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Turnabout, Texas, November 1895
"Stop! You can't do this."
Eve's protests fell on deaf ears as the conductor continued to forcibly escort her young friend off the train without so much as a backward glance. She trotted to keep up with the long-legged official as he moved toward the exit, his fist firmly clutching Leo's collar.
"Please be careful!" she called out as she saw Leo stumble. "He's just a boy. Don't hurt him."
But the conductor still didn't slow down. Did the man have no feelings?
As soon as they were on the platform, Eve scooted around to face him, determined to halt his progress and make him listen to her.
"Mr. Mclvers, you can't mean to just toss him from the train and leave him here." She tried to infuse her voice with as much authority and confidence as possible but was afraid there was a touch of pleading there, as well. How had she not realized before now that Leo was a stowaway?
She risked a glance Leo's way. The trapped, desperate look that had crossed the boy's face when the conductor pounced on him a moment ago was still there. It was enough to break her heartno child should look so haunted.
"And what do you suggest I do with him?" The conductor, a beanpole of a man with bushy sideburns and an officious manner, looked down his nose at her as if she were no older than the ten-year-old in his grip.
She was used to such treatment. Even though she was a grown woman of twenty, with her slight build and standing barely five feet two inches with her hair up, folks often dismissed her as a child. But Eve drew herself up to her full height and tried to match his stern expression. "I'm certain there's been some kind of misunderstanding. If you'll just allow Leo to explain"
Leo tried to shake himself free of the conductor's grasp, but the man tightened his hold. "The time to explain has come and gone," the man said sternly. "He's a stowaway, pure and simple. And he rides no farther on my train."
This situation was partly her fault. She should have guessed something was amiss when she first spotted the boy under the seat in front of her. She should have taken the time to figure out how to help him before it came to this. But she'd been so wrapped up in her own worries, so plagued by concerns of what the new life she was heading toward might be like, that she'd missed the signs. So instead, she'd merely assumed he was retrieving something that had fallen.
When she'd invited him to sit next to her and share her apple, it had been as much to distract herself from her own forebodings as to be kind to her new acquaintance. He'd fallen asleep with his head leaning against her and her heart had softened further toward him. But she'd become concerned about him being separated from his party and had quietly asked the conductor to let them know where the boy was. That was when the man had realized he had a stowaway on board.
Pulling her thoughts back to the present, Eve spread her hands, trying once more to appeal to the strict conductor's sympathies. "He's only a boy. What will become of him if you leave him here?"
But the man refused to bend. "Miss Pickering, I'm sure your concern does you credit, but don't let his age fool you. I've met his kind before and they'll smile innocently to your face while they pick your pocket. I imagine a scalawag like him will get on fine, or end up in jail one day."
Eve planted her fists on her hips. "You can't treat a child like a stray dog and dump him at your first opportunity."
She glanced around, looking for help of some sort, and her gaze snagged on that of a gentleman standing across the platform. Her eyes widened as she realized he was watching her. There was a note of curiosity and sympathy in his smoky blue eyes. And something else, something warm and compelling that made it impossible for her to look away, that made her certain she could trust him with her problems.
An older couple dressed for travel crossed between them, breaking the connection, and Eve abruptly came to her senses. She lifted her chin and turned back to Mr. Mc-Ivers. What in the world was she thinking? Such fanciful notions led to nothing but trouble. And asking a strange gentleman for assistance was not something a proper young lady did unless the circumstances were indeed dire.
Still feeling the impact of those eyes, she did her best to push that aside and deal with the more important issue at hand. "Where exactly are we?"
"Turnabout, Texas." The conductor didn't seem the least bit cowed by her earlier chastisements. "And it's a far piece from Tyler, which is where you were headed if I recollect rightly." He dug out his pocket watch and flipped it open. "I suggest you climb right back on the train unless you want to be left behind."
If he only knew how little desire she had to continue on to Tyler. It was for her a place of banishment, not a place for a pleasant visit. But that was neither here nor there.
