Sheri shook her head and the slicker slithered to the floor. "It's not safe." To her heart, but she didn't say that.
Troy frowned, ebony brows forming a V. "Boating in this weather? James Connery is a fine sailor and God will keep us safe." He bent to retrieve the slicker. "Come on, honey."
She shrugged, but accepted the slicker, deciding in that instant to take the easy out. Without a word, Sheri walked by Troy's side out in the gusting winds and slashing sideways rain.
The boat dock bucked against the ravaging waves and the large fishing vessel bobbed up and down.
Troy leaned down by her ear. "Ladies first. Jump over."
Pain shot from her heart, warring with her decision to deceive Troy. "You first."
Silver eyes narrowed on her face for a second. "Sheri-"
He nodded curtly, tucking the two wrapped bundles under his arm. Then he tilted his head and grinned. "Sure, sweetheart, I'll show you how it's done." He ran down the dock and broad-jumped off the edge, landing safely on the boat deck.
Sheri swallowed a sob as he waved his hand for her to follow. She had never successfully held onto anger aimed at Troy and it hurt so much to do so now, she couldn't catch her breath. But she followed through with her last minute plan, raised one hand to wave goodbye and pivoted away from him.
The wind gusted, nearly knocking her over, and the torrential rain pounded, stinging the exposed skin of her face. She glanced back over her shoulder when she heard Troy roar her name like the howling pain of the storm.
What she saw stopped her heart. Troy leapt from the boat without a running start. Yet the wind shoved him back as a giant wave nipped at his heels. He barely landed on the boat dock, tossing the bundles forward, before he swung his arms in big circles to regain his balance.
Only he didn't regain his balance. He fell backward into the turmoil of the sea between the dock and the bobbing boat. "Troy!"
Sheri ran onto the dock, looking over the edge as the sea captain peered off the boat deck, both staring into the sea for a sign of Troy.
"What have I done?" she asked in horror when he didn't surface. Hadn't she already lost her brother? She didn't intend to lose another person she loved. Throwing off the slicker, she dived into the turbulent ocean to find Troy.
Despite opening her burning eyes under the salty water, Sheri couldn't see anything in the swirling dark grit of the ocean stirred up by the tropical storm. The current sucked her into the undertow, pulling her closer to bottom of the boat. Her lungs ached with the need to surface and suck oxygen, but still she searched for Troy.
Something washed over her, wrapping around her chest. The slicker that Troy had been wearing, Sheri realized as she struggled to pull it away from her face. Yet the slicker twisted tighter and in that instant, needing to breathe, needing to surface, needing to save Troy, Sheri knew she was going to drown. End of the line.
Panic froze her fighting limbs. Too late to repent, to get right with God. In her mind, she beseeched Jesus to forgive her, save her from an eternity in hell.
Suddenly she jerked backward as something seized the back of her shirt, a hand clutching her, hauling her to the surface.
Sheri sucked in a huge lung full of air, not water, the second her face cleared the waves. The slicker clamped onto her mouth, but was ripped away by someone else. "Troy!"
Gasping, laughing, crying, all at the same time, Sheri threw her arms around his neck and they both bobbed back under the water until he kicked them to the surface.
"Woman! If you ever scare me like that again," he growled.
"I love you, Troy," Sheri interrupted. "I'm so sorry."
She raised one hand to cover the hairline cut bleeding down his temple, treading water with her weakened legs. "You're hurt." Without thinking, she reacted by praying aloud for him.
A white life preserver plopped into the ocean, right beside them, connected to the boat. Troy hooked one arm over it, but being the beach was a much safer route than possibly being smashed under the boat, he swam the sidestroke toward shore.
Shaken to the core, she allowed him to use his superior strength to guide them. She wouldn't turn loose of his neck, not even when they could touch bottom and the waves knocked them forward before trying to suck them back into the depths.
Troy wrapped one arm around her waist and didn't turn loose even when they collapsed against the wet sandy beach.
Despite the still gusty wind and blinding torrential rain, Sheri soaked in the reality of his handsome face close to hers. "I almost lost you," she whispered. "All my fault, just like Steve's death."
Troy rolled onto his side suddenly and cupped her face. "No! That blame game is straight from Satan and the pit of lies. Stevo's death was not your fault. Nor God's, sweetheart. A horrible accident, not a punishment."
Her anger, her denial, died under that truth. An onslaught of pure painful grief crashed over her like one of the churning storm waves.
"Let Jesus heal your broken heart, Sheri. Let him change you back to the real you in an instant." He held her against his chest, against the steady reassuring rhythm of his heartbeat, against the rumble of his baritone as he prayed aloud for her.
