Rejecting the Rogue – Riley Cole

I ve got you now, you beauty.” Philomena Sweet tapped the mechanical drawing spread out across her desk and grinned. She’d found it, the way to defeat the newest, the most magnificent, safe in history. If her calculations were correct, it shouldn’t take thirty seconds to breach. She would have savored her victory a moment longer, had it not been for the explosion. To be fair, it was rather mild as explosions in her house generally went. Even so, it was strong enough to make the chandelier swing and slosh the last of the excellent Darjeeling out of its cup. She whisked the plans away from the spreading tea. Obtaining the drawings for the newest Dreadstone Superior had been terrifically difficult. It wouldn’t do to lose them before she had the specifications committed to memory. While the chandelier above her squeaked like a child’s swing, Philomena rolled up the large pages. She glanced at the overwrought casement clock she’d inherited from her mother’s maiden aunt. The brass cupids on either side of the clock face glared back. Their plump cheeks suggested an appreciation for mischief and gaiety. The hard set of their eyes did not.

Clearly, their appreciation did not extend to safecracking. She stuffed the plans back into the carrying tube and rose from her chair. Poking her head out into the hallway, she called for the houseman. “Mr. Hapgood?” The family factotum emerged from the parlor across the entryway, a dust rag in his rawboned hand. Though his tall frame was beginning to droop from the top like an aging daffodil, he still moved with the grace of the fisticuffs champion he’d been in his prime. “Miss?” “I’m certain my cousin is uninjured, but would you mind checking on him?” she asked. “And please remind him that our client will be here directly.” The tall man nodded and finished drying his hands on the dust rag. “Mrs.

H just took the scones out of the oven, and tea is brewing. I’ll collect Mr. Edison.” He took off toward her cousin’s laboratory at the back of the house. “I can’t imagine Edison will be pleased that recipe.” Philomena’s younger cousin, Briar, commented as she descended the stairs. “I thought he was working on a new sleeping draught. It’s supposed to render one unconscious in an instant. Can you imagine?” Her wide blue eyes twinkled. “So many possibilities.

” Philomena watched her cousin float down the staircase. The deep plum satin of her walking dress suited her creamy complexion to perfection. As always, her coiffure looked as if it required hours to complete, rather than the few minutes it took to twist that abundance of golden curls into submission. Meena patted the swept up twist Mrs. Hapgood had managed to make of her own ordinary brown waves. Both Briar and Edison had inherited their taste for danger—and their exceptional hair—from the Sweet side of the family. All she’d gained from the male side of the line was her talent for thievery. Briar caught sight of her and paused, a delicate hand on the banister. “Again?” She frowned. “Meena, you’ve worn that fusty old thing three times this month.

” Meena tugged the tight, buttoned sleeves of her linen day dress further down her wrists, her movements a touch more forceful than necessary to straighten the delicate material. “I like this gown. It’s elegant.” The charcoal broadcloth with its severe lines and tastefully draped bustle felt rich, like one of Mrs. Hapgood’s dark chocolate bonbons. Smooth and satisfying and devoid of irrational frippery. “It is elegant. I was just hoping you’d wear the new dress, the yellow one with the…” Briar’s hands fluttered as she searched for words. “The lower neckline. It’s ever so much more—” “Inappropriate,” Meena interjected.

“I was going to say, ‘daring.’” Briar pinned her with a look that would have done a schoolmistress proud. “Dressing to be noticed isn’t a bad thing.” Meena couldn’t agree. While Briar exuded the wild beauty of a riotous climbing rose, she herself preferred the potted aspidistra, serviceable in its way—and even given to blooming on occasion— but unlikely to cause an observer’s heart to race. Briar hurried down the last several steps and crossed the foyer. “It’s not as if you’re completely on the shelf.” She brushed a sprinkling of plaster dust from Meena’s shoulder. “You might find yourself wanting to attract the right sort of notice someday.” Meena laughed.

