CHANGE OF HEART:

Clay - Play Matchmaker

Clay left her in her bedroom to unpack, leaving her alone after a long hard look in her eyes. "Green," he growled, shaking his head as he left. "Hard to read blue sapphires when those beautiful expressive eyes are hiding behind a green coating."

Her eyes were fine, green. It didn't matter what he thought about her. It only mattered that she help him find true happiness, a wife and then an heir, just like he'd always said he wanted.

She used to love to play matchmaker for Troy. Of course, she loved him differently than she did Clay. It didn't matter in the least when Troy had a new girlfriend; it didn't affect her love for him. Playing matchmaker for Clay might be slightly more lethal to her heart. If only she could feel brotherly love for Clay, the sibling kind he had always shown her.

Her brother Steve would have wanted to see Clay settled down with a family. Steve always said he would after Clay did. She might not be able to see Stevo settled into family life, but she could treat Clay like her big brother did, relate to Clay from a brother/sister level. Nodding in agreement, she unpacked the rest of her clothes hurriedly before searching out Clay.

"Hi," she smiled, coming up behind him in the den.

He spun around and lanced her with his piercing stare. His dimple pitted as he lifted his lips in a lopsided grin. "Howdy, ma'am."

She rolled her eyes, although his deep voiced drawl penetrated her heart. No; she couldn't tell him that she'd like nothing better than to close her eyes and swim in his honey-dripped drawl. How she had longed for the sound of home while staying around the harsh New York accent, surrounded by Yankees!

When he looked at her expectantly, heat suffused her face and she remembered why she went looking for him. She cleared her throat, and then played it cool. "Can I see all the info on your mother-approved potential wives?"

Humph, if she didn't know better, she'd almost think hurt flashed in his golden gaze. He shrugged then. "Sure." Clay pulled six letters and pictures out of his desk. "Here."

Sheri started by studying the gorgeous woman in each photograph. Wow. Each one a pick of the litter, no doubt.

Clay leaned against his desk with his brawny arms crossed over his chest. He pulled his hat down a notch when she started reading the letters.

From a rodeo cowgirl to a beauty pageant queen. After reading the award winning essay winners, Sheri frowned at Clay. Each gorgeous woman had a distinct voice to her letter. All seemed good wife candidates, beauty, brains, and Christian beliefs. "So which one do you like the best?"

He surely seemed aggravated by her question. He crossed his scruffy boots at the ankles and grunted.

"Be serious. Which one would you choose? Didn't you say you had a special woman in mind?"

"Shouldn't your question be, which woman is God's will?"

She frowned. Yes, she backslid from the Lord. But still she understood and remembered what it was like to hand Christ complete control over her life. "Ok, which woman is God's will for His plan in your life?"

"The one who can't belong to me until she belongs fully to Jesus again."

"They all sound like Christians from their letters, so which one is she?"

"The one whose ears are shut and eyes are closed, walking in a season of rebellion."

This was getting her nowhere. She stopped this train of thought and shifted mental gears. "Ok, which woman would Stevo have liked to seen you shackled to?"

She recognized the sting of hurt in his eyes this time, knowing it was a reminder of Steve, before he stated, "Funny you should ask. Steve knew and approved of my choice."

Her heart started slamming like the heavy beats of a sledgehammer. She licked her lips, and then blew out a slow deep breath from her mouth. Steve had known and approved at least three months ago? Did she dare ask which woman again?

"Chicken," he baited her.

She stomped one small booted foot. "Her name?"

"God called her by name when she was still in her mother's womb, knowing all His thoughts and plans for her."

Sheri tossed up her arms in the air before spinning toward the kitchen. "I'm hungry. And I need a cigarette."

After fetching her smokes and lighter, due to respect for the Dillenger ranch, she walked outside the backdoor. Yet she had no sooner inhaled than larger than life cowboy Clay filled the doorway, a big strapping man, essence of real cowboy.

