Description: The Lady Thief is the most famous criminal of her time, but ever since her brush with a spy named Devon, sappy love stories have replaced her previously imperious image. So when Devon and his team embark on a secret project designed to create the ultimate superhuman agent, the Lady Thief quickly discovers that infiltrating his team is more complicated than she ever imagined. Between her anger toward him for ruining her reputation and his growing affection for her cover identity, she is drowning in emotions she has never dealt with before. But when evidence points to a rival criminal messing with the team, can the Lady Thief walk away with a clear conscience, or will she risk everything to help the very people sworn to bring her in?
Prologue: Christmas Bells and Ice
“Nice try, Aaron.”
Those three words flitted across the screen, flickered, and died. Every light in the room followed suit, buzzing softly before they popped out. Before we could react, the electric locks snapped shut, trapping us in the surveillance room. Only the laptop, which radiated a bright, baby blue in contrast to the smoky darkness, retained its power.
Four pairs of eyes burned into the back of Aaron Fisher’s head, mine burning the brightest. As our appointed leader, we expected him to know everything, to never let anyone catch him off-guard—a high standard, perhaps, but one we held Aaron to because he never let us down before. This breach betrayed that trust, and it stung me especially hard. Aaron and I trained together, and even when he left to try working solo, we kept in touch. I watched him move up in the ranks, and I begged to join his team; I worshipped the ground he walked on.
Without a word, Aaron sat down at the computer and stared at it blankly. We knew he could feel our eyes on him, but he never let it show. He sat there, calm and composed, and some of the hero-worship came back, reaching Amy first, and then me. But I think Amy admired Aaron in a different way than I did. She admired him the way only a girl can admire a guy, and I simply admired the guy because he could do anything.
In his usual, brusque manner, he punched the keys as quickly as his fingers could move. “You have us at a disadvantage.”
Before Aaron could type on, Jared—always the sarcastic one—said, “That’s the understatement of the year.”
Aaron did not notice Jared’s interruption—or if he did, he gave no indication, since he usually ignored Jared’s snide comments anyway—but finished typing, “You know my name, but we don’t know yours.”
“I know all about you and your team. I know aboutDevon, Amy, Rachel, and Jared, too.”
I blinked in surprise to see my name first. Anyone who knew the team generally accepted Jared as the second-in-command, even if Aaron failed to notice this unofficial position. Something about Jared just commanded respect, and we listened to him without pause—unless, of course, Aaron told us something different. Usually, then, Jared’s name came after Aaron’s, and I celebrated if my name came third. It was an unofficial contest, a clash of egos, and I chalked one up for my almost-empty scoreboard.
We glanced at each other, the beginnings of fear etched into our faces. “How?” Amy whispered, her sharp,Kentuckyaccent slicing the word into two distinct syllables that sounded like “Hah-yow?”
“Because I always do my research before any job.” The words flashed, unbidden, across the screen—but Aaron did not type anything to elicit a response like that. In the back of my mind, I sincerely hoped the person on the other end of the conversation merely added that to explain how she knew about all of us, but somehow, I doubted that. My training told me to accept the more dangerous answer as the truth; that way, I could prepare for the worst.
Rachel edged closer to the laptop, her dark, slender fingers curling around the back of Aaron’s chair. In her surprisingly calm, gentle voice, she asked, “Can you hear me?”
“Yes,” came the reply from the laptop.
The slender fingers tightened their grip on the chair, the only sign that the reply shook her. I admired her self-control; I could already feel my knees starting to tremble. It took a lot to scare me, so when something threw me off like that, it meant trouble. Big trouble. Every nerve in my body stood on edge, screaming at me to get moving, to find a way out of that locked room, but my feet refused to respond.
“Who are you?” Rachel whispered, her lips moving only enough to allow room for the words to escape through—another sign of her anxiety. Oddly enough, I found some comfort in her fear; at least it justified mine.
A single white line pulsed on the edge of the screen.
“You really don’t know, do you?” The words appeared slowly, letter by letter, as if the one typing could not believe our ignorance.
“‘Course not.” Amy shrugged, never at a loss for words. Her red hair bounced up and down as she tossed her head impatiently, obviously sick of this “mystery typist” routine. “This was s’pposed to be a routine mission. Why’d you think they sent us?”
“I wondered.” The words flickered on the screen, and seconds later, the laptop turned off, leaving us in total darkness.
Without the influence of that faint glow, the spell broke. I heard the faint squeak of a swiveling chair as Aaron stood quickly to scan the room. I snapped on my flashlight to inspect the door, and Amy tucked her hair up into a ponytail to keep it out of her face while she dived under the control panel, hoping to restore power. She put her flashlight between her teeth and pried off her gloves so she could work more easily in that tangle of wires.