“Six and twenty is on the shelf and dusted over, I should think.” “Don’t be thick.” Briar swiped a last bit of dust from Meena’s dress. “You could sparkle if you chose.” “And should I wish to, I know exactly who to consult.” Meena patted her younger cousin on the arm. A hopeful look flickered across Briar’s face. Meena ignored it. “I don’t believe it’s anything we need to put on our schedules just yet.” Or ever.

Sparkling, shining, standing out in any way was the last thing a safecracker sought. Even one who only used her talents for good. “That day may come sooner than you think.” Briar tossed off the enigmatic statement and sailed past her into the study. “Where is my dagger?” Briar hunted between the great stacks of papers Meena had pushed the sides of her desk. “I hate being unarmed when we have company.” She crossed from the desk to a pie crust table beneath the front window and fished about behind a dusty-looking fern, finally holding up a wicked little knife. “There you are.” Cobwebs clung to the leather-wrapped hilt. With a frown of distaste, Briar swept them off before scrutinizing Meena again.

“Where’s your derringer?” “We’re meeting a new client. She doesn’t need a weapon.” Briar’s older brother, Edison, strode into the comfortable room, looking exactly as one would expect after being subjected to a minor explosion. His thick auburn hair stood on end around his handsome face, and his unfastened collar bowed out, away from his firm jaw. As he walked, he was shrugging into a linen jacket. Briar intercepted him, fastening his collar and doing what she could to smooth down his wild locks. As his sister fussed, Edison stood uncharacteristically still, watching Meena. “You haven’t told her.” Briar gave her head a quick shake. “Not yet.

” The inventor fixed his sister with a hard look. She brushed a rogue curl out of his eyes. “I haven’t found the right time.” A faint growl rumbled in his broad chest. Meena stopped in the middle of straightening her desk. “Tell me what?” Her cousins glared at each other, each daring the other to speak. “It’s nothing.” Briar waved a hand in the air. “The merest triviality. We can discuss it later.

” She stared pointedly at the angry cupid clock. “Our new client will be here any moment.” Eyebrows arched, Meena crossed her arms over her chest and stared at the pair of them, willing one of them to crack. Unfortunately, both cousins appeared to be temporarily immune to her powers. Edison brushed imaginary dust from his waistcoat. Briar tested the tip of her dagger with a forefinger, avoiding Meena’s gaze. Meena planted her fists on her hips. “You ordered more of those Chinese throwing stars, haven’t you?” She sighed. “Briar, they are dreadfully expensive.” “No!” Her cousin’s eyes rounded surprise.

Then she blinked, making her face carefully blank. “I mean… maybe.” Meena opened her mouth to scold Briar for her spendthrift ways, but the sharp thunk of the door knocker interrupted her. Before Mr. Hapgood showed the man into the study, Meena stared down her cousins. “I had better not find out you two have been hiding something.” If she didn’t know Edison so well, she would have sworn a touch of fear flickered across his face. But Edison being Edison that surely could not have been the case. Their newest client was such a bundle of nerves, Meena worried he might crumple straight to the floor. Although he couldn’t have been more than eight and twenty, the young gentleman looked gray and lifeless as an old man, as if every bit of joy had been drained out of him.

Indeed, were his fingers not busy crushing the brim of his fine silk hat, Meena would have taken him for a statue. Or a corpse. Not even Mrs. Hapgood’s brambleberry scones could put color in the man’s cheeks. The fact concerned her not a little. Clearly, whatever had brought him to their door was trouble of the most dire nature. He perched on the very edge of the sofa, like a well-dressed mouse, ready to flee at the merest hint of danger. “Please, Miss Sweet, I was told you’d be able to help me.” She smiled encouragingly. “That may well be the case, Mr.

Montague.” “I was such a fool. Don’t know why I even kept a damned journal.” His fingers bent the brim of his hat. “My career will be ruined.” “And you know where your journal is now?” Meena prodded gently. He laughed, a harsh, unhappy sound. “He showed it to me. The villain actually showed it to me. He opened the safe in his office and waved it in my face.

