Sheri raked top teeth over her bottom lip for a few seconds, wanting to kiss him, struggling against it.
She leaned forward until she could feel the heat from his face. So close, she wanted to taste him, to stake her claim. She would even have settled for kissing him on the cheek except for him warning her against it.
Although her eyes were still closed, she could feel something close to an electrical charge zapping like a lightning bolt between them; could smell the powerful persuasive scent that was exclusively Troy.
Sheri groaned. "I'm not the woman you truly want." She sighed hugely at that truth and opened her eyes to watch his reaction. "You love a woman who does not exist any longer."
"Oh, she still exists. Deep down inside here." He tapped twice over her heart. "And every once in a while, she peeks over all those protective barriers around her heart where she's trapped, waiting and wanting to be set free. Maybe Jesus wants to use true love and me as the hero who rescues the fair maiden."
Sheri groaned louder. "Troy! Must you make everything so difficult?"
"Me?" He flicked a strand of her long blond hair before rubbing one thumb under her contact-tinted eyes. "You tried to change everything about yourself, but your transformation wasn't complete. The real Sheri Knight desperately wants to walk away from her season of rebellion."
"Oh pahleeze! The real truth is the Bible warns against someone like you and someone like me getting involved, emotional entanglements."
"The truth will set you free," he stated firmly.
Sheri growled low in her throat and dropped onto her back to stare at the stars instead of Troy, fully intending to block him out.
"The truth is you can recreate yourself, honey."
Troy rested one hand over her forehead. "It starts here with your state of mind." Then he touched her lips, "It comes out here," and drew a semi-circle in the air to her ear. "You hear what your mouth speaks and," he rested his hand on her forehead again, "Then your brain paints a picture to match with the words you've heard."
He smiled. "The process continues, growing stronger until you believe it so much it drops here," he stated quietly while tracing an imaginary heart over the real one beating in her chest. "To your heart until faith kicks in. And then faith changes everything. Change your heart and mind back to the real you."
She shut her eyes, but her tone was still filled with accusation. "I thought you said you weren't playing games to wound my heart or mind."
"I'm not the one playing games. In the ultimate test and trial of your faith, in your moment of weakness, hurt and angry when God answered your prayer but His answer was no and Steve died, you threw off the armor of God and ran."
Troy thumped a fist against his chest. "I'm not the one wounding you. Lucifer has lied to you round-the-clock, and you've bought it, so now the games are on the devil's playground. Satan has flooded your mind with negatives, but God created the real you. You were graven by His hand, chosen, and you were born to win."
Sheri turned her face toward him, lifting her lips in a lopsided grin. "Do you always get this deep with your dates?"
"I only get this deep with my best friend. Life is like a self-fulfilling prophecy. You are what you believe you are, Sheri."
"Yeah. And truthfully I've become someone I don't know, don't understand, and don't care for much."
"Then be true to yourself. Be true to who God created you to be."
He pointed at her. "You can run away from Him and His plan for you, then pause to catch your breath and logically debate it, until you replenish the energy to run away again. You could do that your whole life, burdened with false blame, eaten alive with guilt, trapped and oppressed, total unrelenting torment, until it's too late."
"Or," Troy stressed, pressing the advantage, advising her of another option. "Or you could ask Jesus and His truth to set you free. Right here and right now."
"Glad there's no pressure, Montgomery. I liked your added incentive plan much more. Clearly I should have just kissed you to shut you up!"
"The truth makes the new Sheri very mad, stirs strife. That's Satan attacking you, using any strategy to keep you from Jesus, the Prince of Peace. Lucifer, father of foul lies, does not want you back on God's team as a mighty prayer warrior. The devil wants you to keep running from God's plan for your life. Even from me."
She sighed. "I'm tired of running down a long dark confusing path like I'm lost out in the cold. Im weary from the wrong path leading away from God. And from you, too, Troy."
Groaning, she rubbed her temples as every possible reason she should be angry with God, blame Him for Steve's death, swirled through her mind. "Help. I'm getting hammered hard here."
Troy sat up suddenly, laid one hand on her forehead, and raised his voice. "Get away from her, Satan! I bind you in the Name of Jesus! Sheri Knight is covered by the Blood of the Lamb and belongs to Jesus. And me."
"Thanks," she whispered as tears flooded her eyes.
"Jesus did it, not me, as you full well know. He sticks closer to you than a brother, even closer than Stevo was to you."
he nodded, wiped away the wet streak of her tears, and cleared her throat. "The urge to repent is very strong now."
Troy held out his hand to her. "You're not alone." His large gentle hand waited patiently. "Take my hand, Sheri love, as your prayer partner. Where two are gathered, Jesus will come into their midst."
