Tempting the Thief – Riley Cole

The letter, when it finally came, offered everything Briar Sweet had hoped for. The type was crisp, the words cut into the expensive stationary with a mechanical precision her brother, Edison, would have admired, but nervous energy made her so light-headed, she could hardly read. Be careful what you wish for, indeed. She dropped the paper as if it were on fire. It skittered across her desk with a soft swishing sound, more of a sigh than a shout. Rather mundane, considering the blasted thing was the key to the new life she craved. It landed faceup, a few lines of type finished off with an exuberant signature. The Wilson Detective Agency would be pleased to accept her request for a position with the company’s new office. She snorted. Well, of course they were. She was, after all, eminently qualified to be a private detective. Between her facility with disguises and her deadly aim with a knife, she had to be among the top female candidates. Indeed, Gordon Wilson himself had found her worthy of joining his exclusive new agency in America. San Francisco, to be exact. Did she dare accept? Could she really leave her friends? Her family? The League? She groaned and dropped her head down onto her folded arms.

It had all sounded so wonderful last week, when she’d agreed to an interview. A fresh start in a new city… Was there anything more exciting? Sunbeams danced through the windows of the Restitution League offices, making the typewriters and telegraph machines sparkle. The desktops and wainscoting reflected the light in richer tones. Everything about the space suggested quick minds and modern methods. And competence. They always took care to project an air of utter confidence in their work. And she’d had a large part in creating their successful venture. The Restitution League helped people, desperate folk who had nowhere else to turn when powerful men, and too often women, tried to destroy their lives. Things would go on without her, certainly, but now that it came down to it, could she let it go? Wilson wanted her on a ship by the beginning of July. Packing for such a venture would take a week, at least, leaving her only a week—two at most––to make up her mind.

It wasn’t as if she hadn’t been considering it. She did agree to the interview, after all. But Wilson’s offer morphed the whiff of possibility into solid reality. Somehow, she hadn’t been prepared for that. Head still bowed, she swiped at the letter, sending it spinning across her desk. Who was she fooling? There wasn’t anything to decide. Adventure shimmered right in front of her. The truth was their family, and their League, wasn’t what it had been only a year ago. Meena and Spencer had a beautiful baby girl to keep them busy, and Caleb, the staid, reliable inspector, had taken off for Egypt with his newfound love. Even her blockhead of a brother, Edison, had managed to stumble into true love.

Which left her on the sidelines, and rather lonelier than she wanted to admit. Somehow, when she wasn’t paying attention, she’d become the wizened old aunt. The spinster aunt. Ugh. That she couldn’t stomach. When had their little group changed so much? Soon it would be left for her and their office staff, Nelly to carry on. Henry, their new errand boy, might stay on for another year or two, but she sensed he’d be on his way before long as well. Then what would she do, simply watch as every other member of their little family found their heart’s desire? Not likely. She shoved her chair back and jumped to her feet. Nervous energy propelled her to the tray of throwing knives in the back corner of the room.

She grabbed one and hurled it at the target on the far wall. The blade bit into the outer ring of the cork with a satisfying thunk. She chose another, taking a moment to appreciate the exquisite balance before she sent it spinning through the air. Family aside, there was nothing for her in London. Who’d consider courting a reformed thief? No one but a criminal, scallywag, or con artist. But she was through with that life. Had been since the age of eighteen. Truly, she had precious few options for companionship. Ordinary men ran screaming the instant they learned that she had better aim, quicker reflexes, and a powerful taste for danger. Which left her fellow reformed criminals, and they weren’t exactly thick on the ground.

If one discount her brother, Meena had probably snapped up the last one. Where was a woman like her to find a soul mate? The choice was glaringly obvious. In a rowdy, thriving town like San Francisco, where people from all walks of life reinvented themselves as they saw fit. It sounded grand, except for the part where she’d have to tell her family. After a thorough questioning of her motives, her martial arts teacher, Master Tadeoka, would smile stoically and wish her a safe journey. Edison would yell and stomp about, a menace to toes and porcelain objet d’art. Their houseman, Mr. Hapgood, would frown like a sad puppy, while her cousin, Meena, would endeavor not to look hurt. But Mrs. Hapgood would cry.

