Rejecting the Rogue, Restitution League Series, Book 1

by Riley Cole

Thieves make the best rogues. And the worst heartbreakers.

Philomena Sweet, Victorian London’s finest safecracker, knows it better than most. The worst rogue of them all, dashing jewel thief Spencer Crane, smashed hers long ago.

And now he’s back, fleeing danger from their past. Danger he won’t survive without her help.

She’d love to refuse, but she can’t leave him for dead.

Spencer Crane would sooner steal costume jewelry than ask talented, wickedly bright Meena Sweet for help.

But revenge stalks them both. He needs her artistry. She needs his skills.

Neither needs the desire that sparks to life between them. 

While they dodge criminals, carriages, and the occasional flying cabbage, who will protect these two notorious thieves from each other?

—Meet the Restitution League—

They’re thieves. They’re rogues. They’re well-armed for adventure.

The crew of the Restitution League fights injustice while wrestling with love and desire and the occasional throwing knife.

One blazing romance at a time…


Get book 2, Seducing the Scientist, out one week after Rejecting the Rogue!

Chapter 1
Pimlico, London
June, 1881

“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 with 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 farther 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 her cousin 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. “Eight 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.”

Meena patted her younger cousin on the arm. “And should I wish to, I know exactly who to consult.”

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, and 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?” she asked, hunting between the great stacks of papers Meena had pushed to 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, his gaze on Meena. “You haven’t told her.”

Briar gave her head a quick shake. “Not yet.”

He 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 in 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 close to her own age, the young gentleman looked as 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. Or so their visitor believed.

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, though that won’t matter, seeing as I’ll be in Newgate.”

Briar twisted a lock of golden hair around her finger and smiled encouragingly. “Perhaps things are not as dire as they appear.”

The man shuddered. If anything, the miasma of desperation around him thickened. “You’re right. They’re probably worse.”

Now even Briar was surprised. Talented as her cousin was at concealing her emotions, Meena caught the telltale widening of her eyes.

As for their visitor, he’d gone a dreadful shade of green.

Meena set her cup down and stared into the slight man’s eyes. “Mr. Montague, perhaps you should start from the beginning.”

Blue eyes weak with fear met her gaze. The man took a fortifying sip of tea and started in. “I’m a clerk in Mr. Disraeli’s— I mean Mr. Gladstone’s office.” He laughed, but it came out more like a sickly croak. “Sorry. Mr. Gladstone only just took office. Hard to keep it all straight.”

Meena returned his smile. “And what is it do you do in the prime minister’s office?”

“I’m a junior clerk. I file papers. Sort mail. Run messages to Buckingham Palace and the different embassies. That sort of thing.”

The very things that afforded one access to state secrets. Meena let out a slow breath. “What exactly have you chronicled?”

Montague’s mouth opened, but no sound came out. His body suddenly tensed, as if he wanted to flee. “Secrets,” he whispered finally. “Sh-shameful secrets.”

A flash of anger darkened Edison’s features. “Are you saying you’ve detailed sensitive information—private information—about the prime minister? Several prime ministers?” His fingers curled around the scone in his palm, transforming it into a pile of crumbs. “You bloody idiot!”

The threat implicit in his booming voice froze the little man in place. That, and the decimated pastry littering his plate.

Edison looked as if he wanted to give Montague a good thrashing. “How do we know you aren’t planning to blackmail the prime minister yourself? We weren’t born yesterday, you little rotter.”

Outrage overrode fear, returning a bit of starch to Montague’s shoulders. “I would never—” He raised his chin, staring at each of them in turn before he spoke. “They’re about me. The secrets are about me.”

Ah. The puzzle pieces were beginning to fall into place. Meena thought she might understand now. “Secrets of a…sexual nature?” she asked gently.

Montague averted his eyes and nodded. The hat trembled in his hand. “Of a forbidden nature.”

Meena shared a look with her cousins. Though many turned a blind eye, homosexuality was grounds for imprisonment, if someone were inclined to push the issue. No wonder the poor man feared for his freedom. She pressed her palms into her thighs. Things were every bit as dire as he believed.

“I’d never betray my office. I’ve never written a word about anything to do with Downing Street.”

Edison wiggled his fingers, divesting himself of crumbs. “Easy enough to check, once we retrieve the thing.”

“And you know where your journal is now?” Meena prodded gently.

Montague laughed. Stripped of joy, it was a harsh, unhappy sound. “Unfortunately, yes.”

Sensing there was more, she sipped her tea and waited.

“The man I was…seeing…” He stopped to take a deep, shuddering breath before forging on. “The man I was seeing last turned out to be a bounder of the worst sort. A fact I was unaware of until the day he robbed me blind.” A sad little smile turned up the corners of his lips. “He took everything of value I had, including my journal. That’s the worst of it.”

Briar stared down at her dagger. “And now he’s blackmailing you?”

Montague was quick to shake his head. “Not him. The man he sold my journal to is far more dangerous.”

“You’re certain this dangerous man has it?” Meena asked. “Your lover could be bluffing.”

Montague’s lower lip trembled. “That would be a blessing, but I’m positive. The villain 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.

“He knows I clerk for the prime minister. The bugger said he’d need a favor someday. Until then, he’s keeping my journal.” He sucked in a shaky breath and met her 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 had 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 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’s 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 then, 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, another 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 at her.

“Mr. Montague’s journal.” She flattened her palms on her thighs, waiting for them to catch on. “We’ll replace it.”

Edison stopped midchew and grinned.

Briar clapped her hands. “Brilliant!”

Poor Mr. Montague still looked lost.

“I’ll replace your journal with a counterfeit,” 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.” She 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 simply 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?”

He folded muscled arms over his chest and studied her. “I mean, most exquisitely careful.”

Meena shared a look with him. 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 farther, 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 she 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, but 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 stole only 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 watched them go, her mind suddenly assaulted with images from the past. Dark, shameful images. Images of a life she’d gladly consign to the bottom of the fetid Thames.

The fear on their new client’s face made the memories come more quickly. That hopelessness, that soul-crushing weight pressing down on his shoulders… She and her cousins had caused the same kind of anguish.

The fact that her father had ordered it done absolved them not a whit.

They’d stolen money. They’d stolen jewels and artwork and certificates of stock. Mostly, though, they’d stolen lives.

All her talents and skills with locks and safes had been carefully nurtured to meet her father’s grasping ends. By the time he’d met his end in Newgate, she and her cousins had collected a mountain of sins so tall, they’d never reach the summit.

She turned her gaze to the bright scene outside the window, seeking to block the dark memories. More than a calling, their work was a means of restitution. Restitution she dearly needed to pay.

As did her cousins. After the things her father had made them do… The lives that had been ruined…

Meena screwed her eyes shut. They couldn’t help that now, but they could continue onward, helping the very sorts they’d been taught to prey upon.

She only hoped it would be enough.

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