Sheri picked up the slicker with her wrapped dry clothes before the thought of facing and dealing with her pain and loss could change her mind. "Let's go then," she said in a hoarse whisper. "But it's gonna ache, Troy, gonna make my heart break."
Then she dashed from his office and out the kitchen door into the storm.
Troy joined her outside, wrapped one arm around her and pulled her protectively closer to his side, steadying her in the wind and slashing sideways downpour, leading her to the waiting boat.
Over the whistling wind and pounding pellets of rain, Sheri heard Troy say, "Your heart is already broken, honey, already aching, even if you haven't dealt with it. But Jesus is going to heal your broken heart, change you in an instant."
They ran out on the boat dock, which undulated from the assault of massive crashing waves. At the end of the dock, several feet of water waited between them and the big bobbing boat.
Troy waved one hand at the captain while leaning down to her ear. "Jump."
Sheri hesitated. To jump and miss, even a strong swimmer might drown or be crushed between the rolling boat and dock.
"Come on, Knight, where's that daredevil streak?"
As she gathered her energy, measuring the gap and bending at the knees, she slowly backed up before running and broad-jumping off the dock. She felt one of Troy's large gentle hands on her lower back, propelling her up and forward even at the second she jumped.
A great gust of wind combined with an angry wave, so Sheri landed on the very edge of the boat deck. She automatically swung her arms in big circles, trying to regain her balance without falling back into the sea. Beneath her, the boat deck bucked like a wild stallion.
One massive meaty hand clamped onto her upper arm, pulling her several feet farther onto the boat and out of harm's way. "Careful, lass."
She looked at the big burly man who had hauled her to safety. Deep grooves fanned out from his eyes as if he spent a great deal of time squinting into the sun. "Thanks."
He smiled. "Captain James Connery at your service."
Troy landed on his feet behind her. Under one arm, he held their two watertight bundles of clothing. He slid his other arm around her. "Thanks, James. Come on. Let's get out of the rain."
The captain lead them out of the wind and rain into a large dry room in which one wall was composed of a window to see when steering. Even as they all stripped off their slickers, water pooled off of them onto the floor.
She braced her legs, but the boat rose and fell from the force of the waves. "Rather dangerous weather to be boating." Wondering if the ferocious storm might capsize them, Sheri reached over as nonchalantly as possible and applied a death-grip onto a railing.
Captain Connery laughed, a big booming sound. "Easy, lass. We won't sink. There's nothing to fear. God is always at the helm during the stormy tempests of life. He steers the ship through the storm for you. Jesus will carry you through safely to the other side, be it a mere tropical storm or your darkest hour when you despair, feel alone and overwhelmed."
Sheri blinked slowly once before realizing her mouth formed an O.
Troy raked one hand over the dripping ebony spikes at his crown. "James, I'm pleased to finally introduce you to Sheri Knight. Sheri, this old sea dog is a retired minister and close personal friend of mine."
Captain Connery hitched a thumb toward Troy. "And this boyo has spoken of you many times." He extended one meaty palm to engulf hers in a firm handshake. "My pleasure. Call me James."
Troy rolled his eyes. "Ready to go?"
James ignored Troy, turning sky blue eyes on Sheri. "I wouldn't miss the fine opportunity to get this pretty little lass back to church. Are you ready, Sheri?"
She paused, caught in the light eyes of the captain, feeling as if his question meant much more, as if he knew that today she would finally stop running and face her pain. Sheri bit her bottom lip and nodded once.
As the captain steered, he explained the difference between a fishing boat, yacht, and ship.
Sheri appreciated the small talk obviously meant to occupy her with something other than the horrific storm, but her mind spun like peeling tires burning rubber over turbulent thoughts. She sat down on a bench and attempted to block her thoughts, to instead concentrate and comprehend what the captain was now explaining about steering.
Yet James Connery lifted one bushy brow and turned to Troy. "The photos you carry in your wallet."
"Huh?" Troy asked.
"In the photos, her hair was dark as well as her eyes."
Heat crept slowly up Sheri's neck to scald her face.
"Yes." Troy sat beside her on the bench. "The real Sheri."
James nodded once before holding out a beefy hand to view the pictures again. After flipping through the many pictures, the captain walked over to her as if not noticing the bouncing floor beneath his feet.
