Sheri leaned forward, closing the few inches between them. That must have been all the encouragement Clay needed because he brushed his lips over hers.
"Kiss me back, Sheri."
She groaned and closed her eyes, meeting his mouth on hers, kissing him back, kissing him like she had always wanted to.
Clay slid his hands over her upper arms and tore his mouth off hers, breathing hard. His eyes were rimmed in so much gold, the brown around his pupil was but a tiny circle. "I love you, Sheri Knight."
Then he rose to his feet and walked to the other side of the den before raking one large hand over his golden hair.
I love you she wanted to cry out. Yet, she didn't. She couldn't. Not yet. Clay loved the Sheri he knew while Steve was alive.
The mere fact Clay loved her, as a woman, not a little sister, made Sheri thank Jesus over and again in her heart and mind. Suddenly, she couldn't wait to get right with God, get back on course with God's will, His plan for her life.
Clay raised both hands in the air. "Honey, please . . .."
He blew out a hard exhale. "It's between you and God before you and me. Your choice." Clay shrugged. "I can't coerce you; God won't allow it."
Sheri walked over to him, grabbing one of his large calloused hands, leading him to the couch where she kneeled. Clay kneeled too, holding her hand, as she prayed.
Time seemed to stop, meaningless until she changed her heart, Jesus did. He healed her heart as Sheri let down her final guards and leaned upon Him. Sheri trusted totally upon the Lord again. Finally, she sniffled and fell silent.
Clay lifted his fingers to wipe away her tears.
She sniffled again. "I need the phone number of the truck driver who sideswiped Stevo."
He rose and walked to the desk before sliding open one drawer and withdrawing a slip of paper. "Marvin Reynolds from Dallas. Here it is."
"Did you know I would call him?"
"I prayed so," he stated.
Sheri dialed the Dallas phone number, but learned Marvin Reynolds was on the road. God nudged her heart, not to give up, so she asked where he was making his delivery. After discovering he was in the small town closest to the ranch, she hung up and hurried to tell Clay.
He jangled his truck keys toward her. "I'm coming along, Sheri."
That was more than fine with her. In fact, for a second or two, she wondered if she could keep him away from the Swinging D all day; keep him away from the mother-approved potential bride date.
Reluctantly, she muttered, "Don't you have a date with Rhonda the rodeo cowgirl?"
Clay grinned and the dimple in his cheek winked at her. "I canceled it as soon as Mom left for her cruise."
Sheri smiled then raked upper teeth over her bottom lip. "But your mom hired caters for Sunday after church services. You're supposed to be hosting a church fellowship."
He ambled over to her and lightly brushed his knuckles over her cheekbone. "That's right. Mom was hoping to add weight to my date, what with being seen as a couple first at church services and then by all my Christian friends here for the fellowship. I think she was hoping an engagement announcement would follow soon thereafter. Sheri, would you be my date on Sunday for church and the fellowship?"
She grinned. "Surely. You don't have to ask me twice."
He waggled his eyebrows, grinning. "In that case, would you-"
The phone rang again and he sighed, answering it. "Swinging D." Then he frowned. "Yeah, she is." Clay held the phone toward Sheri. "For you. It's Troy."
Troy! Sheri had sent him an SOS last night, telling him the torch she had carried for Clay all these years was blazing out of control. And that Clay was supposed to have another of his mother-approved dates. Not that she wanted to discuss it with Troy right now, in front of Clay. She felt heat creep up over her face as she said, "Hiya, Troy."
As always, her best friend Troy shot straight to the heart of the matter. "SOS?"
If possible, her faced burned brighter, hotter, as Clay held her captive in his gaze and Troy awaited an answer. "Uh, yeah," she muttered into the receiver.
Troy chuckled. "He's beside you, listening, right?"
"That's a big ten-four." She groaned and closed her eyes, closing out Clay.
This time, Troy sighed deeply. "Listen, Sheri, I knew when you left with Clay, instead of me, that deep inside, you loved him still. You just didn't acknowledge it until you sent that SOS. For a brilliant woman, you sure were slow to catch on to what your heart knew all along."
"Thanks," she whispered. "I knew there was a reason I could always count on you as my best bud."
As she opened her eyes again, she caught the dark scowl marring Clay's forehead.
"If I were in Clay's position, I'd want a shift in power, in intimacy. You and I will always be best friends, but follow your heart. Get right with God, and then go get what you want; who you've always wanted. Turn to God to talk, then Clay, then me, and I do believe your path to wedded bliss will be smoother."
She soaked in her buddy's advice for a few pregnant seconds.
Clay flashed her an apologetic smile then snatched the phone right out of her hand!
But he put the receiver to his mouth. "Troy Montgomery, I'm jealous of you and your relationship with my . . . uh-with Sheri. As soon as agrees to marry me, she's mine. My best confidant. Not yours first anymore."
Although Sheri gasped at hearing that, Clay grinned this time confidently as he added to Troy, "You can still walk her down the aisle."
Troy must have answered something because Clay's smile grew. "Thanks. Make sure you clear your calendar for July fourth. Uh-huh. Just keep praying, buddy, and we'll stand in agreement for God's plan for her to unfold and take root."
Before Sheri could speak to Troy again, Clay hung up. She frowned, yet a part of her wanted to giggle, emotions churning.
After taking one step back from Clay, followed by several more, she had backed her knees against the couch cushion in which she sank.
