After the Storm

Chapter Twenty

   Diana decided not to tell her parents about the broken engagement until after the holidays, fervently hoping that Kevin would keep her secret, too.

   Nevertheless, she was apprehensive. Victor O'Neal might call at any moment, threatening a lawsuit. Kevin was right, of course. How could they possibly repay Victor O'Neal the million dollars he had advanced — money which had already been spent? The consequences of her decision set her mind reeling, but she had come to an important turning point in her life, a choice between God and family. She had chosen God.

   Tim arrived on Christmas Eve and called Diana at her office from the Sullivan estate. "I plan on staying through the holidays, Sis. We've lots to talk about." He lowered his voice. "I've something to tell you, as if you couldn't guess."

   "And I've something to tell you." Diana smiled happily as she replaced the receiver.

   When the publishing house closed for the three-day holiday, Diana headed for Lake Forest as soon as she had packed a few things and loaded her car with gaily wrapped gifts for her family. She took the scenic route, driving alongside the frozen lake, which glistened under the December sun. Barren branches laden with icicles created a snowy fantasy and as she neared Lake Forest, the entire area became a panorama of pronouncements of the Christmas season.

   It appeared that colorful lights were strung from every tree, and larger-than-life manger scenes decorated sweeping front lawns. Cardboard Santas with huge bags slung over their backs stood poised by the chimneys, while sleighs filled with toys rested on the rooftops. The grounds of the Sullivan estate, designed by Catherine to present a miniature winter wonderland, were among the most spectacular of all.

   Now Diana turned into the winding drive, eager to see her brother, to tell him of her decision to follow the Lord, despite the dire consequences. On the one hand she yearned to share her news with Tim, yet on the other, she dreaded facing her parents with the same announcement. But she would not spoil this night for them, not the first Christmas Eve Tim had been home in years.

   Since the Vales traditionally spent Christmas Eve with the Sullivans, Diana was not surprised to see their car in the drive. But when Marcie herself greeted her at the door, Diana's joy knew no bounds, and her anxiety over her friend's health was banished at the sight of twinkling blue eyes and cheeks blooming with healthy color.

   "It doesn't seem right." Joe frowned as they circled the huge table filling their china plates with Emily's wonderful Christmas buffet. "Kevin should be here."

   "The O'Neals left Chicago for the holidays, Dad," Diana reminded him, grateful that they had made holiday plans to visit relatives in Indiana.

   Tim seemed unusually excited, like a four-year-old awaiting the opening of his gifts. With his arm about Marcie's waist, he smiled at his sister, as if hugging some wonderful secret. Only it wasn't a secret at all. Marcie and Tim had obviously fallen deeply in love. Diana flashed her brother a wide smile as he whispered, "I asked her, Di, last night, and she said yes!"

   Diana turned to Marcie and grinned, signaling thumbs up. With her blond hair brushed like a halo around her lovely face, Marcie looked like the angel at the top of the Christmas tree.

   She pulled Diana aside, "I just want you to know how special your brother really is. When I asked him if he was willing to risk marrying me when I could experience a relapse at any time, he said, 'Then I want you for as long as God allows us to be together.' "

   Diana held Marcie close, not trusting herself to speak.

   After dinner, Louis stood beside his daughter and taking her hand, joined it with Tim's. "Beverly and I are proud to announce the engagement of our daughter to a young man we've known and loved for many years."

   Catherine glanced sharply at her son, and Diana thought ruefully that there would never be, in her mother's opinion, a girl worthy of her dearly beloved son, not even Marcie.

   "Not only are we celebrating the beginning of a new family . . . " He cleared his throat. ". . . we're also celebrating Marcie's new life and thanking God for her remarkable improvement."

   Joe congratulated the couple. "Does this mean you'll be moving back to Chicago?"

   Tim smiled into Marcie's eyes. "We're waiting for orders from the Lord."

   Joe retreated, not knowing what to say.

   Catherine kissed Marcie lightly on her cheek and turned quickly to hug her son. "What a year this has been!" She laughed nervously. "First my daughter, then my son. How nice it will be to have you in the family, Marcie, and," she added pointedly, "we're certainly happy for your recovery."

   "Now I have something to say," Marcie's dimples danced. "When I got sick I thought my life was over, but as it turned out, it was just beginning. Steven Cartright's book pointed out the emptiness of life without God at the center, and as I lay in my hospital bed, thinking I might be dying, I knew I wasn't ready to die! Not without God's forgiveness, his peace.

