CHANGE OF HEART:

Clay - Date to Fellowship Party at Ranch

When Clay turned toward her, leaned against the desk, and stared at her while lifting one golden brow in inquiry, Sheri audibly gulped. This was it. Her heart's desire nearly within her grasp, all she needed to do was obey God and He would pour out His blessings upon her.

Clay crossed his arms over his chest. "Well?"

"Yes, Clay. I'll attend church with you and be your date for the fellowship tomorrow afternoon."

She bit her lip, then added, "But first, I must speak with Marvin Reynolds." Before she lost her nerve, she hopped up from the chair and grabbed Clay's truck keys. "May I please borrow your truck?"

"Yes, ma'am." He pivoted and rummaged around in his desk drawer before handing her a piece of paper. "But first, I think you might like to call and find out if Marvin Reynolds is even home in Dallas or out on the road."

Sheri accepted the paper, staring at the truck driver's name, address, and phone number. "How could you be so sure I'd get right with God? That I'd forgive the driver?"

He brushed one knuckle over her cheekbone. "Because I prayed for it every day. God answers the prayers of a righteous man. Besides, I know you, woman; the real Sheri, whether you walk in a season of rebellion or not."

Instead of replying, Sheri picked up the phone and dialed the truck driver who had sideswiped and accidentally killed her brother.

When an answering machine picked up the call, she frowned until the message left a beeper number to contact Marvin Reynolds immediately. Which is precisely what she did, called his beeper, punched in Clay's phone number, and hung up to await a reply.

The phone rang within a few heartbeats.

Sheri blew out a quick hard exhale and answered, "Hello?"

But the male voice over the phone belonged to Troy, not Marvin Reynolds. "What's up, Sheri? God's placed the urgent need on my heart to pray for you now."

"Hey, bud. I'm waiting on a call from the truck driver. One way or the other, I plan to meet him face-to-face today and forgive him."

"Well, praise God!" Troy exclaimed. "I'll be praying." After a short pause, he asked, "So, are you getting hitched with Clay after you hand over complete control of your life to Jesus again?"

Unaccustomed heat spread up her neck to set her face ablaze with embarrassment. Count on Troy to cut to the meat of the matter. "If he asks, yes," she whispered.

Troy grunted. "Lucky man. Listen, bud, I'm not about to lose my top-rated computer genius employee to a cowboy. We'll work it out, between phone, fax, e-mail, video conferencing and the sort, so you can work from the ranch."

Her face burned hotter. Troy had known all along and had an alternative plan. "Thanks, Troy. If was the key word, though."

Troy laughed. "Oh, he's chomping at the bit. He'll ask. I'll walk you down the aisle. But today, I'll pray. You just get right with God and He'll take care of the rest of His plan for your life."

She no sooner hung up and faced Clay's silent yet questioning look, than the phone rang again.

This time, she spoke with Marvin Reynolds. After she explained who she was, he seemed anxious to meet her. As if God had it planned the whole timing, Marvin Reynolds was due in the neighboring town to deliver a load in less than an hour. They agreed to meet.

After she hung up, Clay shot her a gleaming streak of straight white teeth and twin dimples pitted his handsome sun-bronzed cheeks.

He twirled his key ring around his finger before jangling his truck keys in front of her face. "I must love you if I'm gonna let you drive my truck."

She rolled her eyes while fighting a smile of her own and snagged the keys from him. After grabbing her purse, Sheri joined Clay in his truck.

He slid one large hand over hers on the gearshift. "Let's pray before we leave."

"Are you that afraid of my driving?" she joked.

Then she shut her eyes as he prayed, agreeing aloud for God to grant her wisdom and give her the right words, agreeing to hand over complete control of her heart, her mind, every aspect of her life to Jesus.

She could tell Clay continued to pray as she drove into the small neighboring town. She felt his support as he held her hand and approached the lone semi backed into the warehouse dock.

A weary-looking man, gray hair, bloodshot eyes, slumped-shouldered, appeared from around the other side of the semi.