” Edison’s eyes narrowed. “Then he suggested you pay him to return it.” “Worse.” Montague stared at the floor. When he looked up, the pain in his eyes was so clear Meena had to look away. “I clerk for the prime minister,” he said. “Have done for over five years. The bugger said he’d need a favor some day. Until then, he’s keeping my journal.” He sucked in a shaky breath and met Meena’s gaze.

“It won’t end with one, will it?” “Doubtful, Mr. Montague. Most doubtful.” Meena refilled her tea. “It’s a lucky thing your friend passed on our card.” She eyed her cousins. “This is precisely the sort of thing we handle, is it not?” “Most assuredly.” Briar smiled at the young gentleman, which seemed to bring at least a hint of color to his cheeks. “Who is this beast?” Montague’s shoulders sagged. “Reginald Blackborough.

” “Blackborough, the crime lord?” Edison cut Meena a look. “The man eats kittens for breakfast.” “He may well do.” Meena tapped a finger against her thigh. “But Mr. Montague’s journal is in a safe. At the risk of sounding immodest, we excel at safes.” Edison’s left eyebrow rose almost to his hairline. “I’m not concerned about the safe.” Briar appeared to be studying the dagger she’d placed next to the teapot.

“Surely we can find a time when this Blackborough creature is out and about. If he is such a fearsome warlord—” “Crime lord,” Edison corrected. Briar rolled her eyes and continued. “Yes, fine, crime lord. He must spend a great deal of time running about the city, committing crimes, mustn’t he? It won’t take Meena two ticks to retrieve Mr. Montague’s journal.” She favored the fragile-looking young man with a dazzling smile. “My cousin is amazing with safes.” “Won’t be amazing once Blackborough figures out we’ve taken the journal.” Edison sat back, a scone in his large hand.

“A man like that will get the information one way or another. His sort always does. Then he’ll come after us.” He jerked his chin toward their guest. “He’ll come after you as well.” Edison bit into his scone as if the defenseless pastry were at fault. Meena stared out the window, sipping her tea. She barely noticed the robins flitting through the branches of the delicate ginkgo at the edge of the street. Edison had the right of it unless… She set her cup down. “Only if this Blackborough knows it’s gone.

” Three pairs of eyes blinked uncomprehendingly. “Mr. Montague’s journal.” Meena flattened her palms on her thighs, waiting for them to catch on. “We’ll simply replace it.” Edison stopped, mid-chew, and grinned. Briar clapped her hands. “Brilliant!” Poor Mr. Montague still looked lost. “I’ll replace your journal with a fake,” Meena explained.

“You could make up another, innocuous one, could you not?” The man gulped. His thin chest rose and fell with the weight of an enormous breath. “I could do, yes. But would that—” “Perfectly safe.” Meena waved away his concern as she topped off his tea. “As long as Blackborough believes he has your journal, there’s nothing to fear.” Montague’s hands shook as he accepted the cup. “But what if he—” “If he found out, he’d want to kill someone,” Briar pointed out unhelpfully. “Why would he find out?” Meena argued. “Men like Blackborough collect power.

He may never hold Mr. Montague to account, but if he does…” She shrugged. “Mr. Montague can call his bluff. Let him try to publicize the journal. Besides, by the time Blackborough chooses to blackmail Mr. Montague, he’ll have no idea who switched the journals.” Edison ran a hand through his thick hair, making it stand up like a bristling hedgehog. “We’d have to be careful.” “When are we not?” Edison folded muscled arms over his chest and studied her.

“I mean most exquisitely careful.” Meena shared a look with her cousin. Neither needed to detail the horrors that would rain down on them if London’s most fearsome crime lord caught them. “Agreed,” she said finally. She leaned forward, arms resting on her knees in a most unladylike manner, and gazed full into their client’s pinched face. “We’d be delighted to assist you.” Mr. Montague’s reaction was less than she would have wished. Indeed, the man looked even more dejected. If such a thing were possible.

