture this, my little nature lover. Here, right here in the sand next to the waves as sunset slides into twilight, we unite as one before God with holy vows. At the close of the ceremony, we seal our vows and our future with a kiss under a canopy of stars."
"Wow!" She pulled back to grin up into his face. "No wonder I love you, Troy Montgomery. Sounds perfect. Everything I like."
He smiled, very slowly and all male. "You haven't heard all my ideas yet, Sheri Knight. If you'd agree to marry me on July fourth, then think how romantic our anniversary will be every year. Us, here on the beach, laying on a blanket, soaking in the stars until awestruck by God's handiwork, with fireworks to follow. Now that includes all the things you love."
His baritone dropped a husky notch. "And then some more fireworks, real ones made between us, that I'm certain you'll love once we are married and I can stake my total and complete claim on you. I promise you, we'll be happy and blessed. You and me with God at our center."
"Oh, Troy, I love you. Thank You, God, for Your plan and the gift of Troy who belongs to me now and forever."
She tipped up on her toes, but right before she slanted her mouth over his, Troy added, "And thank You, Jesus, for answered prayer."
Happily ever after!
May God pour out abundant blessings upon you!