She didn't know how long she sobbed, grieving her brother, didn't know how long Troy prayed for her before the dead weight of oppression lifted from her chest, the burden of blame gone, and Sheri started praying too. Repenting from her season of rebellion, she asked Jesus to cleanse the unforgiveness from her heart and to return her to God's plan for her life.
Suddenly, the joy of the Lord bubbled up from her soul and she laughed with relief as the precious peace of Jesus that surpasses all human understanding blanketed her.
Troy's chest shuddered beneath her in a deep sigh before he laughed, whooping and praising God.
A gruff voice boomed over the storm. "Thank You, Jesus!"
She propped up on elbow and realized it was the sea captain shouting over the storm with his megaphone.
Troy waved one hand toward his friend; the other lifted in praise, before their two slickers of wrapped clothing rolled beside them. "Come on, sweetheart," he urged, picking up the watertight bundles. "We're soaked and need to change out of these cold clothes."
Sheri nodded then pressed a kiss over the cut at his temple.
After he hopped to his feet, she accepted his hand up from the wet sand.
Instead of a ravaging rain, a gentle spray fell from the sky as if the angels wept with joy. The winds shifted, warmer, as she interwove her fingers with Troy's. Even a ray of sunlight filtered down upon them from a break in the clouds as if the storm outside had calmed like her inner stormy turmoil.
Once they strolled inside the house, Sheri brewed hot tea and walked upstairs while it seeped.
Before she changed clothes, Sheri pulled out the boxed hair color Troy had claimed was her exact shade and bought before coming to his island.
As quickly as she could, standing under the warm spray of the shower, she colored her hair. Then she wrapped it in a towel to dry.
When she stepped before the bathroom mirror, and wiped away the steam, the first thing she noticed were green eyes staring back at her. So, she plucked out the green-tinted contacts and flicked them into the trashcan.
After she pulled the towel away from her head, combed out the long wet locks and finished with the hair dryer, a familiar sight greeted her in the mirror. Dark mahogany hair flowed halfway down her back and large navy expressive eyes stared back at her. The real Sheri Knight, physically, body and looks, mentally, and spiritually right with God.
She smiled at her reflection before skipping out of the room, down the stairs, and searching for Troy. She scanned the tiny chapel with no sign of him. In fact, she scoured the entire house without finding him. In case he had finished showering in the guesthouse, Sheri walked outdoors, barefoot, down to the beach to search for Troy.
The storm had calmed. Wind still warm and gusty, but the rain had stopped and the clouds had broken apart to be replaced by sunshine. Shells and driftwood scattered the wet white sand like treasures waiting to be discovered.
Sheri smiled a little wistfully, deciding to wait for Troy before treasure hunting. After all, he was the most rare treasure, a gift from God for her.
Later, while Sheri removed the tea bags from their now very strong tea, and reheated it in the microwave, Troy walked through the side kitchen door.
"Wow, the real Sheri," he remarked. "The woman tattooed on the back of my eyelids in all my dreams. Long dark hair and blue tell-all eyes," he murmured in a deep drawl as he sat at the table.
Then he shot her a purely masculine smile of pleasure. "Welcome back, beautiful."
Although her face heated like she stood too close to a forest fire, she grinned. "Thanks, handsome."
After she set his cup of hot tea before him, Sheri fetched the first aid kit. She stood directly in front of him, leaning down to his face, applying ointment and a bandage over the cut at his temple. Silently, Troy watched her with intense silver eyes. When she finished the first aid, Sheri bit her lip and sat beside him.
"Tell me again, Sheri," Troy purred persuasively.
"I love you. I'm in love with you, Troy Montgomery."
He lifted his hands, locked his fingers behind his head, elbows cocked out, and smiled at her slowly. "Ah, thank You, Jesus. I've waited for years to hear you say it, Sheri love."
She snorted. "Years, Troy?"
He dropped his arms, leaning forward on his knees to take one of her hands between both of his. "Yes. More than two years."
Sheri gaped at him before asking incredulously, "Your feelings for me changed two years ago? And you never thought to mention that little fact to me?"
Troy sighed. "You were in college. You weren't ready and you didn't see me as more than a platonic non-gender-specific best friend. The timing was off. God's timetable, honey, not mine as I wanted to make it happen as soon as God revealed His plan to me."
What plan?" she demanded in a snit.
His plan that included you as my future wife. So, I bought this island two years ago on faith of God's promise for our future. And any future children we may produce. Not my island. Our island."
