To Have a Highland Thief – Lori Ann Bailey

Flora MacGregor hated stealing, so it was a shame she was so damn good at it. If she had a choice, she would find enough coin to get her and the rest of their band to America where they could start over, and she could seek out a decent occupation —maybe a tavern wench or a fisherwoman. But her brother’s independence and her family’s home were at stake, so here she was, scanning the city streets, looking for a victim. Sailing away sounded reasonable. But her family didn’t have much luck with ship captains, given one was blackmailing her and threatening to destroy her brother’s life. Maybe being trapped aboard a ship with one for a long voyage wasn’t the brightest of ideas. She would make it to the land across the ocean; however, she couldn’t guarantee the man in charge wouldn’t find himself with a slit throat at the bottom of the water. However, that option had been taken away from her, so it was back to doing what she did best. Her family might be able to survive the lost income from her brother’s absence, but if the criminal leader from Edinburgh came to collect the debt she owed, they’d never stop the eviction. The sun was dipping low in the sky as mothers with babes and men from the docks scurried back home. Crowded streets would work to her benefit. It was so easy to bump into a lack-witted man, flash her eyes at him, and walk away with every valuable possession he had on him. Her charms didn’t work so well on the lasses, though—not only that, most of them also turned their noses up at her, so she steered clear of them. She’d been blessed with good looks but hadn’t been brought up the proper way and couldn’t recite Bible passages or hold a conversation about horticulture or some other nonsense. She had real life to deal with and people to protect; society’s fripperies meant nothing to her.

Other than the lasses in her family, she’d never been able to make a friend of the same sex. She’d always been one of the lads and because of that, she knew how to handle men. Strutting up the street even now was a well-dressed fellow with the self-satisfied air of a Sassenach who had just spent all night in a gaming house and had won every hand. Och, he was a fool to parade about in public dressed as he was with that smug smile plastered on his face. He would do nicely. Glancing down to inspect herself, she noticed the wind had blown her long, brunette tresses behind her shoulder. She pulled just enough to the front to cover the stain some lout had caused when he’d purposely tripped into her holding a glass of something he called “claret.” After witnessing too many men do foolish things when they imbibed, she had decided long ago to steer clear of spirits. With her responsibilities, she couldn’t afford the luxury of not keeping her senses sharp at all times. The man had almost ruined her favorite, and only, stylish dress.

The empire waist red gown was the most expensive thing she’d ever owned, but it had been worth it because it made her look respectable and enabled her to get close enough to potential victims to do her work. Her other garments were all rags, but in this gown she could pretend to be a person of means. Sometimes as the soft muslin material swayed around her waist, she could even imagine the possibility of a better life. In it, she felt free to be someone else. Somebody with worth. Once the dress had proven successful, she’d been able to return to the shop and purchase a bonnet that almost matched. Oh lord, she never wore the horrid thing, preferring to leave her hair free or in a loose braid, but it was a useful tool in her craft, concealing whatever she could lift from her intended targets. Taking her gaze from her mark, she confirmed the opening of the hat pointed toward the front, and her hand clasped it in the correct position. Satisfied, she started forward. He appeared to be headed straight toward the local hotel—an Englishman coming from the docks.

His coat was too refined, and he wore the air of superiority that only one who had trampled on those they felt inferior could sport. He’d think she was one of those people, but he wouldn’t know he was wrong until it was too late. She decided he had a nice smile, which probably opened doors for him as her looks did for her. She found it uncannily easy to drift toward him and walk right into his path. Bam. When she grabbed him to steady herself, the need to brace her wobbly legs was genuine as the scent of cigars and musk greeted her. It was the underlying currents of cinnamon and honey that had her inhaling deeper than she needed to. The silly coat he wore, and the fluffy ruffles around his neck, had made him appear overweight—but she’d been mistaken because they hid a firm body that rivaled the bonniest of the Highlanders she knew. The next surprise jolted through her when she glanced up, intending to display her usual feign of confusion, but when her gaze met his dark sapphire stare, she was taken aback by the soulful depths. She momentarily forgot what she was doing.