What was she waiting on anyway? Why hold back when she really did miss her relationship with God? To hold onto a weary life of unceasing emotional, mental, and spiritual turmoil? Hell on earth just to avoid repenting and facing up to the consequences of her season of rebellion? Troy was right in that she could very possibly run all her life if she didn't act right here.
Right now, she wanted back in her rightful place with Jesus. She wanted back in God's plan for her life. She wanted to share her life with Troy, her true love, blessed and guided by God. Hope blossomed into assurance and she began to believe again.
Sheri sat up beside Troy. His eyes were closed and his lips moved slightly in silent prayer, yet with his hand still outstretched, waiting patiently on her. She placed her palm in his and intertwined their fingers.
Then she bowed her head and closed her eyes, shutting out everything else and focusing solely on Jesus. Although she had not spoken one word of prayer aloud yet to the Almighty, Troy prayed audibly as their hands locked together. The Spirit of God moved immediately with a tingle and slight shaking quiver of the two prayer partners' joined hands.
Tears streamed down her face as she repented. Sheri asked Jesus to cleanse all the fury, hurt, and unforgiveness from her bitter heart, so He could forgive her.
When her tears turned to weeping, Troy pulled her bowed head to rest against his chest. He wrapped his arms around her back, soothing her by rubbing up and down as he prayed.
Still she prayed until she fully trusted and relied upon God once and for all.
She exhaled long and hard from her lips. It was as if all the bitterness blew out of her and the Lord scattered it into the wind to be carried away forever.
Then she felt Jesus in their midst, His perfect peace, as He gathered all her sins and threw them into a sea of forgetfulness as far as the east is from the west. Sheri began to thank Him, praise Him, and Troy uttered agreement with her. Everything about it felt so familiar, so right.
Filled with the joy of the Lord, she worshiped Jesus with songs of praise and thanksgiving until Troy's baritone joined in. Right in the middle of a song, a belly-deep cleansing laugh bubbled up from Sheri. It must have been contagious because the rich infectious timbre of Troy's rumbling laughter joined hers. Both laughed so hard, like God's perfect medicine for the heart, mind and spirit.
"Thank You, Jesus!" she exclaimed as she hopped to her feet.
"To God be the glory!" Troy added, staring up at her from his seat on the blanket. "All fired up and off to . . .?"
"I need a phone, Troy. Immediately."
He arched one ebony brow in wordless inquiry.
God wants me to act as soon as possible to right the wrongs from my season of rebelliousness. Consequences I must face. I believe God wants me to change everything back to the old me before I can move forward in His plan for my future."
"Hmm." He groaned. "More waiting? More patience?"
"Not too much more. First, I need a payphone to make a few immediate calls and preferably some privacy."
Troy winked at her and patted the blanket beside him. "Come here."
When she sat, he pulled out his cell phone and handed it to her. "Here you go. Phone. Immediate. Private."
Then he pushed the button on his watch and showed her the indigo digits. "Texas is an hour behind us, only half past eight o'clock in their time zone."
Sheri accepted the phone, but studied Troy. "How did you know I'd call Texas?"
"Because that's where Clay lives."
"And you don't have a problem with that?"
"Not anymore, sweetheart. No more attacks of jealousy. Clay is also my lifelong friend and like a member of our family."
She turned the full force of her smile on him. "Good answer."
Sheri leaned her back against Troy's chest, relaxed, and dialed her brother's old phone number.
"Swinging D. Good evenin' and God bless ya."
"Well now, as I live and breathe, it's Sheri Knight calling me. Howdy and how are ya?"
"Terrific! Finally grieved Stevo. Quit smoking. Done backsliding, just repented."
"Thank You, Jesus! And how's it going with Troy?" Clay chuckled while he waited for her answer, but when she didn't respond right away he added, "He's listening, huh?"
"Affirmative. To every word."
Clay laughingly asked, "Let me talk to him?"
"Ok, but first let me apologize for how I've acted toward you since Steve's death. Please forgive me. He was your best friend and I know you miss him, too."
"Thanks. I understood your pain, Sheri, but neither Troy, nor I could let you keep running from God."
"I'm blessed to have you both." She snickered. "At the Atlanta airport however, I thought it might be more of a curse."
"I loved Stevo as much as if he were my brother by blood. I'm not him, but that now entitles me to step into his big brother shoes. That comes with the unlimited right to razz ya, pray for ya, and walk ya down the aisle to give ya away at your wedding."
She laughed. "Is that so?"
