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Authors: Jennifer McGowan

A Thief Before Christmas

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Acknowledgments

No story comes to readers without the grace of caring people. Special thanks to my agent, Alexandra Machinist, who championed this idea from the moment I shared it with her; and to my editor, Christian Trimmer, who makes everything shine. I am also deeply grateful to the entire staff at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. From copyediting to cover art, they have ensured that this story is a wonderful addition to the Maids of Honor series. I am very blessed to have such experts on my team.

CHAPTER ONE

DECEMBER 1558

LEEDS, ENGLAND

I wouldn't have noticed the letter at all—except there were two of them.

“Ah, ah, ah! Keep yer 'ands to yerself!” Remarkably fast for her age, Agnes Farrow batted away my attempted grab. Which meant I could only frown as the two perfectly folded pieces of parchment drifted down to join the other bits of refuse huddled in a small pile at the old woman's feet.

A much larger and decidedly more intriguing pile of coin and jewelry was growing upon the pallet where Agnes was tallying our day's work. I told myself that's where my focus should be. That was certainly where every other member of our company's focus would be when they joined us in these cramped rooms, after the Golden Rose acting troupe's second performance of
Christmas in Canterbury
finished out on the inn's wide courtyard.

“Hooray! We're rich!” A tuft of white-blond hair atop a boy made up of more trouble than sense darted in front of me. I reached out and hauled the boy back before Agnes could have a chance to box his ears, never mind that he was her youngest grandson, the light of her own long and weathered life.

“Meg!” Tommy Farrow yelped when he realized who'd ensnared him. He bounced up on his toes in excitement. “What did you get today?”

“A fat lot more than you!” Agnes's tone was fierce, but there was no escaping the look of indulgence in her bright brown eyes as she gazed at Tommy and shook her head. “When will you learn to tap men and ladies of worth, Tommy-mine? Paper won't feed the troupe.”

“But how'm I to know what a pocket holds before I pick it?” Tommy shot back. I lifted my brows. He'd stolen the letters? Their worth should have dropped down a notch for me at that. Tommy knew how to steal only whatever was completely worthless.

As the boy leaned over Agnes's pallet, quite capturing his grandmother's attention, I used the distraction to edge behind him and scan the pile of discards again. The letters were still there, of course, nearly hidden beneath sprigs of mistletoe and a half-finished knitted mitten, random bits of glass beads, and rags. Rags were the most common thing one found in pockets, as a fat body was generally a prosperous body, and every man from servant to sovereign wanted to
look
rich, even if he wasn't. Accordingly, a thief had to be shrewd, or she'd end up with nothing but a fistful of useless wool for her troubles when what she needed was a flush money pouch.

Still, the letters disturbed me. Why were there two? Where had Tommy come by them? In all of the cities and villages in which we performed and plundered, writing was a rarified act that not even the gentry usually possessed. And parchment itself was not cheap. Yet here were two letters that were not only carefully folded over and sealed with wax, they contained no ink on the outside surface . . . squandering wide expanses of the linen-pale parchment that normally would be written over once—and possibly twice—to save money. More interesting, the letters looked worn, the both of them, as if they'd been carried around in their owner's pocket for an age.

Who wrote a letter never to be sent? And why on earth would he do it twice?

“Oh, Grandmother! Look at this!” Tommy exclaimed just then, and I leaned over and scooped up the missives in a blink, tucking them into my skirts even as Agnes slapped back Tommy's hands to set her pile of gold to rights.

“Enough, boy, enough!” she snapped, now serious. “We've precious little time as it is.”

She glanced up at me and I nodded, surveying the lot on her bed myself with a critical eye. “We can sell a good bit of the jewelry, but not here. It's too dangerous,” I said, sighing. “The money will be all we can use.”

“Maybe. Maybe not.” The rich, commanding voice was right at my side, and I felt the flush blaze up my cheekbone even as the young man who possessed it leaned past me to nudge a few of the larger bits of jewelry aside. “This is a better haul than I would have expected.”

“Master James, you should see what I found!” Tommy flung himself first at our troupe master's knees, then grabbed his hand and gave it a hard tug. “I stole letters! And they . . .” He frowned, looking down at Agnes's feet, but I was spared his discovery of the letters' disappearance by James's hearty laugh.

“Leave off, Tommy-lad.” He chuckled easily, but his gaze was already finding mine. “We've a dealer in the dining hall, Meg, ready to buy some goods in exchange for Christmas cheer. But he'll trade only with a woman. Says it's safer.”

Agnes snorted beside me. “Shows what 'e knows.”

Still, I didn't like the sound of this. “It's too soon, too close,” I murmured, glancing toward the doorway as if I expected a brace of magistrates to bear down on us. Troupe Master James had done a fine job of guiding our loose collection of thieves and actors since my grandfather had passed in late summer, but he always seemed to go a step further than he needed to for safety. “How do you know he won't turn us all in?”

“I've worked with him before.” James also shifted his gaze to the door and so avoided my startled glance. “And the timing seems good to speed us on our way.”

I nodded, but my attention had already returned to the pile of gold. We needed to be leaving
this
fine establishment soon; it was true enough. Eventually those lords and ladies who were now a little lighter in the purse would notice their misfortune, and when they did, we needed to be long gone from the Horse and Pony Inn, dispersed across the city and into the countryside, until we could regroup and move on to the next town. Pity, though. Leeds had been good to us. “What of Meredith and Matthias?”