"Mr. Reynolds?" She stretched out her arm to shake his hand when he nodded to her inquiry. "I'm Sheri Knight. Steve's sister."

The trucker raked one hand over his unruly hair as he shook her hand with the other. "I'm glad you called. I've wanted to tell you how sorry I am ever since the wreck. Your brother's death has haunted me."

Her heart thudded hard, understanding why God wanted her to meet this man face-to-face.

She cleared her throat. "Steve's in a better place now. He's joined Jesus and the rest of our family in heaven. His death wasn't your fault, Mr. Reynolds. I don't blame you and neither does God. You don't need my forgiveness, but God wants me to let you know I do forgive you. And I apologize it took me this long to do so."

Marvin Reynolds blinked rapidly as a suspicious swell of moisture coated his eyes. He cleared his throat this time. "Thank you."

Clay stepped forward and shook the trucker's hand. "I was Steve's best friend, Clay Dillenger."

Clay reached into his back pocket and handed Sheri a small Bible. "That New Testament belonged to Steve. He used to carry it in his car. Stevo had it in his hand after the wreck, in the hospital, and asked me to give it to you, Sheri, and for you to give it to Marvin."

Sheri gulped, fighting against her own tears. She pressed the small Bible over her heart before pressing it into Marvin's hand. "Do you know Jesus as your personal Savior?"

The trucker, no longer fighting against his tears, sniffled and shook his head negatively.

So Sheri and Clay climbed into Marvin's rig with him, sitting in the air-conditioning, and witnessed to the trucker. Almost as if Steve was helping from heaven, they also used his Bible, verses highlighted long ago by her big brother. After a half hour, Marvin prayed the sinner's prayer and invited Jesus into his heart.

The last of the heaviness in her heart lifted and Sheri bubbled with the joy of the Lord. Sweet peace enveloped her.

Later, after she joined Clay in his truck, he pulled her to his chest in a hard fast hug. His own deep drawl sounded rusty as he praised, "Thank You, Jesus!" Just as quickly, he released her.

On the ride through town, singing along with Christian radio, Sheri pointed toward the only department store. "Would you be so kind as to stop?"

"Shopping? Oh boy, my favorite," he mumbled.

Sheri just laughed as she hopped out of the truck. "Be right back. You don't even need to come in."

Yet, Sheri lost track of the time once she reached the aisle with hair color. So many shades of dark brown! Finally, she lined up five close shades on the shelf at her eye level. Which one was right? She uttered a swift silent prayer.

A large hand reached over her shoulder and pointed at a dark brown with mahogany highlights.

Sheri twirled around and bumped into Clay.

He chuckled at her surprise, but handed her the boxed hair color. "This one. I'm certain."

Embarrassed heat traveled up her neck to set her face afire and he laughed a little harder before he leaned down to her ear. "I don't want you to ever be embarrassed with me, honey." Then he brushed his lips over her ear and she shivered.

For some reason, she believed he was referring to them sharing much more than the right hair color decision. Sheri said nothing until after she had paid for her purchase and rejoined Clay in the truck.

Obviously he couldn't contain his own joy, since he smiled all the way to the ranch, singing along with her to the Christian praise cassette.

Once they reached the cool confines of his home, he shooed her out of the kitchen, toward her bedroom. "Go put your bathing suit on under your clothes and we'll go horseback riding to your favorite spot. I'll pack us a picnic."

Instead of immediately donning her bathing suit, Sheri read the directions and colored her long hair.

She stared at her reflection in the mirror, familiar, yet not quite her old self either. Dark brownish mahogany tresses, but green contacts still tinted her eyes.

Knowing Clay would have finished packing the picnic by now, she hurriedly pulled on her bathing suit and finished dressing.

She no sooner stepped into the kitchen, than Clay ambled toward her with an unreadable expression clouding his eyes. He rubbed a few strands of her still damp hair between his fingers, before lowering his face directly in front of hers.