He sighed heavily and stepped outside behind her. "Steve would tan your hide if he caught you smoking."

She lifted one eyebrow. "Steve's not here anymore."

He spun her to face him. "Maybe I should tan your hide."

"Ha! I answer to no man."

"You'll answer to God as you well know."

"Someday."

He jerked the cigarette out of her mouth, waving it around. "Someday will come a lot faster smoking cowboy killers. How long have you been smoking?

She grabbed at the cigarette burning down to nothing in his hand, but with his much taller steely frame, he swung it up out of her reach. "Started the day we buried Steve."

"Three months? You should be able to quit then without too much torture." He dropped the cigarette onto the ground and mashed it under his boot heel.

"Maybe I like to smoke."

"Maybe you need delivered from smoking."

She shut her eyes with a humph. "Ok, I'll try not to smoke." Then she laughed bitterly. "You'll be sorry after a few hours, when the nicotine calls my name. I'll be so cross, you'll be driving me to the store for more cigs."

He reached over and grabbed her hand in a strong confident handshake. "Deal. You forget; I already know what a brat you can be."

Well that irritated her, rubbing against the grain, so she redoubled her efforts to play matchmaker. "I think I'll go see if your mom is home. See if she wants to come over for supper. Pump her for info about your mail order brides." Satisfied, she noted his scowl.

His mom, however, sang each of the women's praises. After a few minutes in Marge Dillenger's company, Sheri grew almost nauseous. Tomorrow afternoon, the first of the hopeful women was due by one p.m. The beauty queen.

Grumpier from moment to moment, already craving a cigarette after one hour, Sheri dethawed a pot roast in the microwave before throwing all the ingredients into oven cookware to bake. What should she cook for Clay and his date tomorrow? Mashing her molars together, she decided it would be perfect and she'd see him on his way to wedded bliss.

"Why are you scowling now?" Clay asked.

She slapped one hand over her heart and spun toward him. Tapping that same hand over her thudding heart, she exhaled, and he reiterated his question. Sheri hoped her mouth smiled, she wanted to shriek. "What would you like me to cook for you and your beauty queen tomorrow?" When he held his silence, she giggled. "Frozen TV dinners?"

"Knock yourself out."

She humphed him again. Oh, she would; she'd knock herself out fixing a perfect meal, create the perfect mood.

"Craving a smoke?"

"Yes," she answered quietly.

Clay pulled her over to the kitchen table, taking her hand in his work-roughened large palm. His fingers tightened over hers until she met his eyes. "Close your eyes and try your best to be accepting and receptive, instead of running and rebellious."

Then he slipped off his hat, bowed his head, and prayed for God to take away her cravings, take away her habit, and let her hear God whispering in her heart to come back to Him.

Instead of aggravating her, his kindness prodded tears close to the surface. She whispered, "Amen."

Staring at the oak table like it was the most fascinating thing she'd ever seen, Sheri confided out loud for the first time ever, "It's my fault, you know."

He squeezed her hand again lightly. "What is?"

"Steve. His death. He was coming to visit me."

Clay shook his head.

"It's all my fault! When I refused to come home to Texas until summer, he insisted upon coming to the big bad city where his little sister lived. He never wanted to see New York City; genuine Texas cowboy inside the Big Apple's city limits? Not likely. Steve only came because I wouldn't come home!"

"No," he stated slowly, firmly. "Steve wanted to visit you, wanted to see how his baby sister survived in the metallic jungle. It's not your fault. You know how he was once he got his mind wrapped around an idea, as hard to budge as a hundred-year-old tree stump."

"I almost came along, almost rode with him to see you. Almost."

"I'm alone now. No family at all."

This time, he slid one finger under her chin to tip her eyes to meet his. "No," he whispered, shaking his head negatively. "You have me. And Troy."

Her temper rose as tears pricked behind her eyes once again. "God wanted me all alone."

