The air in the kingdom was colder than usual, but that may have been because Savvy was hanging off a balcony by her fingertips. The ill-fitting dress she’d borrowed from one of the closed-up mageborn houses slid down another inch, threatening to reveal her breasts to the world at large.
Luckily, this wasn’t her world, and she didn’t give a flying crap if the entire upper class saw her naked.
She’d waited over a year for the chance to steal the amulet currently clenched between her teeth, and no amount of ball gown acrobatics was going to stop her from leaving this ridiculous party with her prize.
The night wind caressed her skin with chilly fingers, drying her sweat into an unpleasant sticky mess. Cam had warned her. He’d insisted the guards would get lazy and congregate on one of the balconies.
It wasn’t that she didn’t believe her know-it-all accomplice, Savvy had simply chosen the wrong balcony to vault over when one of the guards surprised her in the treasure room. She’d put him to sleep, but the effort had used up the last of that particular magic. When the other guards discovered him—and the missing amulet—she needed to be long gone.
With a shiver, she carefully adjusted her grip on the iron bars of the railing. If she stretched, she could touch the ledge in front of her with her toes, but not enough to relieve her shaking arms.
Her lips were slowly going numb from the slight magical vibration emanating from the trinket in her mouth. Annoying, but Savvy didn’t need her lips to escape. She did need the guards to stop chatting about yesterday’s betrothal before her arms gave out.
She’d chosen this balcony because it was on the lesser used side of the manor facing the overgrowth of the encroaching forest. Savvy dangled over the far edge of the outdoor space where the manicured perfection met the wild. Below her, a terrace jutted out from the main ballroom, but Cam had assured her no one used it. Large planters blocked the view from the rest of the party, and all the mageborn were there to be seen.
Personally, not being seen sounded divine to Savvy. Maybe she could drop down if she got the angle right. She snuck a glance over her shoulder to judge the distance and her breath caught. A man in all black leaned casually against the balustrade, staring up at her.
Vibrant green eyes met hers, and a buzz of awareness worked down her spine. This guy was mageborn—high mageborn, if the tingles chasing across her skin were any indication—but he didn’t dress like any of the nobles.
He dressed like he’d prefer to be ignored—like she usually did. Black on black in a fine tailored suit, but nothing to draw the eye. Another thief, most likely with the same information she’d been fed.
His eyes flicked down away from her face for a moment, and Savvy realized he had a direct view up her voluminous skirt. Most mageborn would wear some sort of petticoat under a dress like this, but Savvy hadn’t had time to find a pair that wouldn’t hinder her. She wore her usual boy shorts. Comfortable, but not all that common in the kingdom of Demar.
Her undies were the least of her problems. One word from him would alert the guards.
Locking one arm, she quickly let go, pulled the amulet out of her mouth, and stuffed it in her cleavage in one smooth movement. Her loose hand locked onto the bars again, and she took another look at the man.
He pushed away from the railing and came to stand below her with his arms up, his fingers inches from the toes of her boots. Savvy frowned at him, but he quirked an eyebrow and beckoned her down with a twitch of his fingers.
She shook her head, but the guards started arguing loudly with each other. At this rate, she’d fall and miss the terrace completely before those buffoons moved on to another room. With a frustrated sigh, she acknowledged that she could use his help. Silently. In her head.
With her eyes locked on his, she let go, half expecting the rival thief to drop her. He didn’t.
He moved forward to catch her weight with his hands at her waist and lowered her slowly to the ground. Savvy’s hands landed on his broad shoulders, and by some miracle, her dress stayed in its upright position. Face to face with him, she could see the slight tilt of his lips—and the tick of his jaw when she slid her hands down his chest to push him away.
Savvy cleared her throat and remembered the polite manners they expected at a place like this. Just in case she was wrong about the rival thief thing. “Thank you.”
He inclined his head. “It’s not often I have to rescue ladies at mageborn balls.”
She sent him a tight smile. “My lucky day then. If you’ll excuse me.”
The warmth of his gaze followed her into the ballroom proper, but the man didn’t move from his spot on the terrace. With her chest strangely tight, Savvy scanned the room full of bedecked idiots. She’d make a killing picking pockets, but Cam had been clear that she needed to get in, steal the bauble, and get out as fast as possible.
Savvy hiked up the borrowed gown and patted her hair. Several locks had escaped the loose bun, but she hoped it said whimsical flair rather than a windblown mess. The whole night had almost been a disaster after Cam’s information turned out to be slightly inaccurate.
Before she’d made it past the refreshment table, several men in guard tunics entered the room from the far doorway. Savvy slowed her stride and pretended to peruse the snack offerings. Their pinched expressions told her these guys weren’t just doing their rounds.
When the guard she’d slept popped his head around the archway, Savvy cursed. He should have been out for at least another hour. Someone had countered her magic. Worse, he’d seen her face. Only a glimpse, but any chance that he might recognize her was too much.