He whispered, "Yeah, beautiful. This is the hair color of the woman in my dreams. You're almost back, darlin'."

Then he turned on his toes and headed for the barn to saddle their horses.

They rode in companionable silence, until urging the horses into a galloping race to the secluded pond on Swinging D land.

Sheri set out their picnic on a large flat rock next to the water where Clay joined her and said the blessing over the food.

Afterwards, they reclined on the rocks, digesting, while their bare toes dangled off the edge in the water. Staring at the clouds, Sheri pointed them out one by one. He responded to her game of name-that-cloud-shape before sitting up suddenly.

All laughter vanished from his face. "I can try to influence you, but in the end, the decision is your own." He studied her intently, golden gaze intense.

She knew he wasn't talking about the clouds anymore.

Finally, he whispered, "Come back to me, Sheri," and dived off the rock into the pond.

Sheri pulled off her shorts and shirt to expose her bathing suit; then she dived in after him. After surfacing, face dripping, she rubbed the water out of her eyes, purposefully brushing away the green contacts.

She treaded water but a few feet from Clay.

He smiled, slowly, dimples flashing, satisfaction practically oozing from his pores, as he quietly drawled, "Prettiest blue eyes I've ever seen. Welcome back, Sheri love."

In one quick stroke, he covered the short distance between them and took her in his arms. "Tell me," he urged.

Sheri smiled and wrapped her arms around his neck while he kept them afloat. She kissed him sweetly, gently, slowly, telling him in other than words.

Then she broke away from him and swam to the rocks.

He didn't pressure her for more. He was, after all, a good Christian man, a southern gentleman. Although patient, he almost radiated victory close at hand.

They swam some more, talked, and took a long leisurely ride on their horses, before returning to his home.

Sheri showered then cooked supper for everyone on the Swinging D.

The ranch hands teased her unmercifully about the change in her hair and eye color, yet knowing them for so many years now she sensed the approval behind their jokes.

Much later, as the group participated in their nightly devotional Bible study, Sheri noticed Clay was quieter than normal. She knew that expression. He was praying again, silently, praying hard for something.

Once the group said goodnight, Clay and Sheri remained at the kitchen table. He reached over and clasped her hand in his. "I love you, Sheri Knight."

She started to respond, return his spoken sentiments, but he placed one finger from his other hand over her lips to silence her.

"Pray about us, honey. God has confirmed to me that you are the woman who He has chosen as my life-mate. If you listen, He will confirm I am the man He has chosen to be your husband. But He has to tell you, not me. Your choice."

Clay stood suddenly and strode through the kitchen. At the doorway, he turned his head and grinned. "Ah, but I'm not above influencing you."

Just as quickly, he returned to the table and pulled her to her feet. He kissed her, differently this time, loving yet possessive. Timeless.

When he released her, she panted for air, heart thudding like a bass drum against her rib cage, knees rubbery.

Before she could even begin to think again, he winked and whispered, "I want to marry you, Sheri. Soon. I want to make you my wife, mine forever. A winning team, you and me and God."

She realized her mouth was hanging open a few minutes after Clay exited the room, leaving her alone to talk with God.

Sheri shut off the lights and walked into her bedroom, praying quietly the whole time until dressed and kneeled beside her bed.

A great peace encompassed her, certain God was speaking to her, answering her prayer. The way Jesus had always given her answers, she heard the whispering from her heart, the loud thoughts appearing in her head at the same time. She smiled, thanked God, and crawled into bed.

But Sheri did not see Clay the next day; not even for a minute. He was called away in the middle of the night, leaving a note for her to know he was busy helping his neighboring rancher with a crisis. Many times until she returned to bed for the night, Sheri traced her fingers over his handwriting, over his signature and his written word, love, above it. She waited for him until well after midnight, but finally fell asleep without hearing him return home.

Several hours later, she hummed as she fixed breakfast, dressed and ready for church.

When Clay entered the kitchen, rugged cowboy clothed in slightly dressier rancher's duds, Sheri whistled at him.

