Once a Thief - By Frances Devine


Chicago, 1899

Ten-year-old Danielle shivered and crouched down lower as the cold November wind from off the Chicago River whipped around the huge crate. She wrapped one end of her mother’s tattered shawl around Jimmy’s painfully thin shoulders and drew him closer. They had watched, their stomachs growling, as the dockworkers sat down to eat their lunch. Now only one of the burly men remained, and Danielle’s gaze followed his hand as it carried a hunk of sausage to his mouth.

“What kind of ship is that, Danni?” Jimmy whispered.

Danielle’s gaze followed her brother’s pointing finger to a schooner just entering the harbor from Lake Michigan. Her breath caught in her throat as the sailors on board began to lower the sails. “I don’t know, Jimmy. It’s pretty, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, but why’s it full of trees?” A fit of coughing stopped the boy’s questions and Danielle patted him gently on the back.

A yell from the remaining dockworker caught her attention, and she watched as he jumped up and ran to help two other men lift a fallen beam from the deck of one of the schooners.

Danielle’s glance darted to the bread and sausage left on the upturned barrel. She turned her brother loose and jumped up. “Wait here.”

The little boy looked up at her with wide, brown eyes. “Danni, Mama wouldn’t want you to steal.”

Heat rushed to her cheeks and she hesitated. Jimmy was right. Mama would have been mortified if she’d thought one of her children would even consider stealing. But the hollow look of hunger in her brother’s eyes settled the matter. Mama was gone now and she had to take care of Jimmy.

She darted quickly around the crate and over wet boards to the wooden barrel. Grabbing the food, she whirled and ran back, yanked Jimmy up, and took off down the street at a dead run, half dragging, half carrying her little brother, with his crutch bumping along behind.

A shout from behind them warned Danielle they were discovered. Too late, she realized she should have crossed the Clark Street Bridge. There, she and Jimmy would have been lost in the crowded sidewalks of the downtown district.

“Faster, Danni, faster!”

The terror in Jimmy’s voice gave Danielle an extra burst of energy and she shot past an alley, only to be jerked to a stop as a hand reached out and grabbed her arm, yanking her around. She screamed and brought her arm up in front of her face, expecting blows to rain down upon her.

“Come on. I’ll show you where to hide!”

Surprised and shocked, she stumbled down the dark alley, following the strange boy around a corner, down another street and into a second alley, where he stopped at a doorway and inserted a key. Danielle pulled Jimmy through the door, and as the boy slammed it shut and bolted it, she fell against the wall, gulping air.

As soon as she could breathe freely, she looked at their rescuer, who was pounding his knees and laughing.

“What an adventure! You should’ve seen the bloke’s face when he saw his food was gone.”

“Well, Cobb. And who are your friends?”

Danielle’s head jerked up at the sound of the deep voice.

A man, dressed in gentleman’s clothes, stood in an arched doorway peering at them. He smiled and walked over. Reaching down, he lifted Danielle’s hand. “Welcome to our home, young lady. How may I be of service?”

Danielle pulled her hand away and shivered. Mother had warned her about strange men. Maybe they’d better get out of here. But just then, Jimmy bent over in a fit of coughing. She couldn’t take him back out into the cold. And after all, the man had sounded kind.


Chicago, 1907

Blake Nelson tried, to no avail, to keep the grin from his face. He was sure it was an idiotic grin, just as he was sure the butterflies in his stomach were dancing for joy.

But who cared? They loved it. All of it. His characters, the story idea, and most of all, his music. Just two more songs and a few changes to the story line and it was a sale. Mother and Father wouldn’t be too thrilled, he supposed, but Pop. . . Blake could always count on his grandfather to be excited for him.

He walked quickly down the sidewalk, hardly noticing the fresh fallen leaves that scattered about his feet. With umbrella swinging at his side, he pursed his lips and whistled the first few notes of a tune from his new show, Peg in Dreamland. His new