Home > The Queer Principles of Kit Webb

The Queer Principles of Kit Webb
Author: Cat Sebastian

Chapter 1



November 1751


Kit Webb had principles. He was certain of it. Even at his worst, which had reliably been found at the bottom of a bottle, he hadn’t hurt anyone, at least not too badly. Well, at least not on purpose. Better, perhaps, to say that he never threw the first punch. As far as daggers and pistols, he found waving them about to be so effective that he never needed to resort to using them. Better not to dwell on whether this owed more to luck than to any skill or moral refinement on his part.

Yes, he had lightened a few purses in his day, but nobody whose purse wasn’t altogether too heavy to begin with. He wasn’t going to keep himself up at night worrying about what some or another lady was going to do with one fewer ruby diadem. Besides, that diadem had been murder to fence, nearly put him off the entire enterprise of jewel theft altogether. Betty hadn’t spoken to him for weeks. He much preferred coin, please and thank you.

He did feel badly about the coachmen and outriders and other fools who got dragged into fights that were, properly, between Kit and the great and good of the land. But he figured that any poor sod who was fool enough to come between a highwayman and a gilt-encrusted traveling coach got whatever they had coming to them. Which, as it turned out, tended to be nothing more than a couple of well-placed punches.

But that was all in the past now anyway. He had turned over a new leaf, started fresh—or as close to fresh as a man could when he was nearly thirty and all his acquaintances were criminals and the back room of his place of business was little more than a house of assignation. As close to starting fresh as a man could get when three times a day some bastard walked past the coffeehouse singing that bloody fucking ballad about that one time he had escaped from prison—yes, the escape had been dashing but it wasn’t even in the top 10 percent of his most impressive feats, and it was a sin and a shame that jail rhymed with so many words. Besides, his shoulder still hurt from where he had injured it in squeezing through the barred window, and the less said about the gunshot wound that had been allowed to fester during his week in prison, the better. And that ill-fated escape had followed hard upon Rob’s death, which was not the sort of thing he wanted to be reminded of in lazily rhymed couplets.

No, he probably didn’t have principles at all, sorry to say. But he could act like he did. In fact, he had to act like it, seeing as how with his leg in this state he could hardly continue to merrily thieve his way across England. He was the very model of what the preacher in Hyde Park was pleased to call A Virtuous Life and the boredom of it would probably kill him.

For twelve months now Kit had lived the life of an honest and respectable shopkeeper. He turned his attention to running the coffeehouse, which he had bought some years ago on a drunken whim and then operated as little more than a convenient staging ground, a literal den of thieves. But these days, when a customer came in with a purse full of gold and a head full of cotton wool, they left with both head and purse intact.

And if the past year of trying to live a decent sort of life had only resulted in Kit getting more foul tempered by the day, it was probably his own fault for being so very bad at being good. He had to try harder, that was all. Still, sometimes after walking Betty home after closing up at night, he almost wished footpads would come after him. He’d leap at the flimsiest excuse to fight back.

Maybe that was why when something that looked like first-rate trouble walked into Kit’s coffeehouse, Kit felt like a bloodhound who had finally scented its quarry.



Chapter 2


For the rest of his life, Percy would associate the smell of oil paint with criminal conspiracy. It was fitting, he thought, that these meetings at which he and Marian plotted together would be preserved forever on canvas, displayed in the portrait gallery at Cheveril Castle.

Except—of course that wouldn’t happen. This portrait would never be hung in the Cheveril Castle portrait gallery, because its subjects were not, after all, the Duchess of Clare and the future tenth Duke of Clare. Instead, they were plain Marian Hayes and Edward Percy Talbot—well, Edward Percy, he supposed, which was his mother’s maiden name. His mother’s only name. It was a small mercy she hadn’t lived to see this. She’d have murdered the duke in his bed, without a single compunction, despite how immeasurably vulgar it would have been to be hanged as a common murderess.

“I think you have the wrong man,” Percy told Marian when they were seated in the temporary studio the portraitist had set up in Clare House.

“He’s the right man,” Marian said. “My informant was quite certain.”

Percy placed the fact that Marian had people she referred to as informants into the growing pile of things that would not have made the least bit of sense a mere month earlier. “He’s not a”—Percy lowered his voice so the portraitist, situated a few feet away behind his easel, wouldn’t overhear—“a highwayman. He’s a shopkeeper. And just about the most boring man I’ve ever laid eyes on.”

As far as Percy could tell, Webb seldom left the premises of his coffeehouse. He lived upstairs and worked downstairs. The only time he ventured farther than the limits of Russell Street was when he walked the serving girl home after dusk, sometimes stopping on the way back for supper. Webb frequented neither church nor tavern nor anywhere even remotely interesting. Percy had become momentarily intrigued when he realized how often Webb went to the baths, but the man seemed to spend his time there actually bathing, so Percy resumed being unimpressed.

If Webb had any friends, they came to him, never the other way around. He exchanged pleasantries—if semi-grunted greetings could be considered pleasant—with some of his more regular patrons but left the actual chatter to the tawny-skinned, gap-toothed girl who worked for him. A person less like a dashing highwayman Percy could not even begin to imagine. Percy had hoped that consorting with the criminal classes would at least be interesting, and was quite depressed by the reality.

“That’s him,” Marian said. “The coffeehouse is just a front.”

A front? Percy would very much have liked to know when and where the Duchess of Clare had the opportunity to pick up criminal argot, but before he could open his mouth to ask the question, he noticed that Marian’s maid had looked up from her mending.

The duke, perhaps sensing that Percy and Marian had aligned against him, or perhaps simply because he was committed to sowing unpleasantness everywhere he went, had taken to keeping a hawklike eye on his young wife. At all times she was either in his company or chaperoned by the maid he employed, and it had proven all but impossible for Percy to catch Marian alone for more than a few seconds.

“Your hair is crooked again,” Percy said. “It keeps listing to the side.” Marian had evidently decided that sitting for a portrait required about two pounds of wig powder, not to mention a profusion of feathers; the coiffure probably couldn’t remain upright without the aid of flying buttresses, but Marian could at least put forth some effort.

Percy had, at great expense and personal inconvenience, imported this artist from Venice as a wedding present for Marian and, he supposed, his father. The duke, making his move in the game of chess he and Percy had been playing for years, had that morning declared himself to be too busy to sit for a portrait. Percy decided that he would sit for the portrait alongside Marian. The duke would be painted in later, likely wearing something that clashed grossly with Percy and Marian, spoiling the entire portrait.

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