"No, Sheri. It's not God's fault either. He doesn't do bad things to people. You know that. Can you believe God could make something good come about despite the fact Stevo is in heaven right now?"

"Not really. No. I can't."

"You don't have to hurt alone, Sheri. I know it hurts, honey. I loved him, too. We were closer than brothers by blood. But he's in a better place, looking down at us now."

His quiet baritone seeped into her pores, sinking into her heart. Unsure who stood first, Sheri found herself tucked close to his hard chest in his strong arms. Safe. Protected. Loved.

As soon as she thought it, she shoved against his chest, pulling back out of his comforting embrace. Unbidden, one scalding tear slipped from an eye to trace a wet path down her face. The tear dropped, water-bombing his t-shirt.

Before either of them could speak, the oven timer buzzed.

When he released her, Sheri raced to the oven. After putting on an oven mitt, she pulled the heavy glass cookware from the heat. While it cooled, so did she, composed before she turned to him. "How many are eating tonight?"

"You and me. Angelo, Slim, and Matt. And mom?"

She nodded, pulling down six place settings. "Want to tell them it's time to eat?"

"Sure," he chuckled before stepping out the back door and ringing the dinner bell.

No sooner setting the places, than Latin Angelo, beefy wrangler Slim, and burly Matt, entered the kitchen. While waiting on Clay's mom, Sheri took the ranch hands good-natured teasing about her hair and eye color, her cooking.

Once they were all seated, they joined hands and bowed their heads as Clay said the blessing over the meal. It all felt so familiar, so comforting, so right.

Sheri wondered if she could accept Clay as the kind Christian cowboy who stole her heart years ago, but now she was playing matchmaker for him. Just accept that another woman, a devoted Christian like him, would soon hold his heart forever? Or should she fight for him, stand and fight anyone who dared try to claim him?

"Set me free, I pray," she whispered as she later loaded the dishwasher. Sheri paused when she realized what she'd said without thinking. Free? Free from cigarettes? Free from the old torch for Clay? Free in the spirit?

Forgiveness. Just the thought of the word put a bad taste in her mouth.

"Why are you scowling this time? Another nicotine fit after eating?"

She glanced up at Clay, centering her attention on him from the noise and activities of the other four people in the room. "Forgiveness," she spat.

"You must forgive to be forgiven."

"Yeah, yeah," she uttered. "I know."

"Oh, Sheri, repent. Stop fighting God's will."

Tilting her head until she locked onto the golden brown velvet of his eyes, she asked breathlessly, "Why?"

He seemed to think about her question before he shut his eyes. He was praying again, she was certain.

When he caught her captive in his gaze again, he softly stated, "So you can fall into place in God's plan. God's after you; maybe I am too. Maybe you'll change everything back to the Sheri I know and love when you can't change me."

That did it. Now her conflicting emotions churned trouble waters of her heart. "Wow."

What should she say? Do? Accept he might be looking at her like a woman, even as he dated women hand-selected by his mother for a wife? Or did she fall back on the embers of love she carried for him all this time, stand and fight for him before she got badly burned?

"What are you thinking, Sheri?"

Once again the uncharacteristic trait torched her face, baking with embarrassment, hot enough to sizzle an egg.

"Now I really want to know."

"Well," she began hesitantly, wondering if she should shoot him with both barrels of honesty from the hip. Bold. He had always told her she was bold in her honesty. Shot with a surge of strength, emboldened, Sheri smiled. "I was wondering if I should accept it, that you are about to start dating bride material, or . . .?"

"Or what?" he purred persuasively for the third time that day.

She met the challenge in his eyes, the dare to tell him precisely or what. "Or sabotage your dates, stand and fight for you before some other woman claims you."

He snickered. "And? Which do you choose?"

Which should she do? Accept Clay's potential bride dating? Or fight for him before another woman claims him?

          Hard working man done for the day

           Accept his dating?                     Fight for him?

          Clay's scruffy cowboy boots