"Yep. You can call anytime, know that, and I'll be there for ya. I've got a date here, Sheri, a lovely Texan lady, and we were headed out the door. I'm excited about her, ready to go. Big hint, I'm ready to say bye to ya. Let me talk to Troy now."
Sheri laughed and handed the phone to Troy. While they talked, she stood and stretched.
Hearing only the one-sided conversation, unlike Troy who sat so close to her he had heard every word, she frowned when Troy growled, "Yes! I'll tell you the date as soon as I find out. She has to say yes first though, cowboy. Uh-huh." Troy laughed hard. "Goodnight, Clay."
"Troy! I needed to ask him something before you hung up."
He laughed hard once again. "He's already demanded to walk you down the aisle at our wedding. What more could you want?"
She dropped to her knees on the blanket in front of him. "I needed to discover if Clay had the truck driver's name and phone number."
The corner of his lips turned down briefly before Troy dug out his wallet, pulled free a piece of paper and handed it to her. "Why not ask me for it, Miss Knight?"
Sheri accepted and unfolded the paper. Puffing out her cheeks on a huge sigh, she read the information she needed. The truck driver's name, Marvin Reynolds, his Dallas address and phone number. "I apologize, Troy. I never figured you had it since you didn't try to force me to call him."
"Ah, honey, I'm not above trying to influence you into agreeing with me. Or using my powers of persuasion to push you and then protect you even from yourself. Or even offering you rewards, extra incentives, but it will never be about outright force. Never."
Wincing, she realized how much shed insulted him. "Troy-"
In the end, its all about free will. Your choice, Sheri. Your decision."
Sheri studied the oh-so-gorgeous man in front of her, understanding he meant more than her choice to get right with God and His plan for her life. Her free will to decide to change everything back into the real Sheri, as well as her decision to love and marry Troy. "Thank you kindly, handsome. For everything. For being you. And thank You, Jesus, for Troy."
Then she exhaled hard and dialed the truck driver's phone number.
A woman answered, his wife, and explained her husband was out on the road driving his semi to a warehouse on Georgia's east coast. Sheri asked for the exact time, name of the warehouse, and town, before thanking the woman and disconnecting.
Sheri cupped Troy's face and grinned. "The dock where you parked that incredible sports car is close by, so would you be willing to let me borrow your new car?"
He groaned. "Remember, I have ridden with you more times than I can count. I know how you drive!"
She patted one side of his face. "Yes, much better than you."
Ignoring his snort, she continued. "Listen, Marvin Reynolds is due to arrive in the next town over in about an hour. I'm determined to meet him face-to-face, look him in the eye, give him my forgiveness, and apologize to him."
Troy rolled to his feet in one smooth motion before towering over her. "Fine. As long as I can come along."
She smiled and swiftly folded the blanket. "Troy Montgomery, I was most assuredly hoping you'd volunteer to come along in case I need protection in that rough warehouse neighborhood." When she started walking toward the dock, she turned her head and winked at him. "My hero."
He raked one hand over the ebony spikes at his crown, and wonder of wonders, bright red crept up to color his handsome face.
"Mr. Confidence, Mr. Charm, blushing?" She shook her head. "Where's my camcorder when I need it?"
But she took mercy on his embarrassment and hooked her arm through his. "Come on, good looking. You're with me. My date."
He smiled with genuine pleasure. "Are you sure my date wouldn't rather fly over in the helicopter? It would be much quicker."
"Nah, thanks for offering though. I don't know where the helicopter could land close by the warehouse. Besides, I can get us there as quickly by flying your car."
He groaned, shaking his head. "It's that bold rush-seeking daredevil streak. Maybe I should drive? It is new, you know."
By then, they had reached his shiny red sports car. Sheri held out one hand for the keys after he bleeped off the security alarm. She lifted her other hand in the air like taking a solemn vow. "I promise I won't smoke in your car.
"You quit," he stated, but swung open the driver's side door for her like the true southern gentleman he was.
"Uh-huh." After he had climbed into his seat, she snickered. "Fasten your seat belt. It's the law."
"So is the speed limit, Sheri."
"Relax, Troy. I was only teasing you. I'll take extra special care of your expensive new baby."
He clicked his seatbelt then slid one arm over her shoulder. "You're my baby. This is my toy."
He started a CD and they sang the whole distance.
Sheri slowed down and turned onto a rather hostile looking side street. There were what appeared to be rival gangs on opposing corners. A young man covered in tattoos and body piercings handed a baggy of possible drugs to an even younger girl as she held out money.
"This breaks my heart." Sheri prayed for each person she saw as she followed the street to the warehouse. It was night and Satan was busy in this neighborhood. She was certainly happy Troy had come along.
