Main The Queer Principles of Kit Webb

The Queer Principles of Kit Webb

,
4.5 / 5.0
How much do you like this book?
What’s the quality of the file?
Download the book for quality assessment
What’s the quality of the downloaded files?

Critically acclaimed author Cat Sebastian pens a stunning historical romance about a reluctantly reformed highwayman and the aristocrat who threatens to steal his heart.

Kit Webb has left his stand-and-deliver days behind him. But dreary days at his coffee shop have begun to make him pine for the heady rush of thievery. When a handsome yet arrogant aristocrat storms into his shop, Kit quickly realizes he may be unable to deny whatever this highborn man desires.

In order to save himself and a beloved friend, Percy, Lord Holland must go against every gentlemanly behavior he holds dear to gain what he needs most: a book that once belonged to his mother, a book his father never lets out of his sight and could be Percy’s savior. More comfortable in silk-filled ballrooms than coffee shops frequented by criminals, his attempts to hire the roughly hewn highwayman, formerly known as Gladhand Jack, proves equal parts frustrating and electrifying.

Kit refuses to participate in the robbery but agrees to teach Percy how to do the deed. Percy knows he has little choice but to submit and as the lessons in thievery begin, he discovers thievery isn’t the only crime he’s desperate to commit with Kit.

But when their careful plan goes dangerously wrong and shocking revelations threaten to tear them apart, can these stolen hearts overcome the impediments in their path?

Year:
2021
Edition:
1
Publisher:
Avon
Language:
english
Pages:
348
ISBN:
B08HZ4R7XP
File:
EPUB, 1.09 MB
Download (epub, 1.09 MB)

You may be interested in Powered by Rec2Me

 

Most frequently terms

 
0 comments
 

To post a review, please sign in or sign up
You can write a book review and share your experiences. Other readers will always be interested in your opinion of the books you've read. Whether you've loved the book or not, if you give your honest and detailed thoughts then people will find new books that are right for them.
1

Hielo negro

Year:
2005
Language:
spanish
File:
EPUB, 294 KB
0 / 0
2

Hielo y fuego

Year:
2008
Language:
spanish
File:
EPUB, 349 KB
0 / 0
Epigraph




Since laws were made for every degree,

To curb vice in others, as well as me,

I wonder we han’t better company,

Upon Tyburn Tree;

But gold from law can take out the sting,

And if rich men like us were to swing,

’Twould thin the land, such numbers to string,

Upon Tyburn Tree.

—John Gay, The Beggars’ Opera, 1728





Contents


Cover

Title Page

Epigraph

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Epilogue

Announcement

Acknowledgments

About the Author

Also by Cat Sebastian

Copyright

About the Publisher





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, p; lease 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.

Perhaps Percy could spirit the canvas away before his father was added in. How very quickly one could go from being a law-abiding citizen, the scion of a noble family, to consorting with highwaymen and then contemplating stealing one’s own portrait. There was a lesson in there, he supposed, but he preferred not to think about it.

Instead, he allowed himself a moment of self-congratulation for having insisted on the sky-blue satin; it flattered Marian’s complexion while complementing the slightly darker blue of his own coat. The effect was pleasantly harmonious, without making Percy look like a lapdog tied with a ribbon to match his mistress’s costume.

“It’s the latest fashion from Paris,” Marian said, nonetheless raising a hand to straighten her hair.

“It’s nothing of the sort. I’m not going to be immortalized on canvas as Unknown Gentleman and Lady with Crooked Periwig.”

“Dearest, if you think we’re going to be remembered by posterity for our coiffures, you really haven’t been paying attention. We should be so lucky.”

“Your coiffure,” Percy corrected, although Marian was quite right. “Speak for yourself. My periwig is unexceptionable.”

Percy kept an eye on Marian’s maid, waiting until she appeared bored by the conversation and returned her attention to the hem she was mending. “Your highwayman is crippled,” he murmured. “He uses a cane.”

“Hmm,” Marian hummed. “They don’t mention that in any of the broadsides or ballads.”

“Probably because it’s a new injury, which would also explain his retirement. He can’t possibly be capable of much in the way of robbery with a limp like that. We need someone else.”

