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An Avon True Romance: Amelia and the Outlaw
Fort Worth, Texas
The first thing Jesse Lawton noticed when the train puffed into the station was the girl standing on the platform.
She was the prettiest thing he'd seen in five years.
Her blond hair was tucked up neatly beneath a frilly bonnet decorated with ribbons and bows. The tiny tips of her black leather shoes peeked out from beneath the hem of her spring-green dress.
He thought her eyes were blue, but he couldn't be certain—not from this distance, not peering through the dirty train window.
The girl jutted her bottom lip into a little pout that caused his insides to tighten. Her mouth reminded him of the plump strawberries he'd tasted at the beginning of a long-ago summer. He'd snitched them out of a garden that grew beside a house with gingham curtains fluttering in the windows and a white picker fence.
He'd convinced himself the pain in his gut was a result of being hungry—not the longing for all the comforts the folks inside the house took for granted. He'd forced himself to gobble down the juicy berries and not think about soft beds or clean clothes or a warm bath.
The girl rocked back and forth on her heels, twirling her little green reticule as if she were waiting on somebody.
He couldn't take his eyes off her—which was a blessing. Looking at her prevented him from having to acknowledge the stares of the passengers making their way off the train. He kept his hands tucked between his thighs, so the shackles on his wrists weren't quite as visible.
But people noticed them anyway. Hecould tell when they did, because he'd hear them gasp or whisper harshly to their traveling companion that a criminal had been sitting in their midst.
"Hey, mister, are you an outlaw?" a boy suddenly asked loudly.
Flinching inwardly, Jesse focused his attention more intently on the girl. She was tapping her foot now, her growing impatience apparent.
"Run along, son," the man sitting beside him said.
Jesse didn't know his name. His guard hadn't bothered with introductions when he'd slapped on the irons.
"Is he an outlaw?" the kid asked again, his excitement echoing around the small compartment. "Is he?"
"Used to be," the man said. "Ain't no more. Now he's a prisoner of the state."
Jesse felt as though he'd been a prisoner of the state for most of his life. His mother had left him on somebody's doorstep, wrapped in a tattered blanket with a note that simply said, Please love him.
No one had bothered to comply with her request. He'd been passed around from person to person, never feeling as though anyone truly wanted him. At least not until he'd joined up with the Nightriders gang. Under the leadership of Sometimes-One-Eyed Pete, for a time, at least, he'd thought he'd discovered where he belonged.
But the bungled bank robbery had found him sentenced to spend ten years at Huntsville Prison. He'd already survived five in that wretched hole. Now he had a chance to serve his remaining time beneath the blue Texas sky. He didn't intend to lose this opportunity—no matter what the cost.
The guard stood. "Let's go, boy."
Jesse unfolded his body, moved into the aisle, and headed for the door. The guard traded behind him with his rifle held at the ready in the crook of his arm. Jesse knew the man would just as soon shoot him as see him get off the train, so he kept his strides short, slow, nonthreatening.
He walked through the door and to the steps that led to the platform. Placing one hand on the railing forced him to put both there because of the way his hands were linked together. He climbed down carefully, awkwardly.
He didn't dare look for the pretty girl now. He prayed she'd moved on and wouldn't catch sight of him with the humiliating chains jangling between his wrists.
With the butt of his rifle, the guard shoved him forward. "Keep going. Judge Harper is standing right over there."
Even if the guard hadn't pointed him out, Jesse would have recognized judge Harper. He'd lost track of the number of days that had passed since he'd been escorted to the warden's office, where he'd met the judge for the first time.
Judge Harper had only recently replaced Judge Gray, better known as the Hanging judge—the man who had sentenced Jesse to ten years of hard time Jesse hadn't been able to work up a spark of pity when word had traveled through the prison that the Hanging Judge had met his maker.
Judge Harper had been reviewing Judge Gray's records. Apparently the previous judge had kept detailed accounts on every criminal who'd appeared in his courtroom and every sentence he'd handed dawn.
"I don't like doubting my predecessor," Judge Harper had said, "but I think he might have been a bit harsh when he sentenced you."
A bit harsh? Jesse thought that was an understatement. The man bad been downright mean, with a steely glare that had made Jesse fear the Hanging judge was going to live up to his reputation and sentence Jesse to dance in the wind from the nearest oak tree.
"I'm not willing to commute your sentence," judge Harper continued, "but I'm willing to let you serve out your time under less desolate conditions."
So here Jesse was, his mouth suddenly as dry as a west Texas wind, walking toward the man who held his freedom in his hands. Judge Harper had looked imposing and ominous when he'd met with Jesse at Huntsville.
He was even more so now, standing on the platform in black trousers, a black jacket, and a black hat with his dark eyes roaming over Jesse . . .An Avon True Romance: Amelia and the Outlaw. Copyright © by Lorraine Heath. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.