When he turned the wallet toward her, tapping one photo with a thick finger, James stated, "There was a great family resemblance between you and your brother. Just look at this, same smile, same shade of dark brown hair, same expressive navy eyes. You must miss him terribly."
Sheri accepted the outstretched wallet, although she did not want to look at the picture. She didn't want to see Steve, recall the great memories from the day the photograph was taken. In fact, immediately after his funeral, Sheri had packed away all memorabilia that reminded her of her brother, including his pictures and letters, locked them away so the aching loss wouldn't be able to touch her.
Troy sighed, then pointed right at Steve in the picture. "I remember the day this was taken. You and Stevo-"
"No!" Sheri shook her head rapidly. "Don't, Troy."
James Connery lowered his big booming voice to a firm whisper. "Look at the picture, lass. Remember your brother. Denial, even anger, are common steps in the grieving process. But it's time to move forward."
The captain pointed at the photo. "You loved your brother and from what Troy has said about his friend, Steve Knight was a good man. Don't you think he deserves his little sister to face his death and grieve him? Don't you think he would want you to do the healthy thing, instead of running from God, instead of changing everything about yourself that your brother loved, instead of carrying a burden of false blame?"
If it weren't so childish, Sheri would have slapped her hands over her ears and started humming.
She glanced down at the picture of Steve, smiling, happy. Gone now forever. Pain ricocheted from her mind to her heart like a bullet tearing through her and she uttered a low moan from the agony ripping her asunder. "It's all my fault," she whispered for Troy's ears only. Sheri blinked rapidly as the tears gathered in her eyes.
Troy leaned his mouth closer to her ear. "No, baby. That guilt you feel is straight from the pit of hell and Satan's storehouse of lies. Steve's death was not your fault. No one is to blame. Not you and not God. Not even the truck driver."
Wise or not, she pushed the wallet back into Troy's hand and hopped to her feet. Then, on unsteady legs made even more rubbery by trying to navigate against the rolling waves, Sheri raced out of the warm dry bridge into the raging storm.
Although she discovered she couldn't run from the pain, the truth this time, as her heart shattered into ten thousand tiny pieces and she gasped for breath. The gusty wind buffeted her around and she lifted her face toward the sky, allowing the rain to pound down her face, hide her tears, and saturate her in a minute.
Suddenly, Troy stepped in front of her and said not one word as he wrapped his arms around her while protectively tucking her into his slicker. Safe now; safe from the storm trying to toss her into the sea and safe to share her grief.
He lowered his mouth to her ear. "It's ok, sweetheart. You don't have to face this alone. Lean on me."
The steady reassuring thud beat directly under her ear as she leaned her head against his solid chest, over his heartbeat. His chest rumbled as he began to pray for her, blasting through the barriers around her heart.
At that moment, flooded with memories of Stevo and her agonizing loss, Sheri stopped fighting and accepted her brother's death. She didn't know how long she sobbed, how long Troy held her, prayed for her, but finally she gave a chest-heaving sniffle.
She squeezed Troy once, tightly, before breaking away from his hug. Although he had pulled her into his slicker for protection from the rain, she realized she must look at least half-drowned. Troy did.
Sheri laughed, a little rusty sounding but genuine. Indeed, her smile felt unfamiliarly odd yet great. Something had changed within her. Even her relationship with Troy had shifted in some way.
Troy lifted his face and smiled at the sky. The gusts of warm wind still blustery, but the slashing sideways rain had stopped, as the early morning sun peeked around scattering gray clouds and glinted off the less violent waves. "The storm has calmed, like the one inside you. It'll still hurt, honey, but now the pain will lessen with time, until eventually you smile when you remember the good times. I miss Steve, too."
Captain Connery tossed a wrapped bundle of clothing at Troy. "She's soaked to the bone. Show her where she can change."
Sheri followed Troy to the sleeping quarters where he bowed once, handed her the clothes, and left her.
She glanced around the bedroom, dark pine, stark, distinctly male. A large wooden cross hung above the bed. Off to the right was a restroom with a small shower. Smiling slightly, Sheri unwrapped the slicker and stared at her spur of the moment packing job.
