One Month Later
Like a giddy schoolgirl, I flew down the Capones’ estate stairs and skipped into the street. I joined the crowd, blending seamlessly into the countless people trudging home from their workday. No one wore a smile, and all lacked that spark of life in their eyes.
I remembered when that used to be me. Broken and defeated.
But the past month had been truly wonderful for me. For the first time since my mother’s death many, many years ago, I felt alive. Finally, I’d found purpose. I’d given myself a goal. And I saw a light at the end of the pitch-black tunnel I’d been stumbling through my whole life.
A giggle slipped past my lips, one that attracted the attention of the woman walking next to me. She clutched a small bundle in her arms, and when it squirmed, I smiled. I’d always loved babies. They were so innocent and free. I leaned over and tickled the little girl beneath her chin. She beamed up at me and cooed, a small spit bubble forming at the corner of her mouth. Then she reached for me, her tiny fingers wrapping around mine.
For the first time ever, I saw the possibility of me having my own little one in the future. I’d never wanted a family before, because I’d known it wouldn’t be possible. My stepfather would never release me from his service, and I’d never marry. But now…the possibilities seemed endless.
“You’re in a good mood, miss,” the mother commented.
“A very good mood,” I said. I pulled my hand free of her daughter’s, then tilted my head back, closed my eyes, and drank in the afternoon sun. The warmth bathed my skin and fed the growing light within me. “It’s such a beautiful day, isn’t it?”
The woman’s silence had me opening my eyes and meeting her stare.
Her pursed mouth spoke volumes—I needed to rein myself in. Servants didn’t prance merrily around, and they certainly didn’t take the time to enjoy the little things in life. We kept our heads down and worked ourselves to the bone.
Without another word, the mother clutched her baby tighter and stole a furtive glance around. “Whatever you’ve done to put yourself in such a good mood, keep it to yourself.” She fixed her baby’s blanket, her mouth still pursed in disapproval. “We don’t need you causing problems for the rest of us.”
Her words sobered me. She didn’t need to explain further for me to understand.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m just enjoying the sun. When’s the last time you stopped and enjoyed the day?”
“Before I had this one,” she said, gesturing to the baby now nestled against her breast.
“Now, get,” the woman continued. “I don’t need you attracting any unwanted attention our way.”
With a final glare, she changed course, heading to the outer edge of the crowd. She wasn’t the only one either. I hadn’t noticed before, but no one walked within three feet of me. As though my happiness was a disease they might catch. Clearly, I unnerved them.
I refused to let their negativity affect my mood.
I had too much to celebrate.
Today was payday—as I’d come to call it—and it was time to collect.
It’d been a month since I’d stolen the vase from the Capones and sold it to the vendor in the Lower West District. A month since I’d taken the first steps to freeing myself from the shackles of this life.
I remembered the morning after I’d sold it, how nervous I’d been to return to their estate. Anabelle’s comments had really done a number on me. I’d imagined walking through the door and finding a battalion of guards waiting for me. Instead, it’d been a typical day. Lady Capone and her wretched daughter had continued bickering about the upcoming ball, Lord Capone had ignored them all, and I’d…cleaned. No one had so much as commented on the missing vase.
I couldn’t believe my luck.
I’d gotten away with it.
Since then, I’d stolen two more items—the second of which was currently tucked into my cloak for safe-keeping. The first had been a gold pen. One I’d seen sitting untouched on Lord Capones’ desk for years. I’d first tested his attentiveness by moving the pen to a different spot on his desk. When that went unnoticed, I’d moved it across the room to his fireplace mantel. When he hadn’t questioned that, I’d slipped it into my pocket the next day, then sold it for two gold coins.
Two gold coins.
I couldn’t believe it.
I’d hurried home and stashed them in my bedroom beneath a loose floorboard.
Today, I’d chosen a book with gold-painted edges and embossed lettering on the front cover. I’d cleaned this book countless times. No one else seemed to pay it any attention. It seemed like a good score, so I’d placed another book in its place, one of similar size, and tucked this one away just as I was leaving the estate. I couldn’t wait to see how much the vendor paid me for this piece. It had to be worth more than the gold pen and vase combined.
Which only made my smile grow. The exhilaration was addicting. As was the knowledge that I’d have a couple extra gold coins to add to my growing wealth. Including the single coin Arabelle held for me, I’d hopefully have six gold coins by the end of the night.
I hadn’t told her about the others. It’d seemed wiser—and safer—to keep her out of this. First, she’d hate me for doing something she’d begged me not to do. And second, I didn’t want to risk her life and freedom if I got caught.
The fear of that wasn’t enough to stop me though.
Not when I was so close to seeing my dreams come true. A year or two more of this and I’d have enough to escape and carve out a nice life for myself somewhere far, far away. The fun part was trying to decide where. I couldn’t stay in Valine. Not with my step-family here, and certainly not anywhere near the Capones, seeing as how they were essentially funding my new life.
Recently, I’d been considering Lunar City. It sounded magical there. Last I heard, the city existed in a state of perpetual moonlight. I’d miss the sun, of course, but that was a sacrifice I was willing to make—
Pain shot through me as I slammed into something hard.