"Ours?" she managed to squeak. Good thing she was already sitting because her knees would have given out.
Troy smiled at her tenderly. "Have you asked God to reveal His plan for your life? To confirm I am your future husband?"
Sheri had been in the middle of a sip of tea when Troy asked, and it nearly squirted out her nose before she swallowed hard.
Yes, actually, she had asked God. Despite the fact God had zoomed His plan into focus after she repented out in the tropical storm, Sheri couldn't seem to say anything at all right now.
Troy cupped her face, tilting up her eyes to meet his, before he smiled slowly. "While I have this rare occurrence of you temporarily without words, I might as well hand you some more truth. I didn't only wish for you to work for me, Sheri. I want you as a full partner in our successful security software empire. I want you as a full partner in every aspect of my life. Now you've gotten right with God, repented, and I want to claim you as mine."
"There are consequences to my season of rebellion, Troy. Consequences that Jesus wants me to deal with before I can move forward with God's plan for my future, including me claiming you."
"I need to call the trucker, the driver who accidentally sideswiped Stevo. I need to offer him my forgiveness even though it wasn't his fault and he'll probably think I'm nutty to call after all these months."
She paused. "I guess I'll call Clay, since he was Steve's best friend, and hope he has the trucker's phone number."
Troy released her face and dug his wallet from his back pocket. He pulled free a piece of paper and handed it to her. "You had the right idea, but were asking the wrong man. You and I are a team, Sheri, a winning team with God at our center guiding us as coach. You belong to me. Not Clay."
She accepted and unfolded the paper. Marvin Reynolds, the truck driver, and his home address in Dallas as well as his phone number. Sheri glanced up into Troy's eyes. "I'm sorry. I never thought about you having this. You never tried to cram it down my throat or force me to call him."
He smiled sadly. "I may offer you incentives, not even above trying to influence you into seeing things my way about what is best for the real Sheri, but in the end, sweetheart, it will never come down to force. Never. Your choice. Your decision."
In her heart, she knew Troy meant much more than her decision to get right with God's plan for her life. It was also her free will choice whether or not to love Troy.
She sighed as stood. "Would you be so kind as to come with me, hold my hand and pray, while I call Marvin Reynolds now?"
Troy stood also before leaning to press a swift soft kiss on her forehead. "Just try to stop me. I've been your prayer partner since the day we invited Jesus to live in our hearts."
They walked into Troy's state-of-the-art office where he handed her the satellite phone. Then he rested one hand on her shoulder and prayed quietly as she dialed.
After three rings, a gruff male voice answered the phone. "Hello?"
"Hello, Marvin Reynolds?"
"Who wants to know? If you're selling something, you're wasting my time and yours," he said wearily.
"I'm Sheri Knight, Mr. Reynolds. Steve Knight's little sister."
The pause lasted so long, Sheri wondered if she had lost the connection.
Finally she heard his soul deep sigh, so she pushed on in a rush before he well and truly did hang up on her. "I'm calling to offer my apology. Although Steve's death was an accident, and you were in no way at fault, God still wants me to tell you I forgive you. I'm sorry it took me so long to do so."
In little more than a rusty whisper, the truck driver admitted, "Steve Knight's death has haunted me all these months now. He was so young. I'm the one who is sorry. And I wish I could stop blaming myself."
"Steve wouldn't want his death to haunt you. He's gone on to a perfect place now, joining Jesus and the rest of our family in heaven."
Heart picking up speed, Sheri lowered her voice also. "It was a horrible accident. No one blames you. Steve wouldn't. I don't. Neither does God."
Marvin Reynolds sniffled really hard, then cried audibly over the line. "That's nearly what your brother said to me. Before the ambulance took him to the hospital, Steve grabbed my hand and told me it wasn't my fault. That it was just his time to join Jesus in heaven now. Your brother also said Jesus wanted me to know that He loves me."
It sounded so much like something her brother would have done, Sheri stopped fighting against her own tears. "Jesus does love you, Marvin," she urged quietly. "He suffered and died on the cross for you, even if you were the only person on earth."
Sheri admitted, "Life is much too hard without having Jesus to lean on. Jesus will stick closer to you than a brother, carrying you through the tough times. And God has a plan for your life. Jesus loves you and wants you to invite Him to live in your heart, so you can spend eternity with Him in heaven."
The trucker did not accept immediately. Nor did he refuse. Instead, he sobbed openly.
Troy prayed aloud for her, for Marvin, quietly but persistently, the entire time since she had dialed.