“We don’t have anyone else,” she snapped. “It was hard enough to turn up the name and address of one highwayman. For heaven’s sake, Percy. We don’t have that much time. Go back and get another name from him.”

She was right, of course. The first letter had arrived a month ago, relating the bare facts of Percy’s father’s bigamy and demanding five hundred pounds before the first of January. Now they were left with a scant two months to come up with a plan. “Can you get rid of everyone so we can speak privately?” he whispered. “Even if it’s only for a moment?”

Marian gave an imperceptible nod, then shifted in her seat, moving the doll that served as a placeholder for her daughter from one arm to the other.

“Your Grace,” the portraitist said, his heavily accented voice carefully polite. “If you could be still, I beg you. The light, it moves. And, Lord Holland, if you could be so kind as to keep your attention on your infant sister, if you please?”

“I’m afraid I can’t,” Percy said, playing his role. “First of all, that poppet is—” He broke off with a shudder. Marian had found the godforsaken thing in the attics. What she had been doing in the attics was something Percy strongly preferred not to think about. “I believe repellent is not too strong a word.” The doll’s head was carved from wood and painted with pink cheeks, blue eyes, and a rosebud mouth. Glued to its head were strands of yellow silk embroidery thread, which made Percy think that the ghastly thing had been made to resemble a Talbot for the amusement of some long-dead aunt. But between the combined efforts of damp, time, and quite possibly rats, it was more suited to ritual witchcraft than belonging in a civilized nursery. “The poor thing has either leprosy or an advanced case of the pox.”

“Don’t listen to him, my darling,” Marian cooed, covering the doll’s moldering ears and pressing a loud kiss to its decayed forehead. Percy wanted to gag.

“Secondly,” Percy went on, “if I fix my gaze on the doll, it’ll look like I’m staring at the duchess’s bosom.” Marian’s gown revealed an expanse of décolletage the approximate dimensions of a cricket pitch. “And while I daresay it’s a pleasant enough bosom,” Percy went on, “as far as those things go, I’m afraid I’d rather not be accused of leering at my stepmother.”

“You’ve given me the most brilliant idea,” Marian said in a tone of voice Percy knew from long experience meant nothing but trouble. She tugged down the bodice of her gown and determinedly applied the doll’s head to her exposed breast.

“Why?” Percy cried, flinging a hand over his eyes. “Put it away!”

“I feel certain this is what the duke would want,” Marian announced.

“Nobody wants this!” Percy protested.

“Like the holy mother,” Marian said grandly. “I’m even wearing blue. Who would you like to be, Percy? I believe Saint Elizabeth is the traditional choice, but a young John the Baptist would be a bold alternative.”

“You do have a point,” Percy observed. “I’ve seen paintings of the Madonna and child in which our savior is even uglier than that poppet.”

“That’s Lady Eliza to you,” Marian said, holding the wretched doll up as if for Percy to make its acquaintance.

“I feel certain this is blasphemous,” Percy remarked. “Poor Signore Bramante wasn’t expecting to have his principles compromised this afternoon,” he said, indicating the artist.

“I do beg your pardon,” Marian said, addressing the painter, who, Percy noted, had put down his brush and adopted an expression of mortified suffering, which he directed toward the ceiling, resolutely avoiding Marian’s bosom. “Perhaps we ought to rest now and resume in an hour’s time. Jane, will you fetch some hairpins so we can do something about my hair? No, that’s quite all right, I’ll survive on my own for a few minutes. Hurry, or Signore Bramante’s paints will go dry. Signore, you’ll find cakes in the kitchen.”

“Nicely done,” Percy said when they were alone. Marian had taken rather frighteningly well to this life of deception and intrigue they were apparently now leading. She had certainly managed it better than Percy, who still expected to wake up and find things restored to the way they were supposed to be.

“Thank you,” Marian said primly, rearranging her bodice and casting the doll to the floor. “We don’t have more than five minutes before Jane returns.”

“We need to decide whether we’re going to pay the blackmailer,” Percy said bluntly.

“I’ve already told you what I think. Paying the blackmailer is letting your father get away with it. I want to make him suffer,” Marian added with a degree of relish Percy found entirely understandable. “But I’ll go along with paying the blackmailer if that’s what you prefer.”

