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The Wishing Heart
By J.C. Welker, Theresa Cole
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2017 J.C. Welker
All rights reserved.
Rebel had never met a lock she couldn't pick.
To her, survival came down to two things: thieving and wishes. She spent most nights wishing for magical and terrible things, such as touching the sky.
Such as flight.
That would be sublime. It would also make for an easier escape from the London apartment she'd just broken into. She balanced on the ledge of the open window, six stories up, before slipping into the loft's darkness. On the balls of her feet, she moved like a roving panther, as if each of her bones were built for this purpose. Moonlight trickled into the room, tracing over the masterpieces from dead artists lining the walls, the odd sculptures and antiques, which she could rank by mere touch the most expensive.
For a moment, Rebel wondered what it would be like to live here, to have such things. To have such privilege. Though a thief, she lived by a code: take only from the plentiful. Hence, they had plenty. And tonight, the plentiful could spare one fortune. She would kiss chance upon the lips until lady luck poured out her bounty.
As she moved from shadow to shadow, she felt the rush in her veins. One false step could trigger the alarm. But there was something thrilling about how the night challenged her to stay sharp, to rise against its darkness. She synchronized her steps, pivoting around objects and chairs. Just as her foot touched down on the Persian rug, the floppy sole of her boot snagged the corner and she stumbled into a table, knocking a sculpture off. It hurtled toward the floor and her hand darted out.
She snatched it up a second before it hit.
Silently cursing her boots, she placed the sculpture back. Then, like a magnet, she caught sight of the gold-framed mirror, the reason she'd chosen this apartment. Just as Jaxon had said where it would be, and more precisely, what it hid: a safe. Her hands twitched, the mirror gleaming at her like a signal. Safes equaled treasure, which would stock her belly with food not made of mush, shield her feet with boots absent of holes, and possibly rescue her from her most unfortunate life.
The moon was huge tonight and Rebel felt particularly reckless.
Holding her breath, she tiptoed to her reward. She gently pulled the mirror, swaying it off its hinges and away from the wall. There sat the titanium safe. A four-lock combo.
Locks were merely Rebel's invitation, just begging to be opened. Once she touched the combination dial, she felt an electric charge. Shock sensors. Ignoring the sting, Rebel spun the lock. Her fingers promised they wouldn't fail, and she trusted them. She might have been all dirty hands and bruised knees, but her "magical" fingers could steal the pants right off a stranger. With an expert ear and four turns of the dial — in a blink — the safe's bolt popped. A victorious smile consumed her.
It faded as she swung the door open ... Empty.
She was going to punch Jaxon.
Farther back, something glinted. As she peered deeper inside, the shadows seemed to fade at what sat within. A golden vase. Ancient symbols adorned its sides — swirls and little bird shapes — while gemstones encircling the base traveled up its neck like dispersing stars. Tingles rushed up Rebel's neck, her heart gave a jolt, and she grabbed the vase. "Hello, there," she whispered. "Aren't you a beaut —"
The shrill of an alarm filled the room.
Double-damn. She must've tripped the alarm.
She shoved the vase into her satchel and darted out the window just as the apartment's occupant snapped on the lights. A woman's scream followed as Rebel hopped off the fire escape, her questing feet finding every right spot and ledge, before she leaped soundlessly to the street without even a look back.
First rule in the thievery handbook: Never let them trap you.
Tuning out the screams, Rebel raced down the street and turned multiple corners, her hard-knock life eroding any guilt she should've had. Once she came upon Leicester Square, filled with nightlife, she flew by an alfresco café, snagging a chicken leg from a waiter's platter before he had a chance to turn his head. Her boots slapped against the cobblestones, drowning out his insults. Something about being raised by wolves.
Rebel snorted. If only. She felt more like a running oxymoron with a book in her bag and a switchblade in her pocket.
As she melted into the Square's crowd, her feet worked like a ballerina's, snaking and twisting through the wall-to-wall mass of people. Another jolt surfaced in her chest. She shook her head, ignoring the signals her heart was sending to slow down. When she came to an alley, she leaned against the wall, catching her breath, and spotted the figure adorned in his ridiculous fedora.
"Tsk, tsk." Jaxon winked, his eyes glinting under curled hair. "You know you can't sprint that far, love."
"Wouldn't have to." She punched his arm. "You're supposed to be my watchman."
"Warned you 'bout the alarm." He smiled, equal parts charming and cunning.
Ever since her former pickpocket days, they had become dual thieves. "The fox," Jaxon, did the casing. Rebel did the retrieving. She was the ideal combination of bandit and escape artist with hungry eyes for searching, whispering feet for jinking, and spindly limbs for slipping away unseen. And now at a mere seventeen, she'd stolen more than most of the jailbirds doing time.
"By your fleeing, I take it you found the safe?" Jaxon persisted.
She nodded. "How were you so certain it was there?"
