Today's Reading

PART ONE

THE THIEF

December 1926—Upper West Side


It wasn't magic that allowed Esta to slip out of the party unseen, the bright notes from the piano dimming as she left the ballroom. No matter the year, no one ever really looks at the help, so no one had noticed her leave. And no one had noticed the way her shapeless black dress sagged a bit on one side, the telltale sign of the knife
she had concealed in her skirts.

But then, people usually do miss what's right in front of them.

Even through the heavy doors, she could still faintly hear the notes from the quartet's ragtime melody. The ghost of the too-cheery song followed her through the entry hall, where carved woodwork and polished stone towered three stories above her. The grandeur didn't overwhelm her, though. She was barely impressed and definitely not intimidated. Instead, she moved with confidence—its own sort of magic, she supposed. People trusted confidence, even when they shouldn't. Maybe especially when they shouldn't.

The enormous crystal chandelier might have thrown shards of electric light around the cavernous hall, but the corners of the room and the high, coffered ceiling remained dark. Beneath the palms that stretched two stories up the walls, more shadows waited. The hall might have appeared empty, but there were too many places to hide in the mansion, too many chances someone could be watching. She kept moving.

When she came to the elaborate grand staircase, she glanced up to the landing, where an enormous pipe organ stood. On the floor above, the private areas of the house held rooms filled with art, jewels, priceless vases, and countless antiques—easy pickings with everyone distracted by the loud, drunken party in the ballroom. But Esta wasn't there for those treasures, however tempting they might have been.

And they were definitely tempting.

She paused for a second, but then the clock chimed the hour, confirming that she was later than she'd meant to be. Tossing one more careful glance over her shoulder, she slipped past the staircase and into a hall that led deeper into the mansion.

It was quiet there. Still. The noise of the party no longer followed her, and she finally let her shoulders sag a bit, expelling a sigh as she relaxed the muscles in her back from the ramrod-straight posture of the serving girl she'd been pretending to be. Tipping her head to one side, she started to stretch her neck, but before she could feel the welcome release, someone grabbed her by the arm and pulled her into the shadows.

On instinct, she twisted, holding tight to her attacker's wrist and pulling it forward and down with all her weight, until he let out a strangled yelp, his elbow close to popping.

"Dammit, Esta, it's me," a familiar voice hissed. It was an octave or two higher than usual, probably because of the pressure she was still exerting on his arm.

With a whispered curse, she released Logan's arm and shook him off, disgusted. "You should know better than to grab me like that." Her heart was still pounding, so she couldn't manage to dredge up any remorse for the way he was rubbing his arm. "What's your deal, anyway?"

"You're late," Logan snapped, his too-handsome face close to hers.

With golden hair and the kind of blue eyes that girls who don't know better write poems about, Logan Sullivan was a master of using his looks to his advantage. Women wanted him and men wanted to be him, but he didn't try to charm Esta. Not anymore.

"Well, I'm here now."

"You were supposed to be here ten minutes ago. Where have you been?" he demanded.

She didn't have to answer him. It would have pissed him off more to keep her secrets, but she couldn't suppress a satisfied grin as she held up the diamond stickpin she'd lifted from an old man in the ballroom who'd had trouble keeping his hands to himself.

"Seriously?" Logan glared at Esta. "You risked the job for that?"

"It was either this or punch him." She glanced up at him to emphasize her point. "I don't do handsy, Logan." It hadn't even been a decision, really, to bump into him as he moved on to grab some young maid, to pretend to clean the champagne off his coat while she slipped the pin from his silken tie. Maybe she should have walked
away, but she hadn't. She couldn't.
...

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