She hadn't understood why at the time, but along with her clothes, Sheri had tossed in the box of hair color, the shade Troy had chosen as exactly her color at the store before they ever traveled to his island. With a sudden burst of energy, she flicked her green contacts into the trashcan and headed into the shower.
As soon as possible, nice and warm from the water, Sheri wiped the steam from the bathroom mirror. A familiar sight greeted her, long dark mahogany-brown hair and large navy expressive eyes.
After combing out her tresses and changing into her dry clothes for church services, Sheri hurried toward the deck. And Troy.
She no sooner climbed the steps to the bridge, than the boat horn blared one long blast to announce their approach to the dock near the coastal church.
Troy turned as she entered and his silver eyes regarded her silently. Then he smiled, a streak of straight white gleaming against tan skin. "Welcome back, Sheri love."
"Wow, lass," Captain James Connery piped in. "What a difference! I can hardly wait to see you after Jesus changes your heart."
Sheri grinned and accepted Troy's extended hand, interlocking their fingers. He did not turn loose the entire time, from disembarking to stepping into the church foyer as if she might change her mind about attending service. Already the bell tolled the top of the hour, time for the beginning of church. She squeezed his hand as they entered the sanctuary, silently trying to transmit her message of wanting to sit in the back pew.
Troy gently squeezed her hand in return, but continued down the aisle to sit about halfway to the front.
As the congregation greeted one another at the start of the service, welcoming her warmly, a wave of trepidation, an unreasonable fear, washed over Sheri. A prodding, an urging for her to run from the church.
She wriggled her hand, trying to break free from Troy's light hold, but he closed his fingers over hers.
"Easy, sweetheart. Satan is attacking you; I can see it on your beautiful face. He does not want you to return to your rightful place with God, back as a prayer warrior. You know what to do."
Instead, Sheri groaned, "I'm getting hammered."
Then Troy leaned his mouth near her ear, speaking quietly but firmly. "Satan, I rebuke you in the Name of Jesus. Get away from her. Sheri belongs to God."
Instantly, the fear eased.
Troy reached his other hand for the hymnal. "Clear your mind, Sheri. Concentrate on communing with Jesus, worshiping Him."
She glanced at the hymnal, a praise and worship song she knew, then closed her eyes, opened her heart, and blocked out everything and everyone else except for singing to Jesus.
Troy's deep voice added to her own in harmony. So familiar. So right. So close to Jesus.
After several songs, the minister began his sermon. Sheri listened to truths, Biblical principles she had once believed whole-heartedly. Sometime during the powerful message, two tiny tears pooled at the corners of her eyes.
She stopped listening to the preacher and closed her eyes, listening instead to the urgent, loud, thoughts popping into her mind. God loved her, wanted her back, and had a Master plan for her life. Repent. Return to God.
So silently there in the pew, Sheri repented. She asked Jesus to cleanse her heart of all anger and unforgiveness, so that He in turn could forgive her.
Then in her head, listing out her sins from her season of rebellion, she asked the Lord to forgive her, to toss her sins as far as the east is from the west, into a sea of forgetfulness. Quietly weeping, she sincerely asked Jesus to change her heart, heal her heart, change her back into the real Sheri.
In an instant, Jesus touched her, her heart, her state of mind, setting her free, making her whole and welcoming her back. His peace that surpasses all human understanding settled over her like Jesus wrapped His protective feathered wings around her, soothing her, loving her.
She opened her eyes when Troy draped his handkerchief over her arm. He smiled slowly, then slid one arm over the back of the pew and pulled her closer. "Welcome back to the Family of God, Sheri," he whispered.
"Thanks." Sheri mopped the tears from her face before she realized the sermon had ended.
Friendly folks from the church fellowshipped with them, clearly knowing Troy as a regular attendee. The minister, Pastor Shaw, approached them, personally inviting them to stay the afternoon for the barbeque picnic.
Troy shook his hand and introduced Sheri before thanking him for the invitation. After Pastor Shaw moved on to speak to other people, Troy asked, "Well? Tell me."
She smiled. "I repented. Jesus healed my heart, changed me back in a half-heartbeat."
He rubbed one knuckle over her cheekbone and chuckled. "Yes, thank You, Jesus. I was fairly certain of that. You have a light around you again, instead of dark shadows. I meant the barbeque. Wanna stay?"
Sheri stood. "If you would like, but I'd rather do it another time."