Troy prayed aloud for God to surround them with a hedge of protection. "Now you don't have to only count on me to keep you safe. God will send a legion of angels to protect us if need be."
She reached over and ruffled the soft ebony spikes on his crown. "I lived in big bad New York City for several years, bud. I'm glad you're here, but I know how to take care of myself in unsafe situations."
When there were no semi-trailers backed into any of the warehouse doors, Sheri parked the car and shut off the engine.
"Atlanta has it's dark side, too, sweetheart. Would you rather live on the island?"
She snorted. "Nice and romantic, but kinda impractical. Stranded and remote like that, how would we get any work done?"
You have a firm to run and are supposed to be saving me a job. Not too many businesses are considered top-notch of their field and known for employing only Christians, known for being started and run by a truly good man, a genius Christian executive. Would we send out messages in bottles, float them to the firm? How about carrier pigeons loaded with scrolls of program code?" Amused at the thought, she laughed.
But Troy wasn't laughing. Silver eyes impaled her, intense and serious, before he intertwined their fingers. "While we're waiting," he cleared his throat and shifted his weight in the leather seat. "The island has all the technological capabilities we could need to manage the firm as if we were in Atlanta."
"I knew it! I knew you couldn't do without all the technology and leave your business for such an extended period. So where on your island do you have this state-of-the-art office?"
"It's kinda hidden away, through a closet in the kitchen pantry."
"No wonder I never found it."
"That's where your laptop and cell phone disappeared to. I like to call it the twilight zone."
By the way, it's not my island. I bought it two years ago when God made His plan for my life even clearer to me, including you as His choice for my future wife. I bought the island on faith for our future together and for any future children we produce."
Her mouth dropped open.
"It's our island, Sheri love. So where in Georgia do you want to live, off the coast on our island or in the big city of Atlanta?"
Sheri sat there stunned, blinking rapidly as if it might help her soak in his revelations. "Two years ago, Troy? You've seen me as more than a genderless platonic best bud for two years and you didn't think to mention it to me!"
He squeezed her hand lightly. "See how much God has used you to help me grow in the virtue of patience?
She snorted her disbelief.
You were still in college and I was making my mark at the top of the computer and Internet industries as CEO of a successful security software firm. Two years ago wasn't His timetable, honey. Look at you! You're almost on sensory overload discovering it all these years later."
"I can hardly believe it," she whispered hoarsely.
"I struggled at first too, sweetheart, with the truth of being in love with you. But once I accepted it, I struggled against making it happen right then, struggled with learning the virtue of patience. You know how I am about seeing what I want and going flat out for that goal until I succeed. Yes, Sheri, I've been in love with you for more than two years now."
Good thing she was already sitting down, she thought as she supported her forehead on the steering wheel.
"Speechless, Sheri? Now where's my calendar when I need to note such an auspicious occasion?"
He increased his grip on her hand before lifting her fingers to his mouth for a soft kiss. "While I have you temporarily without words, I'll drop another truth bomb. I didn't only want you to work for me, Miss Knight. I want you as a full-partner in our successful security software firm. I want you as a full-partner in every aspect of my life."
Sheri threw open the car door and stumbled out to suck in deep breaths of fresh air.
"Easy, sweetheart," Troy soothed in a smooth baritone as he walked around the car toward her. "Good news is supposed to make you happy, not throw you into shock."
She held up one hand to halt his advance, yet continued her own retreating steps. "I'm a wee bit thunderstruck here, Troy."
He took two more steps toward her. "I can see that. You might consider running into my arms, instead of away from them."
Troy stiffened, staring at something behind her, before he quietly but firmly demanded, "Sheri, stop. Now. Come here."
She reacted to his tone and obeyed him. She stopped her small backward steps and started toward him. Yet after only a few strides, she froze in place at the distinct click of a gun hammer being cocked.
Sheri glanced over her shoulder at the teenage boy who was dressed like a hoodlum and acted like a thug. Before she could even process the gun pointing at her head, Troy stepped in front of her.
"Are you high, kid?" Troy interrogated with his executive-in-charge voice. "On drugs?"
The youth waved the gun. "No. I don't do drugs. They'll eat your brain and your money. They'll kill ya, you know?"
The teenager shrugged. "This is a rough neighborhood, so I just carry this for my protection. Supposed to meet my uncle here, but I saw the beautiful woman and could see she was a real lady. Not many of those in these parts; I wanted a closer look."
"I bet you did. She is indeed a lady and a gorgeous one at that. But she belongs to me, Troy Montgomery."