“What can we do about the locks?” Aaron asked, all business again. I smiled at that; at last the Aaron Fisher I knew and admired returned.
“They don’t have a manual switch,” I said, examining the steel door. “Unless we get power back, the doors stay closed.”
“Whose idea was that?” Jared growled from the other end of the room while he and Rachel searched for anything to pry open the doors or hot-wire the controls.
“The prince’s,” Amy spat, crawling out from beneath the mess of cables. Amy did not care much for the spoiled boy who hired us to protect him and his prize, probably because he considered her a simpleton because of her accent. If the prince took the time to learn more about Amy, he would regret his condescending tone. I never met anyone smarter than her; she could take apart and reassemble anything electronic in a matter of minutes, she invented most of the gadgets our team carried, and she helped me pass our cryptology class back in basic training.
“Can you fix this?” Aaron asked, hoping that Amy could pull another miracle out of her cowboy hat, as she usually did.
“Nope,” Amy said flatly. “The whole ship runs from one spot—this spot. If we don’t have power, there’s no power anywhere at all.”
“So much for top-of-the-line technology,” Jared grunted.
“From what I can tell, whoever trapped us in here hacked into our system to shut it down. I can’t do anything without power because there’s nothing outside of the stupid computer,” Amy growled, and then she kicked said computer to prove her point. “Our best bet is the door.”
I shook my head. “It’s essentially glued shut, and the prince had the door reinforced with several layers of steel. There’s no way we could break it down, either.”
“What about the air vents?” Rachel offered.
“You expect us to fit through that?” Jared scrutinized the tiny opening, looking skeptical. “I’d come out looking like I got run over by a steam roller!”
“I’ll try,” said Rachel, pulling her hair into short pigtails on either side of her head to keep it out of her eyes. She rolled up her sleeves, pointedly glaring at Jared to show that she actually meant it when she suggested the air vents; how dare he question her ideas? I fought back a smile at that look; Aaron could pull rank on Jared, but only Rachel could really handle him.
Aaron leaned down and brought his hands together to give Rachel a lift. She placed her white tennis shoe in the makeshift sling, and Jared offered his knee for another step up. A few quick flicks of her pocketknife took care of the screws, and the covering clattered to the ground. Her slender body slid neatly through the opening, and she hoisted herself up into the duct.
Amy, with a running start, sprang off of Aaron’s hands next. She flailed her arms, almost too short to reach, but her hands caught the edge of the duct, and she, too, climbed in, flashing us one of her signature, wide grins as she waved at us. “Well, at least now I’m taller than you three,” she chuckled before she ducked out of sight again.
Jared climbed up onto the nearest desk and tried to hoist himself up, but no matter which way he turned, he could not fit his broad shoulders through. Aaron, with his football-player build, did not dare try. That left me. Not that I have a scrawny build or anything; I just have a swimmer’s body—not quite broad, but still well built, I guess. Aaron offered me a leg up—while Jared stood to the side and smirked at the three-inch height gap between him and me that meant I required Aaron’s help to reach the duct—and my shoulders barely slipped past the narrow opening. Once I had my upper body through, I could pull myself up the rest of the way.
Once inside, I saw broken cobwebs to my left and right where Rachel and Amy passed through. That left the middle unexplored, so I took that path. The vent underneath me felt a bit unstable, like crawling on laminated paper, and I could hear my every move echoing back to me, announcing my position to any possible intruders. Wincing, I slowed down the pace, and the echoes stopped.
My knees shuffled behind me as I army-crawled through the vent, checking every turn for an opening. Unfortunately, the offshoots of this particular vent system only led to inner rooms, and I ended up travelling back to the original tiny central tunnel. I scrunched my shoulders closer to my body as the passage narrowed, but the unmistakable breeze coming from up ahead killed whatever curses I started to grumble.
I heard voices wafting through the tunnel, echoing off the dark, silver walls—voices I did not recognize. Fighting the urge to crawl faster toward the intruders, I actually slowed down my pace so I could hear them better.
“It’s got to be somewhere on board,” said a harsh voice. “Splitup and start searching.”
“It would be easier if the power grid wasn’t knocked out. All the doors are electrically bolted shut,” a different voice grunted in reply.
“So get a blowtorch,” said the harsh voice, as if the solution should have dawned on the other speaker ages ago. I identified this voice as the leader; the bossy attitude and the self-righteous tone gave him away.
“How utterly unimaginative,” remarked a new, feminine voice that rang like Christmas bells and yet cut me, chilled like ice. It also radiated confidence, and I wondered, for a moment, if I judged too hastily. Maybe this voice belonged to the leader, and the bossy, self-righteous man I heard earlier simply wanted to lead—like Jared wanted to run things while Aaron actually called the shots.