   "Steven taught me that I could only find it through believing and receiving God's wonderful gift of salvation through Christ. I asked God to accept me just as I was, and wonder of wonders, he did." Tears shone brightly in Marcie's eyes. "And now my parents have found him, too. And to think that Tim, way out in California, had already come to know the Lord. It's more than a miracle, it's three!"

   The room was charged with a mystical current, and Diana looked on, as did all the others, in silent wonder. Marcie, who had been so gravely ill, was vibrantly alive, as if she had been born anew.

   Catherine interrupted the moment. "Fortune has smiled on you, Marcie," she said. Turning to her son, she said gaily, "Now, Tim, you will play Santa Claus and distribute the gifts, won't you?"

   The gifts were opened to exclamations of delight. In the midst of the joyous exchange, Kevin's ring weighed heavily on Diana's finger and her thoughts turned to Steven. She longed to nestle in his arms as Marcie was cradled in Tim's, listening to the buzz of happy conversation, rejoicing in the true meaning of the season.

   From the study came the strains of Handel's "Messiah," and Diana stole out of the room to stand before the stereo, thrilling to the prophetic words: "Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows . . . he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him: and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray: we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all."

   Diana breathed a prayer of thanksgiving for the willingness of Jesus to suffer for her sins, committing herself and her future again into his keeping.

   Feeling refreshed, she joined the others by the beautifully decorated tree. Leaning over, she whispered to Marcie, "I'm so happy for you and Tim. It all seems like a beautiful dream."

   Marcie wrinkled her pert nose. "You may not know this, Di, but I had a terrific crush on Tim when I was younger, but he treated me like a kid sister."

   "So that's why you always followed him around like a lost puppy?" She laughed, then sobered instantly. "Marce, I've been wanting to tell you all evening about a decision I've just made. It means we'll be sisters twice over." She waited for Marcie to grasp her meaning.

   "Oh, Di, really?" Marcie breathed.

   "It was you and Steven who showed me the way. I've come home to God."

   Marcie touched Diana's ring, asking tentatively, "What about this?"

   Diana shook her head. "It's over between us. Kevin wasn't very pleased, to say the least, but it's going to be even more unpleasant when I tell my parents."

   Marcie nodded, squeezing her friend's hand.

   "Do you know . . . where Steven is now?"

   Marcie shook her head. "No, he didn't say. You know, Di, he was heartbroken when you announced your engagement to Kevin. He loves you very much."

   "I know. He told me that the last night he was in town. I never thought I could love anyone again, not after Michael. But with Steven it has been something much deeper. From the moment I read his manuscript, I felt a tremendous respect for him, and when we met again, I was immediately attracted to him. But I thought you and he . . .," Diana paused, watching Marcie shake her head, and laughed. "Well, that's one obstacle out of the way. Then there was the company to consider. As long as Sullivan's was in financial trouble, I saw no way to help except to marry Kevin." She shrugged. "I still don't. I'm just hoping for a miracle."

   "Another miracle? Aren't we greedy?" It was Tim, towering over them, pulling Marcie and Diana to their feet.

   "Tell you about it later," Diana promised, pressing a good-night kiss on her brother's cheek.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

   Diana awakened early on Christmas morning to a whirl of memories tugging at her heart as she looked around her childhood room. Her mother had preserved the decor of her teen years, and there were faded bouquets and high-school banners on display beside old ballet slippers and tennis racquets.

   Hearing someone downstairs, she slipped out of bed wrapped a warm robe about her, and tiptoed to the den. It was Tim, kneeling with head in hands, beside the sofa. She knelt beside him and said a prayer of thanksgiving.

   "So this is what you wanted to tell me, Sis?" Tim said at last, rising to pull her down beside him on the plush pillows. "That you found the Lord, too?"

   "Yes, Tim, I have. After reading Steven's manuscript and another little book Marcie gave me, the ache in my heart had a name. Emptiness! I had two options: Either I could continue to let Dad dictate my life, or I could turn it over to the Lord. I chose the latter. The price may be steep — maybe bankruptcy and a lawsuit from the O'Neals. Only God knows how we'll pay them back." There was a moment of reflection before she turned shining eyes to her brother. "But, Tim, there's no turning back."