Blinking, she swallowed and fought back the strange reaction as her body cried out to her to let him keep his strong, warm hands wrapped around her waist. Barely remembering what she was doing, and only acting instinctually on a motion her hands had practiced so many times she couldn’t count, her fingers slid into a deep pocket of the greatcoat he wore despite the warmth of the day. As his study of her intensified, she realized her first impression had been correct: confidence and authority poured off him in waves. Her fingers banged into a large object—damn, the man was full of mysteries. She reached out to clamp her hand around it. Pulling out what felt like smooth wood, she covered it with her bonnet. “Pardon me, miss, are you all right?” Flora jumped as his intense voice vibrated behind her ears and branded itself into her memory. She didn’t have to pretend dizziness because something about this encounter had spun all her senses out of control. Oh, damn, she caught another smell, something purely male and enticing. “I—I am fine, sir.

” Her free hand flew up, an automatic maneuver she used to distance herself from her mark. But as her hand landed on the solid wall of his chest, she found herself wanting to pull him in instead of pushing back. Tingles spread down her back, and gooseflesh erupted on her skin. She was having trouble breathing. What was wrong with her? Maybe she had been jolted too hard. His regard left hers long enough to gaze down, but she watched helplessly as his ruggedly handsome features lowered, and the hand on her waist freed her, raising to take one of her curls up to his slightly crooked nose. She gulped as an unfamiliar heat threatened to melt her to the spot. “I’m sorry, but my father is expecting me. I must be on my way.” She managed to back a step, but his gaze lingered on hers as her hair pulled from his grasp, and his head tilted to the side.

Fear must have flashed in her own gaze as his dilated eyes rested on hers, casting a spell on her that prevented rational thought. Men looked at her like that all the time, and she typically knew how to handle it—but with him, she licked her lips, inviting his eyes to drift to her mouth, which felt swollen and needy. Oh, damn, she wanted him. Wanted to feel the solid strength of the flesh behind his silly clothes, feel his firm lips crushed to hers, and feel his powerful calves slide along the naked surface of hers. One corner of his mouth lifted as the blue of his eyes darkened and intensified as if he could read her thoughts. Warmth crept up her neck to her cheeks. She never blushed. Something bumped into her from behind, and she pitched forward, almost losing her grip on the package she had carefully concealed. He caught her, and it felt as if fire seared her arm. “Watch where you’re going.

” His deep voice berated the passerby as his attention followed the interloper’s movements. While he was distracted, she disengaged from his grasp and fled, only barely avoiding a sprint down the side of the cobbled street. Luckily, she knew the city well, and with the crowds, it was easy to weave in and out. Not until she turned into the alley that would lead her away from the center of town, did she pause to look back to make certain he hadn’t followed. Her heart pounded and her legs trembled. Stupid, ye have to be more careful. If ye get caught, the city watchman willnae be so kind this time. The police of Aberdeen were well acquainted with her and had threatened to throw her in prison the next time she was reported. Taking a breath, she spied over her shoulder one more time. Satisfied she had not been followed, she made her way home.

Walking up to the second story of the tenement house her family called Camelot, she glanced around, always aware of the shadows and looking for anything out of the ordinary. Will had drilled it into all of their heads, “Be aware.” Sometimes she thought his rules were too rigid, but he’d managed to keep all of them alive this long. Finding a corner of privacy in their five-room flat was a surprise, but she guessed someone had taken the youngest children out since it was such a lovely day. Soon, they’d all be cramped in for the evening. She tiptoed to the window and finally unclutched the bonnet in her hand. The material opened like a flower’s petals to reveal a wooden box the size of a small loaf of bread. She was lucky to have retrieved the item out of the stranger’s pocket without it snagging on the sides and alerting him to her deception. Fingering the box’s delicately carved lines, she marveled at the workmanship it must have taken to make such a treasure. It alone would probably feed her family for months.