“That's the other reason we need to make the sale,” James said. “She's nearly ready to have her babe, unless I miss my guess, and he's useless with worry. There's no telling when she'll go, but I think it will be soon.” He scowled. “We can't travel until she does.”

“So we need to get her a clean inn and food. Somewhere nicer than this place.” I scanned the pile in front of me. “Jewelry?”

He shook his head. “Just the jewels themselves. Whatever we can knock out. The rest we'll melt down when we have a chance. Always a market for pure gold.”

Before us, Agnes was already sifting through the pile, her knife flashing in quick, efficient strokes, prying out the biggest stones from their settings in bracelets, rings, and necklaces. As she freed a gem, James would hold it up to the thin light streaming in through the window, make a calculation, and then hand the stone to me. From there, the pieces went into my bodice, waistband, and pouches, depending on their size and heft. With a dealer, you always started with a mid-grade stone, then moved up, then down, then up again, to keep the man engaged. “Will he buy the lot or is each piece subject to—”

“Quiet.” James turned sharply to the doorway, his head tilted. I couldn't hear as well as he could, but I knew what had caught him just the same. There was a sudden sense of wrongness to the building in which we stood, a change in the tenor of the crowd's conversation below that made the fine hairs on my arms stand up.

Magistrates had entered the main hall of the Horse and Pony Inn, even as, in the courtyard outside, the Golden Rose acting troupe thundered through the last remaining scenes of the play that had so distracted a score of cloth merchants and their woolen-headed wives. Had the magistrates caught us? Were they headed up the stairs even now?

“Agnes, take Tommy and the rest of this down the back stairs. Squall at him the whole way if you must. Make as much noise as you need. Dump the useless stuff in the river and keep going. We'll meet you at the Cock's Crow.”

Tommy's eyes were wide. “But what if we get caught?”

His grandmother just humphed, gathering the gold bits and remaining jewels and coin into long, thin pouches that she then hung on leather belts beneath her voluminous skirts and even down the center of her generously cut bodice. James tousled Tommy's hair again. “You won't get caught, lad,” he said easily. “We'll hold their attention.” Then James turned and offered his arm to me. I joined him, painfully aware that I now carried enough stolen gemstones on my body to be hanged a dozen times over, if I was caught.

So I'd just have to not get caught. . . . Never mind that we were about to negotiate a sale of stolen goods in a room full of magistrates. What could be easier?

Master James winked at me. “Let's see if we can put your acting skills to the test, Meg Fellowes.”

CHAPTER TWO

We strolled slowly down the staircase as a dozen and one ideas for our newly minted roles came to me and were discarded just as quickly.

“Husband and pregnant wife?” I suggested.

Master James shook his head. “You're too skinny.”

“Newlyweds?”

“Too plainly dressed.” James's gaze had snared on a bolt of cloth sitting half open against the wall, its oilskin wrapping revealing just enough to mark it as the white-washed woolen goods of Leeds. After decades of being known merely for its raw wool, the city was making a name for itself as a cloth-maker as well, and the fabric was emerging as the area's biggest seller.

Still, we could hardly wrap ourselves in the stuff. We were almost upon the inn's main hall, and I needed at least
some
preparation. “Lovers?” I tried again, rather hoping this would be the act he'd choose for us to play out. I didn't want to examine too closely why I was hoping this, of course.
I just need the practice,
I assured myself.

But it was not to be. “Hardly.” James wasn't looking at me, though; he was still caught up by the abandoned bolt of cloth against the wall. “No one would believe it.”

Irritation slashed through me. “Father and daughter, then?” I gibed.

That drew a slanted glance from him. I did my best to look innocent, though inside I fumed. Master James was not so much older than I as that, though he treated me sometimes as if I were still a toddler at my grandfather's knee. But I was seventeen years of age! That made me a woman in body, even if not in experience.

And how was I to
get
experience in this kind of interaction between a man and a woman, if no one in the whole entire troupe would deign to kiss me?

But now we'd reached the last step, and James patted me on the hand, his smile eager and self-satisfied. I grinned back up to him and quirked a brow. He'd clearly decided what roles we would play, but I couldn't read the man's mind. “What?” I asked through clenched teeth.

“Craftsman and assistant, having just made a killing at the market, completing orders enough to keep us afloat for months. Ah. There's my associate: third table on the left from the wall. I'll fetch us ale while you approach him.” He glanced down at me. “Look crafty.”

I rolled my eyes but stepped under the spruce-decorated doorway of the main room of the inn and headed toward the third table on the left, my smile broad, my eyes alight with avarice. I thought I had an idea of what Master James had planned, and when I reached the table where his associate sat, I gave the man a saucy tip of my head. “I hope you have something worth our while,” I said cheekily. “We've done very well this week, selling our goods. My master is in a mood to buy, and I'm in the mood for something pretty.”

To his credit, the young man betrayed no surprise as he stared up at me, a smile curving his lips. “Miss Eunice, Merry Christmas!” he said warmly, and I bit back my surprise and dismay at his name choice. “Theodore Minsk, at your service.” He clasped my hands, bringing them to his lips and holding them there overlong. “You are a vision and deserving of everything that glitters. Clodpole Bailey can be a difficult man to work with, 'tis certain.”

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