Stealing Jake - By Pam Hillman



October 1874

“Where’s my little brother?” Luke glared at the man with the jagged scar on his right cheek.

“You do as I say, kid, and he’ll be along shortly.” Pale-blue eyes, harder than the cobblestone streets of Chicago, bored into his. “Otherwise, I’ll kill him. Understand?”

Luke stood his ground, memorizing the face of the man who’d paid off the coppers.

“Get in.” The man motioned to a wooden crate not much bigger than an overturned outhouse.

Luke crammed in, the three other boys squeezing together, making room. Nobody said a word. Nobody cried. They didn’t dare. Scarface would kill them if they disobeyed.

Luke knew he’d been stupid. He’d tried to teach Mark the art of picking pockets, and they’d gotten caught. But instead of going to jail as expected, money had changed hands, and they’d been handed off to the man with the scar.

And now Luke would be shipped out of Chicago. Without Mark.

He pulled his thin coat tight around him and curled into a ball for warmth.

Bam! Bam! Bam!

Luke shuddered with every slam of the hammer against the nails. He drew his knees to his chest, shivering. This time not from the cold.

Bam! Bam!

He pinched his eyes closed, fighting the urge to throw up.

His heart raced faster than the first time he’d picked a pocket.

Where was Mark?

Chapter One

Chestnut, Illinois

November 1874

The ill-dressed, grimy child jostled a broad-shouldered cowboy, palming the man’s pocket watch. Gold flashed as the thief discreetly handed his prize to another youngster shuffling along the boardwalk toward Livy O’Brien.

Livy didn’t miss a thing—not the slick movements, not the tag-team approach. None of it.

Neither boy paid her any attention. And why should they? To them she was no more than a farmer’s wife on her way home from the mercantile or maybe one of the workers over at the new glove factory.

If they only knew.

Her gaze cut to the man’s back. When he patted down his pockets and his stride faltered, she made a split-second decision. As the thin boy with the timepiece passed, she knocked him into a pile of snow shoveled to the side of the wooden walkway. She reached out, pulled the child to his feet, and dusted him off so fast he didn’t have time to move, let alone squirm away. She straightened his threadbare coat, two sizes too big and much too thin for an icebound Illinois winter. “Oh, I’m so sorry. Did I hurt you?”

Fathomless dark eyes stared at her from a hollow face. Eyes that reminded her of her own in the not-so-distant past. She wanted to hug him, take him home with her.

“No, ma’am.” The words came out high-pitched and breathless.

“Hey, you!” The man hurried toward them.

Fear shuddered across the boy’s face, and he jerked free of her grasp and darted down a nearby alley.

Livy let him go and stepped into the man’s path, bracing herself as he slammed into her. The impact sent both of them hurtling toward the snowbank. The stranger wrapped his arms around her and took the brunt of the fall, expelling a soft grunt as Livy landed on top of him. Her gaze tripped off the end of her gloved fingers and collided with a pair of intense jade-green eyes. She stared, mesmerized by long, dark lashes and tiny lines that fanned out from the corners of his eyes. A hint of a smile lifted one corner of his mouth.

A slamming door jerked Livy back to reality.

Heat rushed to her face, and she rolled sideways, scrambling to untangle herself. What would Mrs. Brooks think of such an unladylike display?

“Ma’am?” Large, gloved hands grabbed her shoulders and pulled her to her feet. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine.”

“Those kids stole my watch.” A muscle jumped in his jaw.

“Are you sure?” Remorse smote her with the same force as that of the stranger’s body knocking her into the snow. She’d reacted, making a split-second decision that could have resulted in catastrophe.

“Yes, ma’am.” He patted his sheepskin coat again. Suddenly he stilled and removed the watch from his pocket. “Well, I’ll be. I could’ve sworn . . .” He gave her a sheepish look. “Sorry for running into you like that, ma’am.”

Livy breathed a sigh and pulled her cloak tight against the cold. Disaster averted. Forgive me, Lord. I hope I did the right thing. “That’s all right. No harm done.”

The stranger pushed his hat back, releasing a tuft of dark, wavy hair over his forehead. “I don’t believe we’ve met. Jake Russell.”

Her gaze flickered toward the alley that had swallowed up the