Vines swirled around the sides and erupted into leaves inlaid in a darker wood. A lion with claws outstretched looked as if it were ready to attack. The creature was ornamented in the same darker wood as the top. A shiver ran down her spine. The box was locked, and she only briefly lamented that the value would go down without the matching key. Running to Bran’s room, she was surprised to find him there, but thankfully, he slept—probably those late nights the arse at the shipyard was forcing I him to put in. Sneaking over to his belongings, she found his pick set and went to work on the box. When she heard the latch open, she carefully put the tools of his trade away and fled back to the window of the other room before someone returned. She pushed back the lid, and her shoulders drooped. According to the weight, she’d expected more to be inside than the stack of folded, sealed papers.

Reaching in, she pulled them up and gasped at what lay underneath. After studying the apartment to be certain she was alone, she dropped to the floor and secured the box in a cavity inside the chimney well, behind a loose brick. ’Twill be safe here, she reassured herself, knowing she was the only one who was aware of the hiding spot. Moments later, she skipped to her favorite spot near the docks. She breathed in the fresh air and acknowledged what she’d seen beneath the papers but been too afraid to touch. Our problems are over, she sang in her head. Then, she allowed tears of joy to fall down her cheeks, finally admitting their family’s ordeal would be over. She had the means to save her brother and their home. Now, she only had to worry about the Edinburgh crime lord hell-bent on making an example out of her. saac Nathaniel Hamilton, seventh Earl of Dunbridge, turned to watch the curious Highland lass run away from him as if he were the devil himself.

What had he done to offend her? She’d smelled of the delectable strawberries he’d purchased in the market earlier today. She looked even more delectable, with her long dark lashes that led to mysterious chocolate-colored eyes. When she’d crashed into him, his gaze had been drawn down to the bare toes that peeked beneath the hem of her gown, well-shaped and clean, but what had happened to the woman’s slippers? He was in the Highlands of Scotland, but surely the people weren’t as barbaric as rumored. Those thoughts fled as he scanned up to see his hand rested on a sweetly curved hip, accentuating the shapely figure beneath, which would typically be hidden by her dress style. The heat of her body seared him. Reluctantly taking his hand from her waist, he reached for one of her long, delicious curls and brought it to his nose to inhale the scent of Scottish lavender soap. He’d been lost in the moment, in the completely improper position until someone bumped into her, breaking the spell and causing her to bolt down a nearby alley. Fortune had been with him today, even if he’d lost the intriguing lass. Smiling, he turned and strolled back to the hotel. Entering his room and locking the door, he crossed the space and removed his hat to place it on the table, then reached in his pocket to retrieve what he’d traveled to Scotland for—the prize he’d been fighting to reclaim for his family for years.

His hand missed the box, so he tried the cleverly sewn insert on the other side of his greatcoat. Nothing. Shrugging off the coat as worry crept in, he flattened it on the bed, then ran his hands up and down the length. There was nothing there. Blinding fury wrapped its claws around his heart as he beat back the fear that he’d failed his family. The wench in the street—he’d been so enamored by the beautiful contradiction of her that he’d not seen her true nature. She was a thief. Despair turning to rage, he clenched his fists as he turned over in his mind the best way to find her. Pacing, he pounded one fist into the palm of his other hand. She had been running from him, not because of the spark that had ignited between them, but because she was a cold-hearted criminal.

He sought out the Aberdeen authorities and found them on the opposite side of the port city, near the river. Stalking into the local constable’s one room office, he threw the door open, and it banged into the wall with a thud. Searching the small space behind the counter that greeted him, he noticed a man who appeared to have been napping but had been jolted by his sudden arrival. “I have been robbed,” he blurted as the graying man wearing a plaid tartan rose from his desk. “Whoa, hold on there. First, what’s yer name?”

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