A gunshot followed, echoing loudly in the compact duct. I winced, but the shot was not intended for me. Sheer silence filled the air, so that I could almost breathe in the icy coolness of that silence. I held my breath and willed my heart to calm down; my cover had not yet been blown.
Slowly, the bell-voice started to laugh. It started as a short grunt, and then a cold, cruel, musical laugh that both repelled and captivated me. “As I was saying,” the voice continued, in an amused, almost sarcastic sort of way, “you have absolutely no imagination. A blowtorch? Really? Besides, you got here too late. I have the chemical, as well as the formula. Not that you’ll get either. I memorized and destroyed the formula and the notes, and the chemical—well, I have that on me.”
I sailed through the air duct toward the breeze, hoping to get a better look so I could identify the thieves—and they were thieves, I knew, since the bell-voice admitted to stealing the chemical and destroying the formula. As I moved, though, my walkie-talkie blared Amy’s voice, “What happened? I heard gunshots.”
Surprised, I tried to turn in the cramped space to smother the walkie-talkie, but to no avail. Two more shots rang out, intended for me, not the bell-voice. And I did not—would not—laugh when the bullets barely missed.
Big, hairy hands yanked the cover off of the air duct, and a bearded, red face appeared in the opening. Bloodshot eyes met my green ones, but I did not have enough room to maneuver to reach my revolver. The smelly hands grabbed my wrist and yanked me out, almost dislocating my shoulder.
“Look what I found,” sneered the man with the bloodshot eyes.
The light blinded me momentarily, and then I saw her, that dazzling vision of darkness. She ate the light around her with the blackness of her form. The occasional glint of silver—the edges of her helmet, the band around her upper arm, the bands that hung loosely around her waist—glowed in comparison to the dark depths of her black suit, the black gloves, black boots, black helmet. I recognized her picture from movies, from newspapers. The Lady Thief.
“I caught him eavesdropping,” explained the man whose hands wrenched my arms behind my back and took my gun away. I wanted to hit myself for my stupidity, and yet, somehow, I expected this. I always managed find myself in trouble. Aaron called it my unique talent; I called it downright annoying.
It seemed odd that the bell-voice could come from that dazzling vision, and yet, it made sense. Somehow, the voice inspired visions of sparkling stars and simultaneously froze my blood. No, not quite. My blood did not fully freeze, but bits of it froze, and those icy, glass shards pierced my skin like tiny needles.
“Hello,Devon,” she said, and for some reason, I felt my stomach jump up into my throat at the sound of her voice saying my name.
“You two know each other?” The rough hands relaxed their grip—no one wanted to offend the Lady Thief, not unless they had a death wish.
“I know all about him, and he at least recognizes me, so I suppose you could say that.” The ice melted, and Christmas bells rang again as she laughed.
I decided to keep my mouth shut and let the Lady Thief keep talking—she handled the situation so beautifully before—maybe she could talk me out of this, too. She turned to look at me, and I held her gaze, chin raised. At least, I think I held her gaze. I could not see her eyes behind that helmet.
To my surprise—and apparently hers, judging by her gasp—the ringleader, the one with the scraggliest beard, suddenly lowered his gun at my chest. The hairy hands tightened their grip; I tried to twist away, but my arms caught fire, and the searing pain immobilized me.
“All right, Lady. You’ve got five seconds to hand over the chemical, or this kid gets it.”
“I think you’re overestimating our relationship,” the bell-voice said coolly, though with an almost undetectable pitch of panic. “Devonand I know each other, but we play on opposite teams. He’s a spy; I’m a thief. You’d be doing me a favor if you got rid of him—it would be one less obstacle.” I did not appreciate her calling his bluff with my life in jeopardy.
The ringleader looked from me to the Lady Thief, and then back to me. He chewed his bottom lip thoughtfully before, without warning, he raised his gun again. He fired three shots in rapid succession—one at her heart and two at her head. She fell backward, and something metal rolled toward me. The men around me chuckled at their leader’s tenacity, and the man who held my arms twisted them harder as he laughed. My eyes brimmed with tears of pain, and I squinted to see what had rolled away—part of a black helmet.
Looking surprised, the ringleader said, “That was too easy.” He licked his lips and then leveled his gun at my chest.
Something dark and fast hit the ringleader, knocking him over. The shot went wide, and I only realized I closed my eyes when I opened them again.
The ringleader lay unconscious on the ground, and the Lady Thief stood over him. She kept her head turned so I could only see her helmet, but I could see the serrated edges where bullets met metal. Blue sparks danced across her helmet, and she yelped in pain and surprise, yanking it off.