The teenager dropped his thug act, uncocked the hammer, and lowered the gun to his side. "Lucky you. You got a sexy lady and a cool set of wheels. You got guts, man. I coulda splattered your brains and took her, took your fine ride, too, if that's what I had intended."
The youth tentatively struck out one hand. "I'm Raoul."
Troy shook Raoul's hand. "Newsflash, kid. It's not luck. God has truly blessed me, but I've worked hard for what I have." He hitched his thumb over his shoulder at Sheri. "Real hard for her."
Raoul laughed. "Women, eh?"
Although Troy chuckled, he pointed one finger at Raoul. "You didn't stand a chance. You couldn't have shot me, or laid one hand on her. Jesus is in complete control. God has a hedge of protection surrounding us and could even send down angels to keep us safe."
Sheri stepped beside Troy in time to see Raoul's dark brown eyes narrow and his lip curl.
The youth snarled, "You sound just like my grandma. Always saying Jesus is in control; that He will meet all our needs. Ha!"
Raoul waved his hands in the air, waving his gun, clearly agitated. "Grandma needs surgery on her heart, a pacemaker, and surgery on her eyes for cataracts, but I don't see no one beating our door down with money for the operations."
The teenager sighed and shook his head. "Some weeks we don't have no food. Some weeks we eat, but Grandma don't have no money for her medicine then. That's why I was to meet my uncle here, to see if he'd give us some more money."
"Oh, Troy," she whispered as she moved closer to Raoul. "That's so sad. I have to do something."
"Sheri, no!" Then he slung one arm over her shoulders, holding her in place at his side. He lowered his mouth to her ear. "No, honey. God's speaking to my heart. I have to do something."
Troy walked them closer to the obviously hurting teenager. "Raoul, do you believe in Jesus?"
"Yeah, I guess. I got saved a few years ago at Grandma's church. But like I said, I don't see Jesus providing for us. Not even Grandma and she's a regular Bible thumper."
"What would it take for you to start attending church, reading your Bible, cleaning up, getting rid of the gun, acting and living like a Christian? Really, Raoul, what would it take?"
Raoul stroked one finger over his temple, clearly in deep thought. "Well, to get rid of the gun would be stupid if we still lived on this dangerous street. Gangs and drug dealers everywhere. I dress like this to fit in, too, so they won't mess with me. Those things would take moving to a new neighborhood."
Sheri couldn't resist asking, "And what would it take for you to return to God?"
"The most important stuff he said about living like a real church-attending, Bible-reading Christian? That would take a miracle straight from Jesus in the form of money for Grandma's medicines and surgeries. And the money to move her somewhere safe, a place where I could make enough money to keep food on the table and a roof over our heads."
A thought popped into Sheri's head, loud and intense. God's voice. "Raoul, what kind of work can you do?"
The kid smirked. "I'm the best hacker around."
Sheri nearly choked and Troy patted her on the back while asking, "You don't say?"
"Yep, top of my class last year at college. Computer science. But I dropped out to take care of Grandma when her heart got sicker and her eyes nearly blind."
Troy pulled out his business card. "If I see to it that your grandma gets her medicines and surgeries, even a new and safer neighborhood, you go back to college and finish your degree."
Then he handed Raoul his card. "Don't forget about attending church, reading your Bible, and praying. I only hire Christians for our security software firm. And we all learned to be the best of hackers to build the best security software. Call me when you graduate and we'll talk."
Sheri laughed and hugged Troy hard. "Troy has the best incentive plans."
He looked at her and shot her a slow, very male, smile. "We'll see what I can come up with for your incentive later tonight."
When he glanced back at the gaping Raoul, Troy nodded. "Two ways we could do this, kid. Can I trust you?"
"Yeah, man, no one has ever done anything like this for me."
"Fine. Instead of me setting it all up, you know your grandma's doctors, medicines, hospitals; you know what neighborhood would be safe for her, but close enough to the university for you to walk to classes. Do you want me to write out a check, or," Troy swung one arm wide toward his beautiful red sports car. "Or do you want me to sign over my car to you, let you sell it for the money, and you personally take care of what your grandma needs?"
"Wow! Your car! Man, it's like worth a quazillion dollars."
"Not quite that much, but enough to cover everything you mentioned."
Troy strode over to the glove box, signed the title, but before handing over the keys, asked, "Can you believe Jesus did this for you, Raoul? That Jesus loves you and provided for your needs? Because that is precisely what is happening."
Then Troy handed Raoul the title. "God told me to give you my car, for you to sell it for the money you need, and arranged this bizarre late night meeting so I'd meet you and even possibly hire you in the future."