Her heart pounded hard as if confirming the message from her mind, like God spoke into both her head and heart, revealing His plan for her life. "I would like to have you in privacy, to talk to you, Troy." She swallowed and then smiled slightly. "I need to tell you something very important."
He exhaled slowly before also rising to stand. "Thank You, Jesus," he said. "I've waited as patiently as possible for this moment, honey. Let's call James and tell him we'll call the pilot to take us back to the island by helicopter."
"Ok," she agreed, walking arm in arm with Troy out of the church and into the bright sunshine. "It's going to be a beautiful day after all."
She laughed as the joy of the Lord bubbled up from her spirit. Happiness. Peace. Even more than hope for the future, a certainty she was back in God's plan for her life. "It's a great day to be alive, Troy Montgomery."
He laughed. "Yes it is, Sheri Knight, Miss-Back-In-The-Positive-Mode. Praise God!" Troy plucked his cell phone from his pocket, calling Captain Connery and then the pilot, as they strolled toward the landing pad.
"May I borrow your phone while we wait? I have a little unfinished business, consequences from my season of rebellion I have to rectify in obedience to God. Calls to make before God wants me to move forward into His plan for my life."
"Certainly." Troy handed her the cell phone, then pulled his wallet from his back pocket. He freed a piece of paper and held it toward her. "Will you be needing this by any chance?"
Sheri accepted the paper and gasped. Marvin Reynolds, the truck driver who had accidentally sideswiped Steve. The trucker's name, address and phone number.
"Thank you, Troy. I thought I'd have to ask Clay for this information. I never considered you might have it; you never tried to cram it down my throat, or force me to call and offer my forgiveness."
Troy stroked her cheek. "I might offer you incentives, might not even be above trying to influence you, but it will never be about outright force, Sheri. In the end, it's your call. Your choice. Your decision."
She knew he meant much more than her choice to color her hair, or her decision to get right with God. Her choice to love Troy. Her decision to fall in line with God's will, His plan for her life that included sharing forever with Troy.
Troy rested one hand over her shoulder and squeezed wordless support into her as he shut his eyes and started to pray.
Sheri exhaled slowly as she dialed the truck driver's home phone number in Dallas. After three rings, a gruff but weary male voice answered, "Hello?"
"Hello, Marvin Reynolds?" she asked hesitantly as her heart boomed within her chest.
"If you're selling something, I'm not interested."
"This is Sheri Knight, Mr. Reynolds. Steve Knight's little sister."
A long pause, then the gruff voice grated softly, "Steve Knight. His death has haunted me. I'm sorry for your loss."
She swallowed hard. "I'm the one who is sorry. Steve wouldn't want his death to haunt you. His death was not your fault. I know you don't need my forgiveness, but I apologize it has taken me so long to offer it to you."
Marvin Reynolds cleared his throat, twice. "He was so young. I blame myself for his death. How can you not blame me?"
"It was an accident. It wasn't your fault. I don't blame you. God doesn't blame you. And neither would my big brother."
The trucker sniffled. "That's close to what your brother said, after they cut him out of the wreckage. He took my hand and told me that he didn't blame me. That it was just time for him to join Jesus in heaven. Steve Knight said Jesus loves me, that Jesus wanted me to know."
Her heart rate accelerated, finally understanding why God required her to call the truck driver who was involved in the fatal crash that accidentally killed her brother.
Tears spilled out of her eyes, streaming down her face. "Jesus does love you, Marvin. If you were the only person on this earth, He would have suffered and died on the cross just for you, so you could have eternal life in heaven with Him. He wants you to invite Him to live in your heart, to help you and to guide you through life."
Marvin Reynolds did not immediately say yes. Nor did he say no. Instead, he wept openly over the phone line.
The Holy Spirit nudged Sheri. A loud thought reverberated in her head, echoing in her heart. "Marvin, I believe God would have me hand the phone over to my best friend. His name is Troy Montgomery. He was Steve's friend also. God guides Troy, gives him wisdom. He's the truest Christian I know."
"All right," the trucker choked out. "I'll talk to him."
Sheri handed the cell phone to Troy, then rested her hand over his heart, praying as hard as she could. She didn't know how long Troy spoke with Marvin, but eventually he led the truck driver in the sinner's prayer. When Troy disconnected the phone, she raised one hand in the air and whooped for joy.