The conductor didn't allow her to finish. "I can, and I will. Like I said, nobody rides for free on my train. He's lucky I waited for us to pull into the station and didn't throw him off as soon as I discovered him." He stared pointedly at her. "And if I were you, I'd check my belongings to make certain he hasn't pinched anything."
"I'd never take anything from her." The indignant declaration was the first thing Leo had said in his own defense since the conductor had grabbed him a few minutes earlier.
She gave the boy a reassuring smile. "I know you wouldn't, Leo."
The conductor shook his head in disgust. "I don't have any more time to waste on this." He finally released his hold, causing Leo to stumble a bit at the suddenness of it.
Then Mr. McIvers gave the bottom of his vest a sharp tug as he shot Leo a narrow-eyed look of contempt. "If I catch you stowing away on one of my trains again, I'll march you straight to the sheriff's office, even if I have to delay our departure to do it."
He glanced Eve's way and touched the bill of his cap in a perfunctory gesture. "We'll be leaving shortly. You'd be well advised to get back on board before this one sweet-talks you into doing something foolish." With that he turned and marched into the depot office without a backward glance.
She took the opportunity to look again at the blue-eyed stranger. But he was no longer there. Nor did a quick look around show him to be anywhere on the platform. So much for his being her white knight. She shook off that fanciful thought. They'd shared only a brief glance after all. Still, it was strange how she felt as though she had lost a friend.
She turned back to Leo, who was still glowering at the retreating form of his erstwhile captor. Then he glanced her way and his expression softened. "I appreciate you taking up for me, miss. You've been real nice." He puffed his chest out. "But don't you worry none. I'll get on fine. This town is as good a place as any for me to step off in."
Eve heard both the bravado and the underlying uncertainty in his voice. What was his story? Where were his parents? Was someone searching for him, worrying about him?
And what in the world was she going to do to fix this? She couldn't manage her own problems. Besides, even if her limited funds would cover his train fare, he didn't seem to have a particular destination in mind. Which meant he was running from something, not to something. The question was did he have good reason to do so?
She couldn't walk away until she learned more about his situation or found someone who could help him better than she couldand was willing to do so. Abandoning a child in need was the worst kind of callous betrayal.
Unfortunately, she didn't know a soul in this place. On the heel of that thought, her mind turned again to the man she'd exchanged glances with earlier. Had the sympathy in his eyes been real? Would he have helped if she hadn't turned away?
Well, no point dwelling on that now. Eve placed a hand on Leo's shoulder, mentally wincing at the thinness of it. "That's a very brave thing to say, Leo, but don't you worry, we'll figure something out."
She only hoped she could keep that promise. Thank the Good Lord she wouldn't have to do it on her own.
Heavenly Father, You must have let my and Leo's paths cross so I could help him. I'm not sure what good I'll be to him, but I won't abandon him and I know You won't abandon either of us. Just please, show me what it is I should do. I've never had anyone depending on me this way before and I couldn't bear it if I failed him.
One thing was for certain, neither she nor Leo would be on that train when it left the station today. Which meant she'd better retrieve her bag before it went on to Tyler without her.
She gave Leo an encouraging smile. "Give me a minute to collect my things, then you and I can decide what to do next. Okay?"
"You mean you're staying?"
If she hadn't already decided to stay, the flare of hope in his eyes would have cinched the deal. "Of course I'm staying. I told you we'd work things out, didn't I?" At his nod, she smiled. "Well, we can hardly do that if I'm on the train and you're still here."
Instructing Leo one last time to wait right where he was, she hurried back on board and made her way to her seat.
Everything had happened so quickly she'd barely had time to think of the ramifications of her actions, something her grandmother would say was typical of her. Her impulse to act first and think later was what had caused her current disgrace. Which had ultimately resulted in her being banished to Tyler.
And speaking of Tyler, what would her grandmother's friend, Mrs. O'Connell, think when Eve didn't get off the train at her appointed stop today as planned? Would she change her mind about taking Eve on as an apprentice?
And if so, would that actually be such a terrible thing?
After all, working in the back room of a millinery shop was not something she had ever aspired to.