Raoul wiped his shirtsleeve against his nose and then one quick rub under his eyes. "Yeah, I believe it's all Jesus. Grandma had faith. Now I do, too. I'll do all the things we talked about; I'll get right with God, live and act like a Christian."
The teenager stuck out his hand again toward Troy. "Thank you, Troy Montgomery. You and your lady are like angels sent from God. I'll call you from time to time, if that's ok, to keep you updated."
Troy nodded. "I'll look forward to it, Raoul. By the way, what is your last name?"
"Reynolds. Raoul Reynolds."
Sheri added, "I'll be praying for you, Raoul, and your grandma, too. God bless you both abundantly until you are overflowing with blessings."
A heartbeat later she gasped. "Reynolds? Your uncle wouldn't happen to be Marvin Reynolds, the truck driver?"
"Yep, that's him. Now I don't have to wait around and beg more money off him."
Raoul shook her hand, before Troy handed him the keys. In a flash, the red sports car zipped out of the parking lot and then out of sight.
"Troy!" She wrapped her arms around his neck, staring into molten silver eyes. "God bless you, Troy Montgomery. That had to be God because you loved that car!"
He humphed. "A toy that brought about pride."
"Well, yeah! A very expensive toy! And do you realize you gave it to Marvin Reynolds' nephew?"
Troy lifted her off the ground and twirled her around in circles. He certainly didn't seem too torn up about losing his car. In fact, he seemed thrilled to have obeyed God.
"God will bless you a hundred times over for this. You're a good-hearted man, Troy Montgomery. The truest Christian I know."
"Thanks, sweetheart, but to God be the glory. I'm still enough of an imperfect human to consider we are now stranded in a dangerous neighborhood with no vehicle."
Just then, she heard a chugging motor and headlights swung their direction as a semi-trailer pulled into the warehouse parking lot. She watched while the trucker backed the trailer into the loading dock.
"Ready?" Troy asked her while sliding a supportive arm around her waist.
Sheri exhaled and nodded. "Yes."
They approached the semi as the driver exited. The older man appeared weary beyond his supposed fifty years. His voice, however, was gruff to the point of rudeness. "What do you want?"
She held out her hand. "Marvin Reynolds?"
"Who wants to know," he growled, ignoring her outstretched hand and starting to walk away.
"Hi. I'm Sheri Knight. Steve Knight's little sister."
That froze him mid-stride. When he slowly turned toward her, he pulled off his baseball cap before shaking her hand. "Steve Knight's death has haunted me all these months."
Troy held out his hand, too. "I'm Troy Montgomery and I was Steve's lifelong friend. I assure you, Marvin, Steve would never want his death to haunt you. He's gone on to a perfect place to join Jesus in heaven."
Sheri stepped closer, face-to-face with Marvin Reynolds, and stared into his eyes. "I know you don't need my forgiveness, since Steve's death was an accident, but God wants me to give it to you and to apologize for it taking me so long to do so."
The trucker driver rolled his neck, then sniffled. "I'm the one who's sorry. He was so young."
Her heartbeat picked up speed. "You have nothing to be sorry for, Mr. Reynolds. Steve's death was an accident. It wasn't your fault. No one is to blame."
Marvin pulled out a handkerchief and blew his nose, then dabbed at his eyes. "I wish I could believe that."
Sheri rested one hand on his arm. "It's true, I promise you. Steve never would have blamed you. No one blames you. Not me. Not God. It's not your fault."
Perhaps to hide the tears that fell openly now, the trucker stared down at his boots. "That's nearly the same thing your big brother said. After they cut him free from the wreckage, he took my hand in his and told me it wasn't my fault. That he didn't blame me. That now was just his time to join Jesus in heaven."
It sounded so much like something Stevo would have done, Sheri stopped fighting against the tears that threatened to spill.
Troy pulled her in closer to his side, wordless emotional support.
Marvin Reynolds choked out, "Steve also said Jesus loves me."
Sheri understood now why God wanted her to speak with the driver who accidentally sideswiped her brother. "Jesus does love you, Marvin Reynolds. He loves you so much, He suffered and died on the cross to save your soul and give you eternal life in heaven with Him."
She could not stop crying now either, barely able to talk.
Troy took over as if they were a tag team. "Jesus loves you so much, Marvin, He would have given His life just to save yours, even if you were the only person on earth. If you ask Him, invite Him, He'd love to live in your heart, too."
Sheri rested one hand directly over Troy's heart and started praying hard for God to guide him, for wisdom, to give Troy the right words. Her other hand she stretched toward the truck driver, yet not touching.
She prayed for God to soften the trucker's heart so Marvin would invite Jesus into it. She didn't know how much time passed, or what precisely the men said to each other as she prayed, but eventually she realized Troy was leading Marvin Reynolds in the sinner's prayer.