“Short circuit,” she explained tersely, but I hardly heard her. I saw only two turquoise eyes set in a perfect, pale face. She tucked her hair into a bandanna, so I did not see it. But I knew I would never forget that face as long as I lived—which might not be long, since I had seen her face, and the Lady Thief survived on secrecy.
“I suggest you let him go now,” the Lady Thief said to the man holding my arms, her voice colder than ice so that even I felt a thrill of fear, even though I knew she just saved my life.
The gruff hands, trembling, released me, and the man stumbled away, along with the rest of the thieves. I rubbed my arms tenderly and then looked up to see the turquoise eyes staring intently at me.
“You owe me your life,” she said, her voice suddenly soft but still cold, like snow.
“Thank you?” I offered, though I knew mere thanks would not satisfy her.
She shook her head. “You know I can’t let you live if you know who I am. It would ruin everything. But, if you give me your word that you won’t give me away, I’ll consider the score even, and I’ll let you live.” I knew I could not hope for a better offer, but something stopped me, made me question it.
“How do you know I’ll keep my word?” I asked, curious. Why would she let me go? How would she benefit from letting me live?
“I know everything about you, remember? I know where you live and where your friends and family live. The results would be…unpleasant for you if you broke your promise.” Her lips curled into a smile, but this one did not chill me. So, I decided to call her bluff.
“And what if I don’t agree to your terms?” I did not know where this newfound courage came from, but I worried it would just dig me deeper into trouble—all part of my so-called unique talent for danger.
The turquoise eyes narrowed, annoyed, and she checked over her shoulder to make sure the gruff thieves could not see us from their getaway boat. “Well, then, I’ll have to finish off what they didn’t.” She brandished a silver pistol from a hidden pocket on her hip, pointing it carelessly at my heart.
“I dare you,” said my newfound courage, even though my head screamed at my mouth to please shut up.
Her turquoise eyes widened, and ruby-red lips parted in surprise. “You know,” she mused, recovering slightly, “most people would be groveling right now.”
“Hey, don’t get me wrong,” I said, my confidence boiling over. “I’d like to stay alive just as much as the next guy, but I don’t think you have the heart to kill me.”
The silence spanned for an eternity, and it spanned for seconds. Her gloved hand, trembling with rage, tensed up, ready to pull the trigger, but instead, she sighed and shoved the pistol back into its pocket. Through gritted teeth, she asked, “Name your price. What’ll it take for you to keep your mouth shut?”
“Who’s groveling now?” I grinned. I knew I went too far even before the gloved hand balled up into a fist. Glove met jaw, and I stumbled sideways, almost losing my balance.
“Don’t push it,” she sneered. “There are other ways to hide my identity.”
Rubbing my jaw, I could not quite recover my earlier confidence as I said, “I want the chemical back.” Carefully, I pressed a tiny button which activated the recorder on my wrist, hoping to have some concrete evidence to use against her. I covered the movement by pretending to massage my bruised arms.
She knew better. Her trained eyes saw the watch on my wrist, and she snatched it, crushing it beneath her boot. “Just name your terms and get on with it,” she snapped. “And no tricks, or you just might find yourself marooned on an island or something. I’ll come up with a fair punishment; believe me.”
“No, I really want the chemical back,” I pressed.
“After all the work it took to get it in the first place? You’re kidding, right?” she scoffed, turning away to leave.
“Let’s see. Turquoise eyes, pale complexion, very defined jaw line, high cheekbones,” I listed. “Should be enough for any artist to draw your picture.”
She stopped, and I could see a small vein pulsing in her neck. “Fine!” she shouted at last, throwing the chemical at my feet. The tiny vial bounced neatly, barely a scratch on it. “You do know, of course, that I memorized the formula anyway. It won’t do you any good to have that.”
“Just a little memento.” I grinned casually.
“How ‘bout another one?” she smirked, and bells rang in my head as her glove connected with my eye. “And you can tell everyone where you got the black eye from.”
Tired of letting her beat me up, I threw my own punch, but she caught my fist in one swift movement and twisted it behind me so suddenly that I let out an involuntary gasp. She laughed again, but this laugh chilled me instead of enchanted me. I tried to wrench my arm out of her grasp, but every time I moved, it hurt more.
“You have the chemical, now keep your word,” she whispered tersely in my ear, her warm breath tickling and sending shivers down my spine at the same time. “From here on out, we’ll pretend this never happened. And don’t try a stunt like that again. You’re only alive because I can fight. Don’t try to push me.”
She let go of my hand and started to walk off. Suddenly, she paused, almost as an afterthought. “You’ll need an alibi,” she said, and ice ran through my veins as the ruby-red lips parted into a smile.
I saw the heel of a boot, and then darkness.