“Oh!” I rubbed my aching nose. What had I walked into? A brick wall?
Blinking back tears, I lifted my head…and sucked in a gasp.
By the stars….
Standing before me was the most beautiful man I’d ever seen. He stood at least a head taller than me and had golden hair that fell in loose waves around his sharp cheekbones. His crystalline blue eyes were so light, they could have been chips of ice. And his mouth…oh gods his mouth. It was so perfectly shaped, it begged to be kissed. A task I certainly wouldn’t mind volunteering for.
The man was downright breathtaking.
I lifted my gaze to his…only to find his attention skate right over me as though I were nothing.
Without so much as a glance in my direction, he moved to go around me.
Beauty divine destroyed by rude manners.
“You know, you could at least apologize,” I said.
The man froze and turned slightly in my direction. When his gaze dropped to mine, I shivered. Ice, indeed.
“Excuse me?” he asked.
His voice thawed my insides. So deep and deliciously rumbly.
I cleared my throat in an effort to regain my senses. Okay, yes, he was attractive. But the well-designed packaging didn’t mean he was a nice person.
“Apologize,” I repeated. “For running into me. It would be the polite thing to do, after all.”
His lips gave the slightest twitch, but I couldn’t tell if it was from annoyance or amusement. Either way, I was mesmerized—and hated myself for it. Since when did I let a man’s good looks affect me so strongly? Logen was attractive too, but I didn’t turn into a puddle of goo around him.
The man dipped his head to my level, then replied with a cold sneer. “I have nothing to apologize for. You ran into me.”
I gaped at him. “I did not!”
His brow furrowed and his lips pressed into a thin line. Apparently my argument annoyed him. Well, too bad. I wasn’t about to take responsibility for something I hadn’t done.
“Allow me to educate you, my lady,” he said, his voice now buttery soft. “I was standing here for a few minutes before you rudely hit me. So, yes, you did.”
I finally tore my eyes away from him long enough to glance around. Sure enough, we stood in the center of the market. Far beyond where I’d needed to go. I looked over my shoulder to find I’d missed the turn that would take me into the Lower West District. I must have been so lost in my thoughts that I hadn’t noticed where I was going.
And, instead, ran into him.
Heat burned my cheeks as I realized he was right. And I’d just accused him.
“Oh,” I whispered. “Um, I’m so—”
“Your Highness?” came a softer voice, interrupting what I’d intended to be an apology.
Blondie held my gaze as he said, “Yes?”
For a moment, I thought he’d been addressing me, asking what I’d meant to say before we’d been interrupted. But then understanding dawned. My hands flew to my mouth as I gasped.
His perfect mouth curled into a cruel grin as he realized what I’d just figured out.
I’d run into the prince.
Then blamed him for it.
“I—I,” I stammered.
His left brow rose. “Yes?”
My wide gaze darted from the prince to the guards surrounding him, all armed to the teeth and staring at me as though I were a threat. How had I missed them?
And oh gods… I was carrying stolen goods.
In front of the prince and his personal guard.
I needed to diffuse this situation. Quickly.
“I’m sorry,” I murmured while bowing my head.
“I’m sorry…?” He let the sentence hang.
I knew exactly what he wanted to hear, and anger burned my cheeks. But I couldn’t fight him on this. Not if I wanted to make it home tonight. “I’m sorry, Your Highness. I wasn’t looking where I was going.”
His grin slipped, as though he wasn’t happy with my apology. Did he expect me to grovel? Or had he wanted me to fight him on it? I couldn’t do that. I had been the one to run into him, after all. And he was the prince. It wasn’t my place to get mouthy with him, no matter how badly I wanted to.
He straightened and smoothed his tunic, as though I’d rumpled it.
“All’s forgiven,” he said, waving his other hand dismissively. “Be on your way.”
My whole body tensed as I bit back a flurry of words. I wanted to tell him exactly where he could stuff his forgiveness, the arrogant bastard. Instead, I stormed past him, my lips moving in silent mockery, Be on your way.
“Oh, and miss?” came the prince’s voice.
I forced a breath through gritted teeth, then turned with what I hoped was a pleasant smile. “Yes, Your Highness?”
“Next time, get all the facts before you accuse someone of a crime they didn’t commit,” was all he said before turning to face the silk vendor, dismissing me a second time.
Anger churned through my veins.
Sure, he was the prince, but did he have to be such a cock?
Chuckles erupted around me, and I groaned. Apparently the entire market had come to a standstill as they watched our little drama play out. Soon, everyone in town would know, thanks to the gossip mill. I wasn’t a betting woman, but I’d bet my last gold coin that my stepbrothers would already know about this before I returned home for the night.
Grimacing, I nodded at those watching, then pressed forward, moving through the crowd with hyper-focus. I needed to pay more attention to my surroundings. I couldn’t get lost in my thoughts again. Not while transporting my loot.
In retrospect, I was lucky I’d run into the prince and not my stepfather, who would demand to know what I was doing here.
I had to be more careful.
Otherwise, it’d be the gallows for me.
And that wasn’t the ending I had in mind for myself.