The Holy Spirit nudged Sheri and a loud thought popped into her head, echoing in her heart. "Marvin, I'd like for you to speak with my best friend, and a good friend of Steve's. His name is Troy Montgomery and he is the truest Christian I know. God guides Troy, gives him wisdom, and I believe Jesus wants me to hand the phone over to him now."
Marvin cleared his throat. Twice. "Ok."
As Sheri handed the phone to Troy, she rested her other hand against his chest, over his heart, praying as hard and as sincerely as she could. She didn't know how long Troy spoke with Marvin, but eventually Troy led Marvin in the sinner's prayer.
After Troy hung up, he scooped Sheri into his arms and twirled her around, whooping with joy, praising God. "The angels are rejoicing in heaven right now! To God be the glory, honor and praise!"
"Thank You, Jesus!" she agreed. When Troy finally set her back on her feet, she smiled at him. "I felt like God wanted me to give you the phone, kinda like we were a tag team."
Troy smiled and nodded. "We are a team, Sheri love, a winning team. You and I with God at our center guiding us."
He closed his eyes for a few moments, lips moving inaudibly, before opening them and hooking one finger her direction. "It's time. Follow me."
Sheri followed him into the kitchen, where she picked up both cups of warm tea as he asked, and Troy fetched a blanket.
She walked with him to the beach, smiling, until he spread the blanket onto the wet sand. After she sat beside him, Troy took the teacups from her hands and set them aside.
He smiled, slowly, pure maleness, as intense silver eyes inventoried her. Troy lifted one of her hands and kissed her palm before he enfolded her hand in his much larger one, laying it over his heart. "I love you, Sheri Knight. God smiles upon us, promising blessings upon our union as husband and wife, a match made in heaven by God's plan. Would you do me the highest honor of my life by agreeing to become my bride?"
Sheri sucked in an unsteady breath, close to happy tears, before she whispered, "Oh yeah. It would be my pleasure to marry you, Troy Montgomery."
If possible, his smile grew even more masculine as he lowered his face toward hers. "Then I claim you as mine forever in the Name of Jesus. Now I'm gonna give you a sample of staking my claim on you."
His mouth slanted over hers as his arms wrapped around her back, timeless, sweet pure unconditional love.
When he finally pulled back, Sheri had her arms around his neck, panting for air, heart beating an erratic staccato, limbs weak and shaky by pure adrenaline, zero zippy negative none on the brain functioning ability scale.
Troy also breathed unsteadily, but laughed after watching her. "Those gorgeous expressive navy eyes are slightly glazed, sweetheart. Can you decide now on when and where you'd like to have our wedding ceremony?"
She plopped onto her back on the blanket, still trying to reclaim her normal breathing and calm her racing heart. "I can't think at all."
He dropped to one elbow beside her, leaning his mouth near her ear. "Just wait until I really set out to rock your world, when I can officially and fully claim you as mine on our wedding night."
She fanned her suddenly hot face just considering his words.
"Where would you like to have our wedding, Sheri? Here? Texas? Atlanta?"
"Hmm. Here. Definitely. Right here on this beach where I returned to God and realized how deeply I am in love with you."
He nodded and grinned. "Somehow I thought you might choose here, our island. In fact, since I've had years to ponder what type of wedding might make you happiest, I'd like you to hear my suggestions."
"Ok. You know me better than anyone. Plus I adore the way your brilliant mind works." Sheri pressed a quick kiss to his neck; then she braced up on one elbow to face him. "Fire away, handsome."
"Since you love to be out in nature, picture this; our island, by the rhythmic ocean waves as the sun is setting into twilight. We unite as one before God with holy vows under a canopy of stars."
"Wow! No wonder I love you, Troy."
He held up one hand as if he were not done. "And if you'd agree to a wedding on the Fourth of July, then think about how romantic our anniversary would be every year. The beach, on a blanket near the ocean, stargazing until saturated with awe at God's handiwork, followed by fireworks every year. All things you love."
Then he waggled his ebony brows. "Followed, I promise you, by our own brand of fireworks."
She exhaled a cleansing breath as her stomach flopped over in reaction to his promise. "Deal! I love you, Troy Montgomery."
Sheri smiled at him. "We'll be happy, Troy, I just know it. Thank You, God, for the gift of Troy, of his love, his friendship, everything about him. Praise the Lord for His plan and promises of blessings for our winning team." Then she leaned her face toward his.
Right before her mouth touched his, Troy said, "Yeah. Thank You, Jesus, for answered prayer."
Happily ever after!
Smile! Have a great and blessed day!