That would rip her heart straight out. Briar bit her lip. Just thinking about it made her own eyes water. She dashed the tears away. No way around it, if she took this new position with the Wilson Agency, there’d be hell to pay first. But she could think about that later, after she ran out of things to hurl. She snatched up her favorite knife, the one with the scratch in the handle. It had saved her life during that madman’s attack. If she hadn’t had it tucked into her corset, his ice pick would have pierced her heart. She ran the pad of her thumb over the ding and eyed the target, letting her mind clear as she prepared to throw.

Before she could let it fly, the front door inched open, breaking her concentration. She palmed the haft. Awareness shot through her limbs, making her light and ready for action. Meena and Nelly weren’t due back from their trip to the British Museum for hours yet, and no appointments had been scheduled. Her fingers tightened on the weapon as she turned to face the intruder. Two fresh young faces appeared in the open sliver of doorway, one above the other, each framed by an expensive-looking hat. “Goodness, she’s even prettier than I imagined,” said the one on the bottom, her voice an odd combination of breathy admiration and lazy upper-crust vowels. The top one scrunched up her nose. “She doesn’t look like the sort to smash an evil maniac in the face with a butter dish.” “No, she doesn’t,” the smaller one agreed.

“That’s what gives her the element of surprise.” She shoved the door wide and stepped inside, pulling her companion along after her. Briar could only blink at the two young society misses now huddling in the entry, fashionable skirts spilling into the room. She set the knife down. The girls were elegantly dressed, their gloves blindingly white, the tips of their impractical shoes unscuffed. Most unlike the desperate working people who generally sought the League’s assistance. Perhaps they were lost. It was the only reason Briar could think of for why two spawn of the Quality would invade the Restitution League. Eyes shining behind thick spectacles, the smaller, raven-haired girl grinned at her. “Is it true you subdued two blackguards at once with nothing but a bit of lace and a teacup?” “I heard it was three,” her blonde companion corrected.

“That is nothing but a tall tale,” Briar insisted. “Completely untrue.” The girls’ faces fell. “It was five,” she confided, “but I was armed, and I had some help from my colleagues.” Their mouths fell open. The taller one gasped. “Blazing hell!” Her companion poked her in the ribs. “Clarissa! Language.” “Sorry,” Clarissa said, though Briar had the distinct impression that she wasn’t. It made her rather like the chit.

She crossed her arms over her chest. “Have we met?” Catching the sharpness in her voice, the girls retreated. The dark-haired girl dropped the plain brown portfolio she’d been carrying and scrambled to pick it up. “No,” they answered in unison. “We know of you,” Clarissa, the delicate blonde, added quickly. “You’re in all the papers.” Her friend crushed the portfolio to her chest. “Your League is top-notch.” She paused for a breath. “But you most especially.

We love reading about your exploits.” She shivered happily. “That time you shoved the Lord Mayor out of his office and dismantled a bomb with a hatpin?” She pressed a hand to her chest as if enraptured. “Amazing.” Briar groaned. It was that reporter, Basil Lodge. His tales of their exploits were getting completely out of hand. She’d have a word. And then, once he returned from Egypt, Edison would have one as well. He quite frightened Lodge.

Of course, her hulk of a brother frightened most people. She tossed her hair back and favored the intruders with a steely look. “I doubt you ladies have a bomb that needs defusing.” The girls eyed each other, but neither spoke, then the smaller one gestured impatiently. “It was your idea. You start.” “Right,” Clarissa whispered. She nodded sharply and twisted her gloved fingers together before aiming wide blue eyes in Briar’s direction. “We’ve nowhere else to turn, you see.” Briar took a long time to blink, the better to hide a roll of the eyes.

Such dramatic young things. The dark-haired girl nodded solemnly. “Someone’s trying to ruin our season.” Briar stilled. This had to be a portent, a sign from above reminding her what her life would be like if she refused the position in San Francisco. Babysitting the Quality. Was that what her life would become? Just imagining it made her head buzz. She took a long, slow breath as she inspected her young intruders from the crowns of their fashionable hats to the tips of their unsullied shoes. Excitement, adventure, and all manner of intriguing men awaited. All she had to do was send these little creatures packing and figure out what to say to her family.