Eve immediately took herself to task for that disrespectful and ungrateful thought. Her grandmother had gone to a lot of trouble to secure this position for her. It might not be what Eve wanted for herself, but she knew she should be thankful for the opportunity to make a fresh start. Of course, it would be easier to feel appreciative if her grandmother hadn't also made certain that the story of Eve's past followed her there.
What would it be like to truly have a fresh start, to go somewhere where no one knew her past, where no one was constantly watching her, waiting for her to stumble?
Well, at least now she had a short reprieve. No one here had any idea who she was or what her past was like. And what a freeing thought that was. Perhaps she'd even run into her blue-eyed knight again.
She gathered up her bag and shawl and hurried back out onto the platform with lighter steps than when she'd first started on this journey.
Chance Dawson stood inside the depot, leaning casually against the counter. He was here to check on a part he'd ordered for his current project. Hopefully it had arrived on the morning train.
From the looks of things, though, it was going to take Todd a while to sort through the mountain of mail and packages that had just come in. Not that Chance minded the wait. He wasn't in much of a hurry and besides, watching the folks around him was a hobby of his.
And there were plenty of folks to watch in here. Besides Lionel, the stationmaster, and Todd his helper, a number of others were in the depot office, waiting either to board the train or, like him, to check on arriving cargo.
But none was as interesting as the woman he'd seen out on the platform a few moments ago. The way that petite protector had faced down the conductor despite her obvious timidity had been impressive to watch. But when her gaze had locked with his, the overwhelming urge to come to her defense had rocked him. It was probably just as well she'd turned away from him.
Dotty Epps walked in just then, interrupting his thoughts. He and the elderly widow had formed an unlikely friendship this past year. She was one of the very few people who knew his secret and she not only kept it but didn't let it affect how she treated him.
"Not planning on leaving town on that train are you?" he said by way of greeting. "Turnabout just wouldn't be the same without you."
She gave him one of her cheery smiles. "You're not going to get rid of me so easily, Chance Dawson." She lifted the small parcel she was holding. "I'm just posting a package for my grandson. He has a birthday next week."
"Well, that's a relief." He turned serious. "How are things?" The recent loss of her home and most of her possessions to a fire had taken a toll, but it hadn't seemed to diminish her positive outlook on life.
Her smile acquired a wistful tone. "I miss my home, but the boardinghouse is comfortable. There's a whole lot less housework to be done, and more company, as well. My daughter keeps asking me to move to Jefferson to live with her and her family, but this is where my friends are."
"Well, you know if you need anything, you have only to ask."
She patted his hand. "Thank you, but I'm doing fine." As she moved on to the counter, Chance returned to eavesdropping on the conductor. The man was energetically recounting a rather embellished version of how he'd expertly identified and dealt with the sly stowaway.
His story, which painted the kid as some sort of treacherous thief, differed significantly from what Chance had observed earlier. Of course, at the time he'd been more focused on the determined young woman who was so very staunchly defending the boy than on the conductor and the kid himself.
She had intrigued him, and it wasn't just that she'd taken up for the boythough he did admire her for that. It was more the contradictions he'd sensed in her.
Her appearancefrom her tightly coifed brown hair that not even a sudden gust of November wind could ruffle, to her high-collared, severe dress and stiff postureproclaimed her to be a very prim and proper young lady, one who was a bit on the mousy side. She'd also seemed quite young. But when the petite defender had defiantly lifted her chin, he'd seen the flash of fire in her expressive brown eyes, a fire that made him think perhaps she wasn't quite so prim and proper after alland definitely not mousy. The maturity he'd seen there surprised him, as well. She was much more than the child she'd looked at first sight.
Then she'd spotted him watching her. If she'd given him the least indication that she wanted his help with the conductor, he'd have immediately stepped forward. But instead she'd stiffened and very deliberately turned away. It wasn't at all the kind of reaction he was used to getting from the ladies of his acquaintance, especially one who was so obviously in a tight spot. He hadn't been sure what to make of it, so he'd shrugged it off and proceeded inside the depot.