What Percy would have preferred was not to have to make this choice. They had spent the past month investigating the blackmailer’s claim. Percy had gone to Boulogne himself and seen the parish register with his own eyes: his father’s name, his father’s unmistakable signature, and a date twelve months before the duke married Percy’s own mother. Marian’s brother tracked down old companions of the duke and plied them with brandy until they admitted to knowing about what they had assumed to be a sham wedding. Percy’s only hope was that the French strumpet had managed to die before the duke married Percy’s mother. The blackmailer insisted that the woman was alive and well, and said he was prepared to prove it as publicly as possible on the first of January. Marian’s brother was trying to track down the woman or her family, but Percy didn’t have much hope he’d turn up a clearly marked grave or a witness to her death.

That was the crux of the problem: even a whisper of a rumor of his own legitimacy ruined the Clare legacy, and ruined it permanently. It would be passed on to his sons, and their sons, and linger like a miasma over Cheveril Castle for eternity. The more Percy fought, the worse the rumors would be.

“It would only delay the inevitable,” Percy said. “Unless we mean to burn down this church in Boulogne and murder the blackmailer as well as half my father’s old cronies, we can’t hope to keep it a secret forever.”

Marian remained silent rather longer than Percy thought it ought to take to agree that murder and arson were undesirable courses of action, however dreadful their present crisis. “That does sound impractical,” she conceded.

“Instead, if we can get the duke’s book, we can use it to force him to pay us enough to live quite comfortably. Since you have Eliza, he might not cast you off without a penny, but I’m afraid he’ll only too gladly put me out on the street. We need that book for leverage.”

“And then we let the blackmailer tell the world the truth about what a despicable man your father is,” Marian supplied.

Percy swallowed. “I think, rather, we ought to tell the world ourselves. That way we stay in control.” The idea of bringing about their own ruin was terrifying but so much better than living a lifetime in fear of having the truth exposed. “Does that sound agreeable?” he asked, as if proposing a promenade rather than a farewell to everything they had ever known.

Marian narrowed her eyes. “I plan to drain the estate of every penny we can. And, Percy,” she added, “I’m going to see your father brought as low as humanly possible. When he married me, he made a bargain. I kept my end, but he didn’t keep his. I will not be cheated, Percy.”

He took one of her hands. Neither of them were particularly affectionate by nature, but she squeezed his hand with both of hers. It was the first time since returning to England that he had truly seen a trace of his childhood playmate. When he left for the Continent, she had still been barely out of pinafores, and now she was coiffed and powdered and the mother to his three-month-old sister; she had become as cold and shrewd as all the duchesses of Clare who had preceded her.

Sometimes he wondered exactly how his father had managed to convince Marian to marry him. The union had been presented to him as a fait accompli, the news arriving at Percy’s lodgings in Florence troublingly soon after the news of his mother’s death. It plainly wasn’t a love match. Marian remained tight-lipped on the subject, and Percy and his father were hardly on cordial enough terms for such a conversation.

“Do you want to talk about it?” he asked, pitching his voice as gently as he could.

She shook her head, and before he could say anything else, Marian’s maid returned, and they let go of one another’s hands.





Chapter 3




All sorts of people came to Kit’s. That was the point of the place, the point of coffeehouses in general. Ink-stained Grub Street hacks could get out of their cramped hired rooms, shopkeepers could pretend to be intellectuals, and well-shod gentlemen could get their hands dirty—but not too dirty.

What Kit sold was the fiction of democracy, accompanied by the aroma of coffee and tobacco and the company of a pretty serving girl. An afternoon in a coffeehouse was a chance for everyone to pretend the rules were less important than conversation. It was Twelfth Night, it was Carnival, but it took place in broad daylight, with everybody involved dead sober and wide-awake, with newspapers and hot drinks to lend everything the faint sheen of respectability.

Still, they didn’t get too many gentlemen like the one Kit noticed in the corner. He was wigged and powdered, a birthmark too dark to be real affixed above one lip. Even from across the room, Kit could tell that the man’s coat—wool of a violet so dark it was nearly blue, adorned with gold braid and brass buttons—must have cost a small fortune. The buttons alone would be worth nicking, as would the expanse of lace that spilled over the man’s wrists. He had one leg crossed over the other, revealing, beneath the hem of his violet knee breeches, thin stockings of the palest lavender, embellished with a pattern of white flowers that crept up the side of his calf. On his feet he wore shiny black shoes with silver buckles and a small but obvious heel. At his hip he wore one of those shiny, ornamental swords that gentlemen insisted on swanning about with.