He shook his head. If his shoulders drooped any further, they would have met his hip bones. “I can’t ask you to do something so dangerous. It’s out of the question.” “Make no mistake, Mr. Montague.” Briar stared hard at their wilted client. “My cousin won’t be working alone. We’ve become quite a team, if I dare brag. There’s nothing we can’t accomplish when we work together.

” The man took in a long, deep breath. It nearly restored his torso to its full height. “If you are absolutely sure. Then yes, I would very much like you to retrieve my journal.” He sat up straight for the first time since he’d entered the room. “I’m prepared to live with the consequences. Far better than living in fear.” Meena clapped her hands. “That’s the spirit.” She rose.

“If you could get us a new journal as quickly as possible, we’ll be ready to act as soon as an opportunity arises.” Once again, Mr. Montague looked less thrilled by her pronouncement than Meena would have liked. “Is there a problem?” He stood, his fingers mangling the brim of his hat. “I haven’t much money.” He held out a hand as if to forestall her reaction. “Don’t mistake me. I’m happy to pay whatever you charge. It’s just that, on a clerk’s wages…” His voice trailed away. “It may take me some time.

” “Is that all?” Meena waved him off. “Remuneration is unnecessary. We consider our work a service to the community. We ask only that you yourself pledge to help others as the need arises.” Edison acknowledged her with an almost imperceptible bow and one of his infrequent smiles. It was the equivalent of a standing ovation from anyone else, and it warmed her to the core. Only years of insightful investing on her part had made that possible. Without her skills with money, the three of them would still be stealing to survive. Now, they only stole to save others. Mr.

Montague sagged as if his knees were buckling. When he lifted his head, she detected the sheen of tears. “Thank you.” His voice was thicker, rougher. “Thank you all.” With a deft swish of her skirts, Briar rose as well. “It is our pleasure. Assisting those who have been wronged is something of a calling for us.” Edison grunted and moved to help his sister see their client to the door. Meena sat back against the firm cushions of their old black sofa, appreciating the way the bright summer sun illuminated the delicate green leaves of the trees lining the street, enjoying the surge of excitement that never failed to set her nerves tingling when they started a new case.

A safe. A fearsome crime lord. An injustice to be righted. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the very thought made her blood sing. “We’ll need a way in,” she noted once her cousins returned. Mrs. Hapgood, their housekeeper, cook, and woman of all trades, bustled into the room with a fresh pot of tea. “This Blackborough’s putting on a ball. It’s in the Daily Mail this afternoon.” She answered Edison’s unasked query.

Briar hurried to take the heavy tray from the older woman. “Isn’t that convenient? We’ll need new dresses. Daring dresses.” Meena chose to ignore the pointed look accompanying that pronouncement. “A ball would make for easy entry,” Edison pointed out. Mrs. Hapgood handed him the last scone from the plate. “According to the Times, Blackborough’s celebrating that cursed Egyptian treasure he’s got. Thinks Society’s going to treat him respectable like since he’s handing it over to the museum after the ball.” She shook her head.

“Plenty of ninnies in Society, that’s for certain, but how that horrible man thinks his money will make people forget how he earned it.” She snapped up Mr. Montague’s cup and his unfinished scone. “Have you told her?” she whispered as she brushed past Briar. Briar avoided looking in Meena’s direction. “Not yet.” “No good can come of that,” the older woman muttered on her way back toward the kitchen. Meena studied her cousins. Edison was staring up at the chandelier and Briar was studying her reflection in the blade of her dagger. No matter.

She’d have their secret out of them soon enough. In the meantime, they had a break-in to plan. She grabbed a pen and a stray slip of paper, eager to begin. The potent combination of challenge, intrigue, and danger facing them tingled like a stiff shot of whiskey. Edison stretched his arms overhead and winced. Clearly, he wasn’t as unaffected by his recent mishap as he’d let on. “That artifact should bring plenty of interest. Probably be more of our sort there than guests.” “Indeed.” Meena tapped the pen against her pursed lips.

