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To Win Her Heart

Spencer, Texas
February 1887

After two years, they'd finally cut him loose. Gave him a new suit of clothes and everything. Funny, though. The shame of the convict stripes still clung to him, as if tattooed horizontally across his skin. Levi Grant rolled his shoulders under the slightly-too-tight coat he'd been issued and wondered how long it would take to get reaccustomed to ordinary clothes.

Or to get the smell of turnips out of them.

A farmer had let him ride in his wagon bed for the last ten miles or so of his journey from Huntsville. Levi's feet had welcomed the respite, but now, standing outside the parson's small box-shaped house, second thoughts needled him.

His future hinged on making a good impression. The Bible and recommendation letter in his knapsack fueled his hope, but his past dragged behind him like the lead ball that used to be shackled to his leg. The Father might have forgiven his prodigal ways, but the world was full of parabolic older brothers who would either resent the second chance he'd been given or condemn him outright. Not that he would blame them. Christian charity could only be expected to stretch so far.

A gust of cool February wind jarred him from his thoughts and pushed him forward. The Lord had led him to the preacher's thresh-

Old --- the least Levi could do was knock on the door.

He climbed the steps onto the porch, ducking under a barren rose trellis. Winter had temporarily robbed the latticework of its color, but the promise of spring lingered in the twining stems. Levi rapped a knuckle against the door and waited.

Seconds ticked by. He shifted from one foot to the other. An urge to run burgeoned inside his chest until his lungs found it difficult to expand. He blew out what little air was left in them and paced to the rail. Had he been wrong to come? Forcing himself to breathe evenly, he began to count the number of pickets in the fence across the yard. He'd barely made it to seven when the door clicked open behind him. Levi spun around. Seeing a woman, he yanked his hat from his head.

"Can I help you?" The tiny lady finished wiping her hands on her apron and looked up at him, her eyes widening only slightly as she took in his size.

"Levi Grant, ma'am. I'm here to"—See? No—"talk to David Cranford." The pause hadn't been long, but she'd blinked, a sure indication that she'd noticed. Years of avoiding S sounds in his speech had made him adept at finding substitutes, but it still took his brain time to recognize and reject the S words that came to mind automatically.

"Mr. Grant, of course. We've been expecting you. Please, come in." A warm smile blossomed across her face as she pulled the door wide.

Levi swiveled sideways to edge through the opening without grazing his hostess. His size came in handy when pounding iron, but it was a hindrance around delicate ladies in delicate houses.

She led him to a parlor full of treacherous knickknacks and spindly chairs and left him there with the impossible task of making himself comfortable while she fetched her husband.

Choosing the most substantial piece of furniture in the room, Levi cautiously lowered himself onto the green tapestry sofa, wincing with each creak of the thin oak legs. He slung his knapsack off his shoulder and into his lap, then reached inside for the letter from his chaplain and mentor, Jonathan Willis.

Soft footfalls sounded in the hall. Levi shoved the sack aside and lurched to his feet, still clutching the letter.

"Mr. Grant. Welcome to Spencer." A thin man with dark hair graying at the temples strode across the parlor carpet, his hand outstretched. "Jonathan wired that you were coming."

Levi handed over the letter and gripped the man's hand, careful not to squeeze too hard. The preacher was a good head shorter and probably a decade older than Levi's thirty years, but his eyes exuded kindness and a blunt honesty that communicated his knowledge of Levi's past without casting judgment.

"Please, sit."

Levi bent slowly to retake his seat on the sofa while David Cranford settled into an armchair. He opened the letter Levi had given him but barely scanned the contents before folding it back up and slipping it into his coat pocket.

"You'll be glad to know that everything is in place," Cranford said. "Mr. Spencer accepted my recommendation and forwarded the lease papers to our bank. You should be in business by the end of the week."

Levi swallowed what moisture he could summon from his arid mouth. "No interview?"

"Not a formal one, no. We've been without a blacksmith for nigh onto four months now. And with spring planting around the corner ... Well ... let's just say the townsfolk have not been shy in vocalizing their dissatisfaction. Mr. Spencer was anxious to find a blacksmith, and I was happy to recommend you to him. As long as his representative finds no glaring faults in you, things should go smoothly."

No glaring faults? Levi nearly laughed aloud. His faults glared brighter than streaks exposed by sunlight on a freshly cleaned window. His only hope was to hide them from this representative until he'd had a chance to prove himself.

"Did you tell him about ... ?" Levi cleared his throat but couldn't quite spit out the rest of the question.

The preacher shook his head. "No. And I see no reason to enlighten anyone at this point. It has no direct bearing on your ability to perform your duties."

Levi relaxed into the cushioned sofa just a bit. He had a chance, then.

"The truth will come out eventually, though," the man cautioned, "and it would be better for it to come from you than somewhere else, but I believe a man has the right to demonstrate his character by his actions instead of being weighed solely by his past mistakes.

"I've known Jonathan Willis since our days at seminary," Cranford continued. "He speaks highly of you, Mr. Grant. And that's good enough for me. I'll gladly introduce you to Mr. Spencer's agent and reiterate my recommendation."

"Thank you." Levi had not expected such generosity. Didn't deserve it. Yet he'd not be so foolish as to reject it. He'd spent enough time in foolish pursuits.

" 'There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus.' " The preacher patted the leather cover of the Bible sitting on the round parlor stand between the arm of his chair and the sofa, his gaze intent. Almost as if he were trying to bore a hole through Levi's hide to embed the truth of the words into his soul.

Levi turned his head away from the man's scrutiny to stare instead at a porcelain shepherdess guarding a shelf on the front wall. He knew the passage from Romans 8. He even believed it. Yet no matter how hard his brain tried to convince his heart, self-reproach still clung to him like a parasite.

"You're a new man making a new start."

Levi jerked his head around.

"Leave the guilt behind, son."

Excerpted from TO WIN HER HEART © Copyright 2011 by Karen Witemeyer. Reprinted with permission by Bethany House. All rights reserved.

To Win Her Heart
by by Karen Witemeyer