She whooped. "Victory in Jesus! To God be the glory!"
"Amen and amen!" Troy fisted one hand in the air and thumped the other on Marvin's back. "The angels are rejoicing for you in heaven right now."
Marvin blew his nose again and mopped at his eyes. He no longer appeared weary, but was wearing a thousand watt smile. "Thank you. My wife will be thrilled to learn I'll start attending church with her. Is there anything at all I can do for you two kids?"
Sheri grinned. "Well, actually, if you wouldn't mind terribly to disconnect your semi while the warehouse loads your trailer, we would surely be grateful for a ride into town. To a motel or hotel, somewhere preferably close to a mall."
He whacked her on the back. "Sure thing, kiddo. Y'all hop in the rig while I get us disconnected."
After she and Troy climbed up and in, Troy elbowed her slightly in the ribs. "We could just as easily called a cab and my pilot could meet us at the airport with the helicopter. The mall? Since when did you become of big fan of shopping malls?"
"Never. But alas, that's where I'm headed first thing in the morning." Sheri laughed. "Don't worry, I didn't plan to drag you kicking and screaming along with me."
"I'm intrigued, curiosity pricked, and definitely coming along."
Marvin climbed in and revved the engine. He drove until he came to a motel, vacancy sign flashing, kitty-corner from a huge shopping mall complex. "How's this?"
"Great! Thank you kindly, Marvin. May God pour out His blessings upon you and yours."
While Troy shook his hand, thanking him and saying goodbye, Sheri's heart swelled with love like an overfilled balloon practically ready to burst. Troy had not said one word about what he had done for Marvin's nephew. So like the good-hearted Christian man he truly was, Troy preferred to heed God's lead, do his good deeds in secret instead of publicly, then sit back and await his blessed rewards.
After they had each paid for their motel rooms, Troy escorted Sheri to her numbered door. He took the key from her hand and unlocked the room, but did not open the door. Instead, he braced one arm on either side of her shoulder.
Caught in the foot separating her from the door and Troy, Sheri glanced up and leaned back against the door from the power of determination in Troy's steady and intense silver stare. She cleared her throat and skidded her eyes away from his. "Goodnight, Troy. Thank you for everything."
He cupped her cheek and tilted her head until she met his gaze again. Then shook his head. "I warned you that this was a real date and would end with a real kiss."
She groaned. "I do want to kiss you, Troy."
He smiled slowly. "Then do it. Don't get shy on me now, sweetheart. I don't believe God considers it a sin for a man and woman in love to kiss before holy matrimony. Sharing our love should never bring you shame."
Sheri waited, impatiently, for him to lower his head a little more and kiss her, but he did not move a muscle. Instead, Troy held her eyes with determined calm confidence, persuading her without words, and waited patiently. Clearly her choice, her decision, her move.
She tipped up on her toes, slid her arms around his neck, and slanted her lips against his, showing him how she truly felt, putting all her pent-up love for him in that kiss.
Troy emitted a deep throaty groan, cupped both large gentle hands around her face, and took over control of the kiss, slower. Timeless; telling her more about his love for her than he could have if he'd talked to her all night. Then she couldn't think at all, only feel.
When he pulled back, breaths hitching, Sheri rested her head against his chest. Her heartbeat thudded the same staccato rhythm of his. True love. And the best kiss of her life!
"I love you, Sheri," he whispered. Then he reached behind her, turned the knob and pushed open her door. "Sweet dreams."
Although she blinked and tried to kickstart her brain, before she could even comment, Troy pivoted and strode to his own motel room.
Sheri lifted one hand to cover her tingling lips and one to cover her singing heart. Soaring high, she practically floated into her room and flopped back on the bed. "I'm well and truly in love with Troy. Whew! Thank You, Jesus, for everything."
She fell asleep, uttering a prayer, holding onto more than hope, knowing she would obey God and put the finishing touches on changing everything back to the real her in the morning.
When Sheri awoke in the morning, fully rested, fuzzy recollections of sweet dreams about her future with Troy still in her head, she smiled. "To God be the glory!"
She glanced at the bedside clock. "Hurry up, time. I want the mall to open so I can visit a hair salon and transform back into me."
She boldly knocked on Troy's door a short time later. He answered, raven hair glistening water drops from a recent shower, and grinned. Sheri grinned right back at him. "Hiya, handsome."
He swung open the door and she saw the motel room Bible open on the bed. Troy had probably been on his knees, praying, when she interrupted him, but he said, "Come on in."
She braced her feet, intent on her mission. "Do you have a picture of me in your wallet?"