She crossed her arms over her chest and pursed her lips. Debutants, she could dispatch. The Restitution League would require far more finesse. * * * Angry shouts filtered into the office from the busy street outside. Briar glanced past her uninvited guests, searching for the source of the disruption. Much to her dismay, her heartbeat ticked up a few beats. Was there an angry mama ready to burst through the door? Not in the least. She relaxed. As morning slid into afternoon, traffic on their fashionable street was increasing. Glossy private carriages wove their way between hansom cabs and delivery wagons, causing their usual headaches for the working men charged with steering their heavier loads.

No furious parents charging in to save their progeny. Yet. Briar considered her uninvited guests. It would take but an instant to frighten them off. Intimidation was one of her stronger skills. But sending two well-dressed chits fleeing for their lives didn’t fit the image the Restitution League strove to project. She glanced at her desk, where the letter sat, beckoning her to pen a reply. The shorter girl tugged at her friend’s sleeve. “Come on, Clarissa. She’s not going to help us.

We’re not her sort.” The wounded look reflected in the girl’s dark eyes hit Briar straight in the heart. She wasn’t, in fact, going to help, but she didn’t appreciate being accused of bigotry. Especially when there was a grain of truth to the matter. “I didn’t say that.” The words were out of her mouth before she could recall them. The girls froze in place, lips parted, waiting. Damnable hell. She’d just have to hear them out. She’d let them speak their piece, then she could inform them, ever so regretfully, that the League couldn’t possibly help.

Briar slapped her hands against her sides, making the girls jump. “Let’s start at the beginning, why don’t we?” The taller one tilted her chin up and inched away from her friend. “I’m Clarissa Sheppard.” The other girl touched the edge of her rather large glasses. “She’s Lady Clarissa Sheppard, actually. Her father was the Earl of Hamsford. I’m Patience. Miss Patience Dunsmuir.” She stared down at her toes. “My father’s nothing more than a viscount.

” Briar swallowed a groan. Now that they’d established their nobility, perhaps things could move along. “And what, exactly, would you like from us?” Patience clutched the plain brown portfolio to her chest. “We need to find whoever’s doing this. Ruining our season is one thing, but they’re going to hurt someone.” “It’s not just us,” Patience elaborated. “It’s been happening to lots of the girls.” “What’s been happening?” Briar asked, though she wasn’t certain she really wanted to know the answer. Clarissa’s chin trembled. “Bad things.

Embarrassing things.” “Accidents,” Patience added. “Designed to ruin our chances.” For such cosseted, restricted girls, the smallest misfortune must seem like a disaster. But how to convey that with any amount of delicacy was beyond her skills. “You don’t believe us.” Clarissa sounded hurt. Briar stiffened. The girl’s insight startled her. She didn’t normally allow her thoughts to show that easily.

“You must realize this all sounds rather—” “Foolish?” Patience interjected. “We know. That’s why you’re the only person we believed we could confide in. You’re young and clever. We thought you, of all people, might understand.” A spark of anger flickered in Clarissa’s eyes. “You’re right, Patience. We’re not her sort.” She grabbed the folder from her friend and slapped it down on the desk. “Patience has recorded everything.

Every single incident. If you look through her notes, you’ll agree these can’t be random occurrences.” Careful to keep the skepticism off her face, Briar pulled the sheaf of papers toward her and studied them. Patience was nothing if not thorough. Page after page, line after line, she’d documented numerous instances of…ripped hems, lost footing, punch spills, and dance floor mishaps. Several girls had tumbled down terrace steps, and it appeared that one unlucky miss had fallen face-first in the mud at Ascot. Still, nothing that rose to the level of true danger. Briar massaged the back of her neck, seeking a gentle way to turn the girls away. Patience caught her gaze. Brown eyes, made larger by her thick lenses, implored Briar to understand.

“I know it doesn’t seem like much, not any one incident, anyway, but the least little thing can derail a girl’s season.” Though she’d never had one herself, thank God, Briar knew how true that was. She pointed at one of the entries. “Tell me about this incident.” Patience leaned over the pages. “That was last week, at the Whitcombs’ musicale.” Clarissa’s mouth tightened. “I fell against the buffet table. When I put my hand out to stop myself, I knocked a whole pot of chocolate onto the floor. Ruined an Aubusson carpet and my new kid slippers.