She turned on her heel to head back the way she’d come—maybe she could drop down to the wilds from the terrace—but two guards stood at attention by the doors. They’d definitely notice if she disappeared over the side of the building, and she hadn’t prepped a fast escape.
Get in, get the amulet, get out—without anyone seeing her—then she’d meet up with Cam at the inn in town. Except that guard had seen her, and the way he was scanning the faces around him made her think he’d gotten more than a passing glimpse.
Savvy turned her back to him and shoved a tiny cake in her mouth. Her brows rose at the sweet taste of strawberry. Unlike back home, strawberries were rare in this world, and she wished she had pockets to smuggle some of these out to Cam. If she made it out.
Guards manned every entrance, and a slim thread of panic began to weave its way through her system. She hadn’t intended to actually attend the ball honoring the royal family. Her dancing skills were mediocre, and anyone who took a close look at her dress would realize it was made for someone several inches taller.
It didn’t matter. Savvy Beck did not give up.
After all the shit she’d been through the last few years, she could definitely bluff her way out of this ballroom. With a glance around to make sure no one was watching her, she made sure the amulet was secure in her pitiful cleavage and headed for the dance floor. The guard who should have still been sleeping gestured to another one and nodded in her direction. Damn.
She kept her eyes trained on the far side of the room where a set of double doors were held open by stiff-necked servants in brocade vests. The invitation-only inner sanctum of the Solas family, mageborn owners of the estate—and former owners of a magical amulet that could theoretically create portals to other worlds.
Worlds like hers.
Savvy did not have an invitation, but maybe one of the twirling dancers would have some magic she could use. Ahead of her, a willowy, dark-skinned woman in an intricate silver gown smiled up at her dance partner dressed in a suit made entirely of gold fabric. They looked like a celestial painting. The sun and the moon dancing across the sky. Or at least the ballroom.
The strange thought made Savvy think there had to be some kind of illusion magic involved. They’d do.
She slowed her steps to get the timing right. They came within reach just as they started a complicated turn. Savvy trailed her fingers along the woman’s exposed back as they passed. The tingle of magic raced up her arm, and the dancer stumbled.
While her partner fawned over her, Savvy moved away with a sigh. The woman’s magic wasn’t useful after all. Some kind of decorating sixth sense that would be zero help in getting past the doorway.
The guard who’d seen her made his way gingerly through the dancers, apologizing profusely. His deference—and his susceptibility to her magic—meant he was probably lowborn, a small relief. At least he wouldn’t be able to contain her without help.
The music changed to a slower tune, and couples filled the dance floor. Savvy lost sight of the guard, then sucked in a breath when a hand pressed against her lower back. She spun, prepared to defend herself if need be, but the sexy thief from the terrace caught her wrist.
His lips twitched. “Jumpy, are we?”
Smoothly, he wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled her closer. For the second time that night, Savvy found herself held against him. The simple black suit hid a deceptively strong body.
He moved to the music, barely more than a sway, and she followed. His fingers spread fire across her back, applying pressure until her hips were neatly trapped against his.
Savvy started to scan the room again, but his voice stopped her.
“Eyes on me, unless you want to draw attention to us.”
Her gaze clashed with his, and a spike of heat filled her belly. His lips curled up into a smug grin. She hated that she’d immediately obeyed him… and that he seemed to know how much it bothered her.
“If you say good girl, I will knee you in the balls and take my chances with the guards.”
He chuckled. “What’s your name?”
She’d learned early on to be careful answering that loaded question. Only the mageborn in this kingdom had two names. If she gave him the truth, he’d think she had some level of magic. He wouldn’t be wrong, but Savvy preferred to keep her private details private. Then again, she’d have more leverage if he saw her as an equal.
With a mental shrug, she told the truth. “Savvy Beck.”
He tilted his head to study her face. “Savvy?”
She sighed, surprised he’d focused on her unusual first name. “It’s short for Savannah. Sort of a family tradition.”
He nodded and swept her into another turn. Savvy thanked her lucky undies that the dances in Demar weren’t stuffy choreographed affairs—and that her surprise partner apparently knew how to lead—or she’d already be on her way to a jail cell. Probably located in a dungeon far, far below this sprawling mini-castle.
Savvy raised a brow. “No second name?”
“None I want to share at the moment.”
His secrecy lent weight to her first impression of him. “How mysterious.”
He spun her out in a maneuver she wasn’t aware her feet knew. On the return, he wrapped both their arms around her and pulled her back against him. The position gave Savvy an excuse to scan the room again. The problem guard was still missing, but none of his cronies had joined the search. They stayed stationed at each of the exits, watching the party-goers with sharp eyes.
His arms wrapped around her waist and across her chest, trapping her own hands against her body under his.
Keiran lowered his head to whisper in her ear. “I can get you out of here.”