That shot up one golden brow and one dimple winked at her with his lopsided grin. "G'mornin' ma'am," he drawled as he sat at the table. "Did you miss me?"

"What do you think?" she whispered. "Guess." Then Sheri handed him a cup of coffee and set a plate in front of him.

He laughed out loud at his pancakes, made into happy faces with bacon strips for smiles and chocolate chips for eyes. "Yep, this is the day that the Lord has made."

Clay waited for her to join him, but she spoke first, saying grace for them.

Before they left for Sunday School, the caters arrived to set up the fellowship social to be held immediately after church.

Upon arrival at the church in which she had attended since she was a child, old friends and fellow Christians greeted her enthusiastically as if welcoming home a family member.

Clay slipped his arm through hers and escorted her to their Sunday School class.

Later, in the sanctuary for the sermon, Clay shared a hymnal with her.

She waited until after the offering, after everyone greeted each other and shook hands or exchanged hugs, an instant before the congregation quieted. Sheri leaned up on tiptoe to whisper in Clay's ear. "I love you, Clay Dillenger."

Their minister instructed them to have a seat and the congregation fell silent.

Clay smiled, unable to say anything without being overheard, but laced his long calloused fingers through hers during the sermon.

Immediately after the pastor fed his sheep with the Word of God, the entire congregation headed out for the fellowshipping dinner and socializing at the Swinging D.

Tables with giant umbrellas for shade dotted the landscape. People ate, fellowshipped, some taking horseback rides, while the kids ran and squealed in a sound of pure glee.

Throughout it all, Clay staked his claim on Sheri. Not verbally, but with little gestures like one hand resting on her lower back, winding their way along the crowd to fellowship. If anyone asked, he stressed the point Sheri was his date, not just an old family friend.

Finally, some of the other congregational cowboys called Clay to join them in a lasso contest. A crowd gathered around the pasture as the men took turns throwing at their fence post.

Sheri stood off at the far side of the pasture, watching, as Clay took the rope in hand.

He flicked his wrist, doing roping tricks before twirling the lasso again and again over his head.

She shivered as he turned his head and smiled at her, slowly, confidently.

Then he released his hold, sailing the lasso through the air to land over Sheri, not a fence post. He tightened the loop, truly lassoing her, pulling her gently toward him as he met her halfway.

He laughed, victoriously, despite the blush radiating off her face. When she stood toe to toe with him, he chuckled. "Told ya, I'd lasso you, little lady, and I'm playing for keeps. Now I'm gonna brand ya as mine forever."

The crowd of laughing spectators grew, clearly enjoying the show.

Clay dropped to one knee, holding both of her hands in one of his much larger ones. He brushed his lips over her inner wrists, and then rested her hands over the heavy thuds of his heart. "Sheri Knight, I love you. Always have. Always will. God blesses our union. Would you honor me by agreeing to be my wife?"

Sheri knelt beside him, taking the other end of the rope and wrapping it around his waist. "Gotcha, cowboy. It would be the biggest blessing in my life, and my heart's secret desire to have you as my husband. Yes, Clay, I'll happily marry you. You and me with God at our center."

Despite their Christian friends gathering closer to hear and witness this spectacle, Clay cupped his hands around her face and kissed her like a man branding his life-mate.

Head spinning, heart soaring, she wondered how many more ways he had yet to show her how to kiss.

Clay pulled her to her feet, supported her rubbery knees with the brawny arms around her waist, and smiled at their Christian friends. "I'm very pleased to announce that Sheri and I will be married as soon as possible."

He turned back to Sheri and whispered, "How soon is that?"

Sheri cleared her throat before adding, "July the Fourth. Fireworks to celebrate every anniversary."

The crowd cheered their approval and delight.

Sheri leaned up on tiptoe and breathed into Clay's ear. "I love you, cowboy."

Then she lifted her smiling face to the sky, raised one arm in victory and praise. "Thank You, Jesus!"

Happily ever after!

May God bless you abundantly!