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The Path To Love
By Jane Perrine
Steeple HillCopyright © 2005 Jane Perrine
All right reserved.
Francie Calhoun learned to pick pockets when she was five, mark cards at eight and hotwire a car years before she could get a driver's license.
At the age of sixteen, with all the adults in her family living at the expense of the great state of Texas, Francie was pretty much alone.
Life hadn't improved a whole lot since then. Eight years had passed, eighteen months of which she'd spent in prison. She could see no hope until after a twelve-hour shift waiting tables she stopped in front of a church for absolutely no reason except she was so tired she couldn't take another step.
She had hesitated outside the church, but was finally drawn inside against her will. She stepped through the wide doors and looked around the sanctuary. The entire audience was standing and smiling, their voices joyfully joined in a hymn — something about saving a wretch like me.
The words fell upon her like spring rain, soothing her nerves and refreshing her soul. She slipped down a side aisle and found a place on the end of a bench.
"Here's where we are," the woman next to her said with a smile as she handed Francie a book and pointed at the verse of the song they were singing.
"Thank you." Francie nodded at the woman.
As she sang uncertainly, trying to fit the words with the unfamiliar music, Francie could feel pain and anger rolling out of her.
For the next thirty minutes she joined the singing and prayed, hands clasped in front of her and eyes closed just as she saw the lady do.
Then the Reverend Mr. Jonah Miles stepped to the front of the platform. He wasn't an impressive figure: thin and bald, wearing a white suit that seemed too big for him. But when he began to speak, his deep, assured voice wound a spell around the audience. He seemed to grow taller.
He spoke of love and redemption, mercy and grace. It wasn't at all like the hell-fire-and-damnation stuff her mother had taken Francie to with the hope her daughter would be a good girl if the preacher could fill her with fear. That had failed terribly.
But the message of the Reverend Mr. Miles entered Francie's heart and healed it, filling in deep cracks and crevices left by a hard and lonely life, a troubled existence.
"Here, child." The nice woman handed Francie a tissue. It was only then she realized tears were streaming down her cheeks.
Almost an hour after he'd begun to preach, the Reverend Mr. Miles asked anyone who had been saved to come forward. Francie thought she might have been but wasn't sure enough to join the crowd headed toward the front.
After the last hymn was sung, she left, filled with such wonder and buoyancy that she knew she'd be there the next evening.
But, when she went back, the church was dark and empty and the Reverend Mr. Miles was gone.
When she met Brandon Fairchild, her new parole officer, the next week, he was skeptical of Francie's conversion.
"Miss Calhoun, I don't believe for a minute that you've changed." Mr. Fairchild looked up from the file he held in front of him. "As I look through your life of crime, I see a history of con games and manipulating the truth, as well as that robbery conviction. A lot of deception, three convictions and not a word of remorse."
"I am sorry for everything I did, Mr. Fairchild. I truly am," she said to his frowning countenance.
He closed the folder, took off his reading glasses, and stared at Francie with eyes as cold as the metal furnishings of his small, gray cubicle. "Is that all you have to say?"
At the moment, she couldn't think of anything more. Odd, because usually she was never at a loss for words. Attempting to explain what had happened to her the other night to this disapproving man seemed impossible. Francie looked down at her hands and took a deep breath before returning her gaze to her parole officer.
He certainly was handsome. Rumpled blond hair and a face that would have made her artistic aunt Tessie long to paint it. Unfortunately, Aunt Tessie was serving eight to ten for forgery and fraud.
His white shirt displayed broad shoulders, while the loosened tie and open collar button showed a muscular neck. About thirty, he was good-looking enough to tempt a woman to do what she shouldn't, and pretty enough to make every sensible word — and a lot of foolish ones — flee Francie's brain.
In spite of that gorgeous exterior, he was cold. His hard gray glare froze her to the bone. She'd never convince him she was telling the truth.
Again, her smart mouth deserted her. Francie swallowed before she mumbled, "I went to church last Friday."
"And it changed me." That was good. She sat up and met his eyes. "I'm going to try to be a better person." She shook her head. "No, I'm going to be abetter person."
He leafed through a few pages of the folder. "I see you were redeemed once before, four years ago."
"That wasn't real. That was a con. Besides, I was never charged with anything that time." Her appearance and sincerity had always been her ace in the hole. Thin, with curly black hair, innocent blue eyes and freckles, she looked young and guileless and could almost always talk her mark out of pressing charges. Too bad she wasn't having any luck convincing Mr. Fairchild.
"So that conversion was a con? Would you explain the difference this time?"
"This isn't a con." She leaned forward and gave him the sincere look she'd perfected after years of practice.
"You have to understand. This is real."
He smiled but there was no humor in his expression. "Oh, I see. This one is real."
"Please believe me. I had a real experience that healed me, inside." She pressed her hands on her chest.
But he shook his head.
Excerpted from The Path To Love by Jane Perrine Copyright © 2005 by Jane Perrine. Excerpted by permission.
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