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Once A Thief (The O'Neills of Piper Creek) (Volume 1)

By Lora Young

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Chapter One
Denver City, Colorado Territory, June 1872
THE NECKLACE GLITTERED in the light of the wall sconces. Gems like these could keep her off the streets for a month—maybe longer. Of course, if the law caught up with her, she’d be off the streets for far longer. Teagan Copperfield shuddered and glanced around the ornate hotel ballroom. Her hostess, Clarissa Bascomb, preened with delight, basking in the attention garnered by the emeralds hanging around her neck. The foolish woman took off the jewels and passed them to her friend, who passed them on to another woman.

When her turn came, Teagan fingered the stones. She judged their value worth the risk.

Her nearest neighbor, a middle-aged woman in a ridiculously ornamented dress, crowed at Clarissa’s latest inane remark. The woman moved a fraction forward, effectively excluding Teagan.

Ten feet away, the door to the kitchen swung wide. A young man entered the ballroom carrying an enormous tray of champagne-filled glasses. The door smacked the young man’s backside, and no amount of juggling could save the tray.

Amid the tinkling sound of breaking glass, Teagan smiled. With all eyes on the clumsy waiter, this would be the easiest job yet. Dismissing a brief sense of foreboding, she slipped the necklace through a slit in her ruffled skirt and into a special pocket in the petticoat beneath.

She meandered from one group of politicians to another, pausing long enough to be noticed, but always moving toward the exit. Once in the empty lobby, she stole a quick look over her shoulder, made a beeline for the door, and slammed into what felt like a rock wall. She caught a whiff of peppermint and leather before the man’s hands gripped her arms, steadying her. Heart pounding, she resisted the impulse to run.

Clear blue eyes gleamed with amusement, but the man didn’t laugh. “Hold up there, miss. Take it easy.”

Although not dressed in evening attire, the quality of the man’s tailored suit and the ease with which he wore it spoke of money. His rugged features and powerful physique told her it wasn’t city-earned. If he’d been part of the political machine in Denver City, she surely would have noticed him before tonight. She assessed the threat he posed and found none. “I’m so sorry, sir.”
“Are you all right? Is something the matter?” He released her.

“No. I mean, yes.” Her exasperated huff turned into a laugh. “Yes, I’m fine. No, nothing is the matter.”

“You’re certain?” The man’s eyes filled with concern.

“Yes. Uh…the ballroom is growing warm.” Certainly not a lie. Beads of sweat gathered at her hairline. She couldn’t think why her nerves prickled so. After all, it wasn’t the first time she’d ever appropriated anything.

“Your face is a bit flushed. Perhaps the evening breeze will help.” He ushered her to the door.

Sorting through her limited options, Teagan swept through the opening and measured the man’s words. If he intended to flirt, he needed lessons. But what else could he want? Whatever it was, he wouldn’t get it from her. She had a train to catch.

He followed her. “Feeling better?”

She turned to meet his gaze, noting the polite smile that played on his lips. Did his expression reveal approval? It should. Her gown had been made especially for this event, and she’d taken particular care arranging her hair. “Very much, thank you. There’s no need for you to trouble yourself further. I’d hate for you to miss the party on my account.”

“It’s no trouble, I assure you.”

The necklace felt like lead in her pocket. Mrs. Bascomb hadn’t noticed its absence yet. But she would soon. Teagan lifted her skirts as she descended the steps to the boardwalk. She should keep walking.

Perhaps her newfound escort would take the hint and leave her alone. He’d also be certain to mention to the authorities how eager she’d been to leave. Her trademark had always been her ability to es-cape unnoticed. She had to get rid of him. The sooner the better.

“I feel sufficiently recovered. Shall we return to the ballroom?” Once there, she’d send him for a refreshing glass of something and leave him to wonder how he misplaced her.

“I’d prefer not. I take little pleasure in attending large social gatherings. On top of that, I have no intention of contributing to Mayor Worthington’s bid for re-election.”

In spite of her predicament, she laughed out loud.

Her companion’s white teeth flashed in a grin that transformed his serious countenance. “I’d begun to worry about you. You seemed nervous, for some reason. Made me think you were afraid of me.”

An icy tingle raced up her spine. She refused to let her smile fade. “Why would I be afraid of you?”

“Lawmen and lawyers tend to inspire that feeling.”

“And which one are you?”

“The latter. Jared O’Neill, attorney-at-law, at your service.” He gave a little bow. “The phenomenon is especially prevalent if one has reason to feel guilty.”

Her heart thudded in her chest. Pull yourself together. Brazen through this. You’ve succeeded countless times. You can do it again. She broadened the smile and cocked a haughty eyebrow. “What would I possibly have to feel guilty about?”

“Surely a woman as beautiful as you are has reason for remorse. A passing moment of vanity. A gentleman’s broken heart. Any number of things.” His words contained nothing untoward, but the edge in his voice made her wonder.

“I assure you, sir, I—” A shout from inside the hotel startled her.

With a surprisingly mild oath, the lawyer spun around, grabbing her arm in the process. More shouts of alarm. He placed himself between her and the commotion as he stepped inside the lobby. They were immediately surrounded by confused men and frightened women.
She squirmed out of his grasp and let the crowd separate them. One last scan of the chaotic room. No one looked her way—not even the lawyer.

Several feet away, the man turned his head, searching the room. And then his eyes found hers. He knew.

She swore under her breath, as she hurried through the lobby and out the front door.

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