Had Clay actually proposed to her, via Troy, to marry on the Fourth of July? She needed the Rock, the solid rock of Jesus to build upon for a truly blessed foundation of marriage. Just like that she blew out a shaky breath and turned it all over to Jesus, repenting, returning to the relationship she shared with the Lord before Steve's death.
Before she understood why her cheeks were wet, Clay had joined her at the couch as if he understood what the sincere quiet tears represented.
"Thank You, Jesus," he declared solemnly. Clay grabbed her hand in his as if waiting for her to pray with him like she most often in the past had with her prayer warrior partner Troy.
So, unselfconsciously, she prayed aloud and straight from her heart. As a sweet peace that passes all understanding descended upon her, she heard Clay's sure baritone praying softly with her in agreement to everything she said. She heard him then offer his own prayers as she stood in agreement with him.
After their emotional amen, Clay wrapped his brawny arms around Sheri. "I love you, Sheri Knight. I always have."
He kissed her wet cheeks, the tip of her nose, her closed eyes, before his mouth descended over hers in a timeless kiss which spoke in action, not words, of true love, of commitment.
She panted after he pulled back, knowing he wanted to say the words aloud, knowing he wanted to ask her to marry him. Before they solidified their relationship, Sheri stumbled away from him into her bedroom.
She dialed information to learn Marvin Reynolds' phone number in Dallas. This was the last thing she had yet to do to obey God before she and Clay could build their love upon the solid rock of Christ. As she waited for the truck driver to answer his phone, shame washed over her for her former unforgiving attitude toward the trucker who had sideswiped Steve.
Jerked out of her thoughts, she answered the gruff sounding hello.
"Mr. Reynolds?" When he grunted she gathered her courage, still blanketed in the sweet peace of Jesus, and charged forward. "I'm Sheri Knight, little sister to Steve Knight. Although you certainly don't need my forgiveness, as his death wasn't your fault, I need to say I forgive you."
Sheri sighed shakily before breaking the silence over the phone line. "I'm sorry it took me so long. God never blamed you. I never should have."
The gruff voice grew rusty as if choked by his tears. "Steve Knight's death has haunted me. When they pulled him out of his mangled vehicle, he actually smiled at me. He asked God to bless me cause he was finally going home to heaven to be with Jesus. Your brother said he didn't blame me; said Jesus wanted me to know He loves me."
Sheri closed her eyes. That sounded so much like something Stevo would have said and done. No longer fighting her tears, she witnessed to the truck driver.
Afterwards, Marvin Reynolds repeated the sinner's prayer with Sheri over the phone. When they were finished, bubbling with the joy of the Lord, they hung up.
She shot Clay a bold smile since he had joined her, holding her hand, praying along with her and the man she had finally forgiven only to be used to lead him to the Lord.
Sheri carried Clay's large calloused hand to her mouth and kissed his work-roughened knuckles before winking at him. "Give me a half hour, cowboy, and then I want to talk to you."
She knew she was grinning like an idiot, but she slipped away to the bathroom where she opened the cabinet under the sink. There was a box of hair color, just exactly her natural shade. Clay had stored in her bathroom most probably to see if she would break down and use it, since it was readily available.
A half hour later, she stared at her reflection of long dark hair and deep blue eyes.
Just as Clay had said, she couldn't change him, so she had indeed changed everything back about herself, the real Sheri Knight. She had changed into the woman who was truly back in place in God's will, in His plan; changed into the woman who Clay had said he loved with God's approval.
According to Clay, she had Steve's approval months ago. She giggled; it seemed even Troy had given her the thumbs up. Now to be that bold woman of old.
Sheri joined Clay on the front porch and sat beside him in the porch swing. She didn't miss his gasp as he took in the new her. Or should she say the old her?
Clay slid over right beside her in the seat and stroked one hand over her dark hair as he slid one knuckle up under her chin to tilt her head and study her eyes. "Prettiest blue eyes I've ever seen. Welcome back, Sheri love."
Before she had a chance to be bold and propose to him, Clay grabbed both of her small hands in one of his large palms.
He dropped to one knee in front of her. "I love you, Sheri Knight. Always and forever. You are the woman chosen for me in God's big plan. We'd be a team, God, you and me. Will you marry me, sweet Sheri, and make all my long awaited dreams come true?"
Despite the tears of joy glossing over her eyes, she smiled boldly. "Only if we marry on the Fourth of July. Fireworks every year to celebrate our blessed union. You, and me, and God."
Then she leaned down until her mouth was scant inches from the golden hair by his ear. "Besides, I think my next-to-best friend has cleared his calendar for that day."
Clay growled and kissed her hard, marking her as his.
When they parted, foreheads pressed together and trying to steady their breathing, he added, "Yahoo!"
"Yeehaw", she agreed.
He chuckled. "You agreed to attend church with me and then the afternoon fellowship as my date. We'll announce our engagement and fast approaching marriage then. You'll be happy my bold future wife, with God and me on your team. We'll be happy, Sheri, and our life blessed."
"I love you, Clay, true love of my life."
She sighed and smiled. "I give You all the honor and the glory, Lord. Thank You, Jesus, for Your plan, Your mercy and grace, Your forgiveness and love, and for making my dream come true."
"Amen," Clay said against her lips.
Happily ever after!
Jesus loves you. He died just for YOU!