"Every rustler has their secrets." He nudged her satchel. "So? Show?"
"The safe held this." Rebel opened her bag, broadcasting the vase snug within. The precious stones sparkled, casting a kaleidoscope of colors across Jaxon's face. His eyes widened and he reached out, but she snapped her bag closed. Second rule: Trust no one. Though she trusted Jaxon, shiny things often got the better of him. "You'll get your third of the money after I hawk it at Skinner's."
Jaxon scoffed. "I cased the joint. Planned it. Fair's fifty-fifty."
"Fair would be you risking something. I'm the one who sacrificed my hide. Hence, you get a third." She folded her arms, no room for debate.
"Your trust issues wound me deeply." Jaxon ignited his smile again. "Till tomorrow then. Good luck at the market."
"Divine intervention's on my side." She tapped the pendant around her neck.
Together they slipped back into the crowd, Jaxon heading south and Rebel north, taking her usual zigzag route. The night pulsed with a melody of languages from tourists snapping pictures in the Square. She squeezed through a group of tipsy college students pub hopping and withdrew the chicken leg from her bag, savoring a nibble. It was the first real food she'd had all day, not considering the slop from the Institute, which was unsuited for human consumption.
Keeping her other hand inside the bag, she fingered the vase. It seemed warm to the touch and those tingles came over her. A thrill surfaced as she imagined all the possibilities awaiting her, and she felt her pendant tap against her breastbone. Her good-luck charm. She couldn't remember a time when it hadn't hung around her neck.
The one thing she let get close to her heart.
When Rebel had been abandoned at the Institute as a child, a book and the pendant, hidden between its pages, had been left with her. No one knew the precise cause of her parents' abandonment, or if they still existed. But just like that — Rebel became a lost girl, the pendant the one token she had left of them. Engraved on its circular front was a rose in the shape of a star, and on the back unfolded a one-inch knife notched with the letters R.E.B.E.L., thus becoming her moniker. However, the real treasure was within the pendant: a faded picture of a raven-haired beauty who mirrored Rebel's features. Her mother, she liked to believe. Though she knew the charm held no real magic, it became magical to her.
A whistle sounded behind her.
She glanced over her shoulder and spotted a bearded man in a police uniform. Cock-up, she cursed. The chicken leg dropped from her fingers at the same time her feet quickened. He must have seen her nab the food. If he stopped her, he'd search her bag. Even in a crowd, she stuck out like a sore thumb with her too-small bomber jacket, ripped jeans, and boots seeming to have come out of a war. Her appearance screamed street urchin.
Worse — pickpocket.
As quick as a hiccup, she spun on her heel, darting down the street and through the crowd, which had multiplied upon a theater letting out. The buzzing voices and traffic drowned out the officer's shouts for her to stop. Thundering footsteps followed but her legs accelerated, and an ache built in her chest. Damn heart. It sputtered as she weaved in and out of people, praying for a distraction. She reached up, gripping her pendant for luck. Before she could cast her impossible wish, the heavens above unfolded, and the first splatter of rain caught her on the cheek.
Instantly, countless umbrellas opened up.
Tourists were always prepared. Rebel ducked low, the umbrellas concealing her from the officer's view as she shouldered through people, knocking some aside, and slipped between two buildings. Still, she didn't stop to catch her breath, even with her growing dizziness, even after she knew the officer tailed her no more.
Never let them trap you.
The winter rain pulsed against her face, drizzling into her eyes and matting hair to her forehead. Her breath bloomed into the air, and at last she came upon the grizzled Victorian building. Shadows engulfed the weathered sign: Gramone's Institute for Displaced Youth. Where the hopes and dreams of every abandoned kid — and troubled teen with the law — came to die.
Never did Rebel think she'd be happy to see it. With natural agility, she climbed the fire escape to the third floor and hoisted herself onto the window's ledge. From a pocket, she withdrew her trusty switchblade she never left the Institute without. To prowl the streets without security was to risk getting caught by the night's demons. The blade's tip fit into the window's latch. A click sounded, music to her ears, and the window unlatched. She shoved it open and half crawled, half stumbled inside.
For a moment, she lay on the floor atop a few books, shivering, her dark hair sprawling over the paperbacks like an ink spill. Her eyes flickered over the tiny room. Unlike the others at the Institute, Rebel was a lifer. The only good it brought her came in having her own space, even if it was a converted closet. Upon the walls, one shelf hung with dozens of snatched trinkets, while covering every surface of the place, piles of looted books lived.
Rebel might have stolen bling, but she hoarded stories.
As she breathed in, the books' presence cloaked her in a warm hug. To some, they were an escape. To her, they were family. Volumes upon volumes of first editions sat around her, which she'd liberated from a few scholars who were doing nothing but displaying them. What a waste. Each book had been stolen to take up a place in her heart. She'd read about places she'd never be able to go. Adventures she'd never experience. Fantasies of what her life might be if she were someone else. Someone healthier.