Savvy patently ignored the tingles that spread down her neck. “I can get myself out of here.”
He released her, drawing his arm away slowly and trailing his fingers along the low neckline of her dress. “I have an invitation to visit the private Solas wing of the estate.”
She narrowed her eyes at him. Even Cam hadn’t been able to gather an invitation. Either this guy actually was a noble or he was working on a level she and Cam couldn’t reach with their two-man operation. Generally, nobles didn’t need to steal, but the artifact was a special circumstance.
He probably had a benefactor that wanted the amulet. The real question became if he knew she’d already stolen it.
Either way, his invitation would prove significantly less painful than leaping off the balcony into the wild. “What do you want in return?”
Keiran drew her against him again, holding her gaze. “Maybe I simply want to help.”
Savvy snorted. “And maybe I can disappear.”
He tilted his head at her with a speculative look. “My reasons are my own, and your time is running out.” Keiran nodded toward a set of guards at the opposite side of the room who were stopping the dancers one by one.
She cursed as the song came to an end. “You win. I accept your offer.”
His lips tipped up at the corner. “I have the feeling this is a rare occasion. Should I worry about your quick surrender?”
“You were the one who pointed out I have little time.”
He nodded his head and linked their fingers together. “Follow my lead and don’t speak.”
Savvy tried to keep her face pointed away from the guards actively searching for her. She was tempted to let her hair loose, but she’d dusted it with powder to look much lighter than her natural dark brown. If they escaped, she didn’t want to give the Solas family any extra information they could use to find her.
Keiran seemed to be aware of her internal battle because he took a winding route off the dance floor that ended with barely a pause as they passed through the double doors to the private wing. He led her down a grand hall and opened the door to a room that looked like a Victorian man cave.
The well-stocked bar under the window drew her past dark, heavy furniture and soaring bookcases filled with tomes. Several glass decanters gleamed with amber liquid that she knew from experience tasted nothing like the whiskey back home. She wrinkled her nose and moved the drapes to peer out the window.
One side of the estate was a full level higher than the other thanks to the rolling hills surrounding it, which meant the ground outside was either one story or two below the ledge depending on their direction. Under normal circumstances, she’d simply climb down, but unless she wanted to do it mostly naked, her options were limited by the ridiculous ballgown. In a pinch, the drop probably wouldn’t injure her too badly.
Darkness greeted her, along with her reflection, so she couldn’t tell which side of the estate they faced. Not the front, which was well-lit by lanterns—the same ones scattered around the man cave—and probably not the back considering she’d seen the lowborn out there spreading glass balls filled with twinkling magic among the garden.
“What are you searching for?” Keiran sounded like he already knew the answer.
Savvy replaced the drapes, marking the window as a last resort. “An exit.”
“That way involves a steep drop onto sharp hedges… and the window is sealed with magic.”
The wrong side of the estate then. She turned to find Keiran leaning against the wall next to the door in a similar pose to the one when she’d first seen him—relaxed but alert. The flames from the ornate fireplace painted him with a golden glow.
“I thought you were getting me out of here?” She raised her arms to encompass the room. “This is still very much inside.”
“You’ll have to be patient a little while longer.” His magic crackled along her nerve endings like the flames in the grate, warm and dangerous all at once. She’d never felt someone else’s magic quite so physically.
For a brief moment, Savvy considered taking from Keiran. He’d know. She didn’t have a single doubt that he’d feel the drain and figure out the cause. That was why she generally stuck to the less powerful among the mageborn.
Back on Earth—before she’d gotten stuck in this world—she’d chalked the tingling feeling up to a sixth sense, and she hadn’t been wrong. Most people there weren’t aware of their innate magic, or so she assumed.
She hadn’t been aware either until her sister, Ashe, had demonstrated what magic looked like when it was used with precision and purpose. One hell of a shock for two kids trying to survive the foster system in the backwoods of Georgia, and the beginning of a long argument about power begetting responsibility.
Savvy felt plenty of responsibility—for Ashe—and despite being stuck on separate worlds, she wouldn’t fail her sister again.
Ashe didn’t have the tingle scale to tell her the relative power level of the people around her, but she set off Savvy’s senses like no one else, until tonight.
Keiran rivaled Ashe in pure power, but without sampling, Savvy couldn’t tell how his power manifested. Just because she could steal the magic, didn’t mean she could control it. Sometimes, the power fit nicely inside her and no practice was needed, like with the sleeping magic. But more often, she had to keep a tight rein on whatever she took so she didn’t end up transformed into a salamander or something.
Savvy shuddered. Those were the longest two days of her life.
Keiran cocked his head as if listening, then straightened. “You need to hide. There should be enough room behind the settee for you.”
She planted her hands on her hips. “What the hell is a settee and why am I hiding?”
He nodded at the long, raised couch that sat angled to the fireplace. “We’re about to have a visitor.”