” “Anyone can stumble.” “I was pushed,” Clarissa insisted. “A hard shove to the back. There’s no mistaking that feeling.” Briar couldn’t argue with that. Still, that didn’t mean it was deliberate. Patience spread out the pages until she found a crude graph. She swung it around for Briar to read. “The pattern’s clear. Only certain girls have been targeted.

” “Every one of them an eligible catch,” Clarissa added. “If you’ll pardon the conceit.” Briar pressed a hand to her lips, hiding a smile. Clarissa’s observation was far from a conceit. The currency of the marriage market was clear. Money, position, and beauty held sway. Everyone from the wealthiest duke to the lowliest baron’s footman knew the scorecard. “I took the liberty of ranking each of us. A-according t-to…” She stumbled over the words. “Desirability?” Briar guessed.

Cheeks pink, the clever thing nodded. “Exactly.” She gave Patience’s calculations a longer look. The girl’s analysis was impressive. Too impressive to dismiss. If her evidence was sound, a handful of girls had far more mishaps than chance would suggest, while others, of lower eligibility, had none. She eyed the girls sternly, trying to tamp down the twinge of excitement that signaled a wrong to be righted. If their suspicions were valid, someone was playing a very nasty game. “Let’s say I do believe you, aren’t your parents about? This is the very sort of thing they should be handling.” The girls engaged in an extended bout of silent communication before Clarissa spoke.

“My father died last year, and my mother is still in mourning. I don’t want to add to her worries.” “It was a love match,” Patience explained. “Lady Hamsford is devastated.” Clarissa nodded miserably. “What about you, Patience? You have parents or guardians or some such, don’t you?” “They’re in India at the moment,” Clarissa chimed in. “Traveling the world. Patience is staying with us for the season.” “What about your father’s successor? The new…?” She waited for Clarissa to fill in the exact title. “Earl.

My uncle Nathan,” Clarissa supplied unenthusiastically. “He wouldn’t believe us.” “Have you tried?” “No,” she confessed. Briar waited for the rest. Patience fingered the temple of her spectacles. “He’s rather…intimidating, I think is the word.” “Exactly.” Clarissa spread her hands in a helpless gesture. “He’s my father’s brother, but I hardly know him. He’s been abroad most of my life.

Mother says he was a spy in the war.” “The Boer War,” Patience clarified. “He’s large. And quiet. Always glowering. Exactly the way a spy would do.” Clarissa looked even more dejected. “Between my mother, the two of us, and my little sisters, we must drive him batty. I don’t think he quite knows what to do with an entire household of women.” A vision of Edison inheriting a family of grieving females flashed through her mind.

The chatter alone would undo him, and her brother was a highly enlightened man. How some battle-hardened old soldier would fare… “I think I understand.” Frustration twisted her stomach into a tight knot. She understood all too well. A military man would have a vastly different opinion of danger than two young debutants. He’d never listen. Not to the two of them. She tapped a finger on Nelly’s desk. “Would it help if I spoke with him?” The girls looked at each other for a long moment before Clarissa nodded. “Do you think you could convince him to let you help us?” “I may be able to persuade him to take your concerns seriously.

If he’s got a background in espionage, he could look into this himself.” The enthusiasm drained from their faces. “I don’t wish to be forward,” Patience began, “but we were hoping you might see your way to investigating for us.” Briar shook her head. “That would be impossible. I’m leaving—” She cut herself off. “I mean, I have other commitments.” Eyed downcast, the girls nodded. “Of course,” Patience said. “You must have a million people begging you to take on their cases.

” “I’ll do what I can,” Briar found herself saying, though her better judgment urged her to shut her mouth. “But I really can’t involve the League without at least speaking to your guardian. Or would you rather I conferred with your mother?” “Oh no,” Clarissa said quickly. “She’s only now getting through a whole day without tearing up. I don’t want to worry her.” “I see your point. That’s very considerate of you.” Patience gathered up her papers. “Do you think you could see him soon? There’s a gala at the Duke of Tisdale’s home next Tuesday.” Clarissa rolled her eyes.

“We have to attend. My mother insists.” “I’ll schedule a meeting with your uncle as quickly as possible.”

.

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