Rebel's breathing slowed but the dizziness lingered. Her heart twitched and wouldn't stop yelling. She fished a medicine bottle from her bag, popped the cap, and swallowed a pill.
"Well, if it isn't the charlatan, Rebel. Being chased again?" She stilled at the voice. Sasha. Her gaze traveled up to the brunette standing in the now open doorway. "Running's good for the heart," Rebel said between breaths.
"Not your heart." Sasha grinned and entered the room.
Staggering to her feet, Rebel removed her soaked jacket. All the while, eyes watched her. "Anyone teach you being in someone else's room is against the rules?"
Sasha snorted. "Like stealing? Your bag looks full."
"Indeed." Rebel warmed at the thought of the treasure inside.
"Oh? Steal me a shiny wristlet again? Another first edition of Shakespeare?" Sasha's lips quirked. Since the girl moved into the Institute months ago, Rebel had tried finding ways of impressing her. Imparting her with snatched jewelry, even going so far as writing a poem describing Sasha's eyes being as beautiful as a bird song, as gray as an ... oyster. Which resulted in Sasha laughing at her. And that was the end of Rebel's crush.
"Not for you," Rebel said. "I have more crucial things to steal for."
Sasha's brow furrowed. "Well, while you're looting, I'm getting out of this god-awful place."
Unlike most at the Institute, Sasha was just a troubled youth with parents who yearned to set her straight. Meaning the girl was a lucky one with a family. One more thing Rebel never had. She knew nothing of her parents, besides the pendant, the only indication to her roots. But that was Rebel. Unexplained. Undefined. Unsettled.
"Madame Gramone's looking for you," Sasha added. "Thanks to you skiving off your duties again, she's royally pissed."
Rebel simpered, removing her boots, and imagined the madame's vein popping in her forehead. "My life's more important than the crow's drudgery."
After a second, Sasha's expression turned enlightened. "That's your plan? You can't steal enough to fix your heart." Her words sounded bratty, but there was concern there.
"That's where you're wrong." Rebel slipped her hand inside her satchel, withdrawing the vase. As soon as the lamplight hit it, the gems glinted, casting a rainbow onto the dank walls, and she realized how heavy the vase felt, far heavier than she remembered it being.
Overcome with surprise, Sasha reached out, caressing the vase, and Rebel couldn't help but let her. As her fingers trailed over the gems — a jolt shot through it. Sasha snapped back her hand. "What was that?"
"Static electricity. It's solid gold." Rebel smiled.
Sasha shook her head. "You're going to find yourself surrounded by metal one day."
"Never been caught," Rebel stated, her truth and her prayer. Then she tapped her pendant. "I have my lucky ..." A sudden cough shook her, her heart twitched again, and she gritted her teeth against it. The pain on her face, or how awful the raccoon circles under her eyes were becoming, hadn't gone unnoticed.
With a sigh, Sasha said, "I'll tell Gramone you ... have food poisoning or something." She turned toward the door, but paused. "You can't wish your heart well, Rebel."
"You don't know that." Rebel glared. But as Sasha left, her determination wavered, and her ticker twitched again. Opening the medicine bottle, she downed a second pill.
A phantom condition. That's what the doctors termed it when she was younger, unable to diagnose the real cause. Her heart's palpitations beat chaotically, skipping and out of coordination with her breathing. But that was Rebel's life. Chaotic. Symptoms surfaced when she exerted herself — like say, running from an officer. Pills weren't enough, but someone like her couldn't afford the operation. At least, not one who hadn't a bejeweled vase.
A vase worth thousands of pounds.
Rebel truly believed she could steal her way to a healed heart. All she needed now was to hawk the vase at the Black Market, and she knew the sinner man for the task.
Stripping off her damp clothes, she dragged herself into bed, never letting go of the vase, wondering on tomorrow's promises. She drew the vase to her chest, to her heart, and whispered the words like she used to as a child. "I wish ..." She cast it up into the heavens.
When she was younger, she used to wish on many things, blowing on dandelions, lighting them on fire, or chasing star trails. Each time, she tied a knot in her hope and hung on tighter, casting the same pleas. She wished for a glimpse of her parents. Warmth in the winter. Slow kisses. A love that could mend a heart. To carve out a place of her own in the world. A home. She wished for something she could never reach, to wake up one day and feel whole ... Rebel wished.
As she did, she could feel the wish like a tangible object snaking its way around the walls of her heart. And when sleep pulled her into its embrace with a prayer still on her lips, the vase seemed to whisper her name. A tear grew in the crook of her closed eye and slipped down her cheek. As it landed on the vase, the jewels glowed for a split second, unbeknownst to Rebel. If only she knew more about vases. Or wishes.
Then she'd know just how unfortunate her life would become.
Excerpted from The Wishing Heart by J.C. Welker, Theresa Cole. Copyright © 2017 J.C. Welker. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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