He laughed, clearly unprepared for the question. "Yes, ma'am. Several."
"May I borrow one this morning?"
One ebony brow notched. "Uh-sure." He fetched his wallet and pulled out a photo before handing it to her. "This one was taken two years ago on Christmas."
She studied the picture of Troy and her smiling, and sighed. Had she been blind? Or just plain stupid? He said God had told Troy that Sheri would be his future wife, that his feelings for her had changed more than two years ago.
She sighed once more. Troy might not have said a word, but there, caught on film, was more than a love for a friend shining in his silver eyes as he looked at her. "Thanks," she whispered and turned on her toes to speed-walk to the mall.
"Sheri?" he called after her.
"Soon, Troy. Be back soon," she returned over her shoulder.
As if God had indeed swung open yet another door for her, as if He planned it for her, there was a walk-in appointment available as soon as the salon opened.
Sheri handed the beautician the picture when asked what exact shade of hair color, but before she sat down in the chair, Sheri plucked out her green-tinted contacts and flicked them in the trash. Before long a very familiar face stared back at her from her reflection, a Christian with wide navy expressive eyes and long mahogany-streaked hair, the real Sheri.
Instead of knocking on Troy's door, she called his cell phone number from a payphone at the mall.
He answered on the first ring and before she even said a word, he murmured huskily, "Welcome back, Sheri love. You are indeed an exquisite woman."
"Hmm, strange. Howdy, Troy. Thanks."
"You're scowling, sweetheart."
"How do you know that?" She whipped around at the tap on her shoulder.
Troy, standing right behind her now with cell phone to his ear.
Sheri burst out laughing and hung up the payphone.
He shrugged, grinning. "I followed you." As soon as he tucked his cell phone away in his pocket, Troy stroked one hand down her long hair while he stared into her eyes. "The real Sheri." Then he enfolded her in his embrace.
"Troy, I've changed back on the outside now as well as Jesus changing and healing my heart. With God's help, I've righted the wrongs from my season of rebellion. Jesus has given me the green light to move forward in His plan for my future."
She squeezed him hard. "I love you, Troy Montgomery."
Before she could blurt out more, Troy placed one finger over her lips to silence her. "I love you, too. Let's get outta here."
During the taxi ride to the airport, he held her against him but she could virtually feel his struggle for patience.
Once they finally reached the helicopter, and lifted off, Troy turned the full force of a very male smile her way.
"Sheri Knight, this isn't how I pictured it, but I cannot wait another second to claim you." Then his lips touched hers.
Over and over again he kissed her, until the helicopter touched down on the island. "Come on, honey. Out to the beach like I had it planned."
She blinked. "Huh?" Not only her brain refused to work but her legs refused to work either.
Troy smiled smugly. "Your beautiful blue eyes are dazed. Does that mean your brilliant mind is offline?"
After she grunted a wordless agreement, he lowered his mouth to her ear. "Just you wait until our wedding night when I really set out to rock your world."
Her stomach flipped over as that penetrated her spinning world, but Troy laughed confidently and scooped her into his arms. He didn't put her down again until he reached the beach. As soon as her feet touched the sand, Troy grabbed her hand and sunk to one knee in front of her.
"Sheri Knight, I love you. Will you marry me?"
"Oh yes, Troy Montgomery. It would be my honor and pleasure."
He stood again, clasping his hands loosely over her shoulders. "I'd like to kiss you again, but I need to know you can think. Where would you like to have the wedding?"
"Right here, Troy, on our island, on the beach."
He grinned, boyish excitement, and nodded. "Somehow I thought you might say that. In fact, since I've had years to ponder what would make you happiest, I have a few ideas."
"Ok. Fire away."
"Picture this, my little nature lover. Here on the beach at sunset, a holy ceremony to unite us as one before God. The setting sun ushers in twilight so that as we are pronounced man and wife, we kiss under a canopy of twinkling stars."
He laughed again. "If you'll agree to marry me on July Fourth, then think how romantic our anniversary will be each year. The beach, together on a blanket, stargazing followed by fireworks. And then more fireworks."
She stuck out her hand to shake his. "It's a deal!"
He shook his head at her hand and wrapped her in his arms once more. "We seal this deal, this promise, with a kiss. We'll be happy, Sheri, a winning team. You and me with God at our center, guiding us to His glory."
"Thank You, God, for giving the gift of Troy and his love."
Troy smiled, lowering his mouth toward hers. "And thank You, Jesus, for answered prayer."
Right before his lips touched hers, Sheri sighed, "Amen."
Happily ever after!
Smile. Have a great and blessed day!