   "Good for you, Sis. I'm proud of you." Tim's gray-blue eyes misted over with a suggestion of tears.

   "Remember how Gran used to pray for us, Tim, that we'd learn to walk in his steps?"

   "I sure took the long road around." He sighed. "What a lot of heartache I could have avoided if I had surrendered to Him as a young boy."

   "Yes, but perhaps some of us must travel in the dark places before we find the light." She thought of the grudge she still held against Ralph Roper.

   "Have you told Kevin?" Tim walked to the bay window and stared out at the snowdrifts piling around the wonderland scene.

   "I told him but asked him not to say anything until after Christmas. Dad will be furious, and you know Mother — she's planning an extravaganza of a wedding in June." Diana joined him at the window. "I realized at last that Sullivan's is Dad's problem, not mine. I can't marry Kevin. I don't love him. I don't even like him. I'm terribly in love with Steven."

   Tim turned to look at her. "Didn't you say he'd be home for the fall semester?"

   "I'm not sure. Anyway, it's such a long time. What if . . .?"

   "If God brought you two together, nothing will come between you, Sis. Maybe time is what you need, time to restructure your life, to learn about God, to study Scripture, to get your feet firmly planted in his way." Tim's face brightened. "I've got a great idea. Why don't you come to California with me, help me get my affairs in order. I'm moving back to Chicago, Di. Marcie and I talked long into the night, and if Dad will have me, I want to come into the business."

   "If there's a business to come back to." Diana's smile was unconvincing.

   "I'm not worried. Can you be ready by next week? You'll have time to tell the folks your news." He grimaced. "And split with me."

   "Well, tomorrow is the day; I have to tell him before Victor dies. After that," she said laughing shakily, "I may have to leave town! Okay, I'll do it. But remember, Tim, unless we find an 'angel' somewhere, there may not be a job here for you."

   "And that, my dear sister, may just happen. Remember, with God all things are possible. Let's have faith for the impossible and leave the 'how to' with our heavenly Father. I'm going to get Marce and bring her back here for brunch." Tim reached for his heavy jacket and began pulling on snow boots.

   Diana watched her brother get into his car and back carefully out of the icy driveway.

   Following her nose, she found Emily in the kitchen, busily preparing the brunch, and she took a seat on a tall stool and sipped a mug of hot chocolate.

   "You don't look like no happy bride-to-be. What's wrong, honey?"

   Diana sighed. How could she possibly explain, even to Emily. She twisted her ring.

   "It's that Mr. Kevin. You don't want to marry him, do you?"

   "Emily, how did you know?"

   "And you're afraid to tell your daddy." Emily wiped her hands on her large white apron. "You're goin' to have to tell him, Miss Diana."

   "I know, Em." She slid off the stool. "But here it is Christmas. I'm going to my room to dress." She started for the door. "There is something I must tell you though."

   The cook stood motionless, her head tilted. "And what's that?"

   "Remember how you and Gran taught me about God's love? Well, I've come home to him, Em."

   "Oh, how happy your Gran and Gramps would be to hear you say that, Miss Diana!" Emily hugged Diana and turned to blow her nose on the ever-present handkerchief in her apron pocket. "Now you just listen to old Emily and tell your daddy right out how it is. Maybe the Lord's tryin' to teach 'em something, and you're standin' in the way."

   "Oh, Emily!" Diana's eyes widened. "I never thought of that!"

   "Sometimes God teaches us through our mistakes, and if you make everything all right for your daddy then how can he ever learn?"

   "Now don't you go tryin' to play God, hear me?"

   Diana nodded. "I hear you, Emily. I hear you. Tomorrow I'll tell Dad and then I'll be going to California with Tim for a week." At the door she turned. "Please pray for me. I'm not sure how my parents are going to take the news."

   "Honey, there ain't nothin' to fear, nothin' at all. You go on with Mr. Tim. Have yourself a rest. God knows you need it, those dark circles under your eyes. You already told Mr. Kevin?" Emily asked, and when Diana nodded, the maid grinned, showing a set of even white teeth. "Good, then get this thing over, and let God start your dad in his school."

   "Thanks, Em," Diana said. "Thanks for understanding."

   Diana could hear her parents stirring upstairs. Christmas had begun! Diana's first Christmas as a child of God.

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