Troy picked her up, laughing and praising God, as he twirled her in a circle. "The angels are rejoicing right now, Sheri love."
After he set her on her feet, Sheri nodded. "I really felt as if God wanted me to hand the phone over to you like we were a tag team or something."
Troy grinned. "We are a team, you and me and God. Like He is our coach, guiding a winning team to victory."
Sheri was about to burst with happiness, with the news she wanted to share with Troy, but she managed to hold it in until they were seated in the helicopter and it lifted off the ground. Then over the noise of the rotating blades, she laughed and smiled slowly at Troy. She took his hand in hers, scooting until her mouth was near his ear. "I love you, Troy. In love with you."
His large gentle hand cupped her face as he smiled down into her eyes. "About time you realized that."
He lowered his mouth toward hers, speaking against her lips. "I have loved you all my life, Sheri Knight, in love with you for years now." Then he slanted his mouth over hers, kissing her, staking his claim without words, showing her timeless tenderness and unconditional love.
When he pulled back as the pilot announced their arrival on the island, Sheri could only blink up at Troy. Her heart thudded like a bass drum, but neither her legs nor her brain would function.
Troy shot her a smile of pure male satisfaction. "Your beautiful blue eyes are kinda glazed, sweetheart. Just wait until I really try to rock your world. Is your brilliant mind temporarily offline?"
"I-I can't seem to think at all. Or make these rubbery legs work to walk out of here onto your private island."
He laughed before scooping her into his arms and carrying her out of the helicopter on down to the beach. "It's not my island, honey. Two years ago, when God revealed you were His choice as my wife, I bought this island on faith for our future together. And any future children we will have. Not my island, Sheri. Our island."
Troy steadied her to stand in the wet sand beside the rhythmic roll of the crashing waves.
No sooner had her brain kicked into gear, than her mind whirled with his revelation. Two years ago! Our island?
"Speechless, Sheri?" Troy tilted back his head and laughed again. "Now where is my calendar when I need it to mark down a day of such rare occasion? I suppose since you're temporarily without words, I might as well toss some more truth your way."
He closed his hands over her shoulders. "I didn't only want you to work for me as an employee. 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."
"Wow. God only just confirmed His plan for my life, for us, to me an hour ago." She raised one shaky hand to her forehead, trying to soak it all in. "I-I need to sit down, Troy."
Before she dropped to her seat right there, he picked her up and carried her to dry white sand.
Troy sat beside her and captured her hand, lifting it to cover his heart. "I love you, Sheri Knight. We're a winning team, you and I with God at our center. Will you make me the most blessed man on earth by agreeing to become my bride, share our lives forever as husband and wife?"
"Oh, Troy, yes. It would be my honor to accept."
Steely silver eyes heated, intense, as he smiled very slowly, very confidently. "Then with God's blessings and in the Name of Jesus, I claim you as mine." Troy wrapped his arms around her and lowered his mouth to hers. Timeless, unspoken promises, showed her, not told her about his love for her.
When he at last pulled back, breathing hard, Sheri rested her head over his chest, listening to the matching drum roll of his heart. His baritone rumbled from his chest, against her ear. "Where would you like to have our wedding? Here? Atlanta? Texas?"
She waved one hand toward the beauty surrounding them. "Here please."
He nodded, appearing most pleased. "I thought you might say that. In fact, since I've had several years now to think about what kind of ceremony might make you happiest, I have a few ideas."
"Picture this beach at sunset, the salty tang in the warm wind, us standing next to the soothing rhythm of the vast ocean, standing before God and our friends. Taking holy vows to unite us as one before God as sunset turns to twilight with us kissing under a canopy of stars."
"Wow. No wonder I love you."
He held up one hand. "And if you'd agree to marry me on July Fourth, then think how romantic our anniversary will be every year. Lying on a blanket, on the beach, soaking in the stars with fireworks to follow. All the things you love." Troy winked. "With the best fireworks of all afterwards."
She tapped one hand over her heart. "Oh my. Oh yes. Please. Thank You, God, for giving me Troy!"
Right before Troy kissed her again, he murmured, "And thank You, Jesus, for answered prayer."
Happily ever after!
Jesus has a plan for your life, too!