“It would be convenient to let Blackborough think we’re after it as well.” Briar bit her lip and sent her brother a covert glance. “We really do need to…” Her voice trailed off as Mr. Hapgood appeared. “Mrs. H says dinner will be at six pm.” The houseman glided toward the door, but stopped in the doorway, turning back toward the group. His mouth was pinched in an uncharacteristically stern line. He folded his long arms over his chest and focussed on her cousins. “You haven’t told her, have you?” Both Edison and Briar squirmed as if they’d been caught with their hands in the cookie jar.

“Fine.” Briar threw her hands up. “I’ll tell her.” She turned to Meena. Her mouth was set, as if she were about to swallow a vile potion, or have to relinquish one of her precious throwing stars. “Well, apparently… that is, we’ve become aware that…” Her hands fluttered at her waist. “Oh let me.” Edison’s voice seemed edged with impatience, but the concern written so clearly on his face made Meena’s stomach tighten. “It’s Crane.” He stared into her eyes.

“He’s back in London.” The room seemed to expand and contract all at once, bringing tiny details into sharp focus. A child’s laughter filtered in from the street, only to be drowned out by the heavy rattling of a delivery wagon lumbering past, which made the desiccated leaves of the fern in the corner tremble. Meena’s heart waited several long seconds before it resumed beating. “I see.” She strove for a nonchalant smile. “Is that what you’ve all been fussing about?” Both Briar and Edison were watching her intently, but it was the pity in Mr. Hapgood’s expression that punched straight through the icy facade she was attempting to fashion. Meena braided her fingers together, clenching them to still the trembling. “Well of course he has.

I’ve been expecting it.” Dreading it, really. The muscles in her legs trembled, making her feel as if she were hovering above the floor as she rose and sidled over to the far side of her desk. How silly that the mere mention of his name would be so discombobulating. That, she had not expected. The white heat of anger, certainly. A healthy dollop of embarrassment, possibly. Even a soupçon of regret, maybe. But not heartache. Not after all this time.

Meena sank down into her desk chair, arranging her skirts so the thick linen wouldn’t crush. “Thank you all for your concern, but it’s not necessary. I couldn’t give a rotten fig about Spencer Crane.” The lie came out more easily than she would have imagined. Edison’s hands flexed, rather as if he were imagining choking someone. “I can’t wait to run into the bastard.” That earned a grimace from his sister. “Not helpful,” she scolded, her tone laced with vinegar. She turned toward Meena. “I doubt you’ll see him.

It’s not as if he goes about in Society.” Edison sat back on the sofa, glaring at no one in particular. “He had better not.” Meena wished the buzzing in her ears would cease. She willed her mind to focus on anything but the memory of the last time she’d seen Spencer Crane. Unfortunately, it had been a vastly memorable occasion. “The useless sneaksman will most likely be in Newgate by the end of the month anyway,” Briar continued. “He’s not half the thief Meena is. Really, it’s a wonder the peelers haven’t caught him yet.” Meena closed her eyes, willing away the image of Spencer Crane’s unclothed body wrapped around an equally unclothed actress.

“… don’t you think? Meena?” Briar’s voice finally worked its way past the ugly memory, recalling Meena to the here and now. She forced her attention away from naked limbs and bedclothes tousled by love play. They meant well, her odd family. They loved her, and any one of them would give the earth to mend her heart. At the moment, however, she simply wanted to fade into the wallpaper. Mr. Hapgood attempted a well-intentioned smile, but he couldn’t seem to keep it from sliding back into a concerned frown. “I’ll just have Mrs. H make up a new plate of scones, then, shall I?” He squeezed her shoulder. “Times like these require extra icing.

” He slipped out of the room far more quickly than he’d entered. Disembodied as she felt, Meena knew Edison and Briar were watching her, worrying. Which she most dreadfully hated. She sat up tall, forcing her stiff shoulders back. “Well, then. If it’s to be a ball, I believe I’ll need a new gown.” A daring gown. A bewitching gown. A gown designed to remind one Spencer Crane exactly what he’d thrown away.

.

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