The man didn’t have a newspaper open before him, nor a book, nor even a broadside. Apart from his cup of coffee—untouched, Kit noticed—his table was empty. Instead of sitting at the long table at the center of the room, which was where most unaccompanied patrons chose to sit, this man lounged at one of the smaller tables that lined the walls. It was off to the side but not in the shadows. It was almost as if he wanted to be looked at. It stood to reason, Kit supposed—one didn’t wear purple coats or high-heeled shoes if one wished to remain unobtrusive.

Odder still, the man wasn’t talking or reading or taking snuff. He wasn’t even drinking his coffee. Instead, he was doing one thing, and he was doing it incessantly—he was watching Kit.

“Don’t look now,” he murmured to Betty the next time she came out from the kitchen, “but the man at table four is up to something.”

She took her tray and made a circuit of the room, removing empty cups and exchanging remarks with a handful of regular patrons. “I could snatch his watch, his handkerchief, and his coin purse before he even reached the door,” she said when she returned. “Not that I will. Keep your hair on, I know the rules,” she added hastily and with audible regret. “My point is that the poor lamb’s about to have a very bad day. As soon as he steps one pretty foot outside, somebody’ll lighten his pockets. Maybe even before then, if I know Johnny Fowler.”

They both cast a sideways glance at Fowler, who was indeed watching the gentleman almost as intently—but more covertly—than the gentleman was watching Kit. Fowler’s mouth was practically watering. Kit sighed: he doubted Fowler would manage to wait until the gentleman crossed the threshold.

That was another thing coffeehouses were good for; an observant pickpocket could browse patrons for a likely target, follow them outside, and ply their craft. Hell, that was why Kit had thought to buy a coffeehouse in the first place—after spending hundreds of hours and countless pounds in such establishments, he figured he might as well try life on the opposite side of the till. And now it turned out operating a coffeehouse of his own was one of the few types of work—honest or otherwise—that he was fit for.

“But what’s he doing?” Kit asked. “The gentleman, not Fowler. Why is he here? Gentlemen usually come in groups of twos or threes, not on their own.”

“Maybe he’s looking to pick somebody else’s pocket,” Betty said.

“Maybe,” Kit mused. This man wouldn’t be the first thief who dressed as a gentleman in order to throw off suspicion. He wouldn’t even be the first thief to actually be a gentleman. “But he’s only looking at me, not the room.”

“You sure you don’t know him?”

Kit raised his eyebrows at her. “I think I’d remember meeting the likes of that.”

He chanced another look at the man. Kit was good at remembering faces—he had to be, both in his present line of work and his former one. And he knew he had never seen that man before. Beneath the powder, the man’s face was unremarkable—straight nose, a jaw that was neither weak nor strong, eyes of some color that was neither dark nor light. His eyebrows were a pale wheat, meaning that the hair beneath his wig was likely even lighter. It was hard to tell, what with all the stuff he had on his face, but he was probably not an unpleasant-looking man. Maybe even handsome, in a bland sort of way.

With the powder, patch, and rouge, not to mention that very stupid wig and a frankly unethical quantity of purple silk, though, he was exquisite. There was, unfortunately, no other word that did the man justice. Kit found it hard to look away. Within an hour of the man’s arrival, he could have described the precise number and variation of flowers on the bastard’s stockings.

There was always the possibility that he knew who Kit was, but Kit had covered up his tracks pretty well. Only a handful of people knew Kit in both his identities, and nearly all of those were past confederates in whose interest it was that Kit never be exposed. Still, he had always suspected that revenge would come to find him one day, but he hadn’t expected it to arrive in a purple coat and with lavender ribbons in its wig.

But no, this man wasn’t looking at Kit with anything like malice. If anything, he looked . . . curious. Maybe even appreciative. Kit was just letting his imagination get the better of him.

So Kit ignored the man, or at least he tried to. He filled and refilled the kettles that hung over the hearth. The sun began to set behind the gray stone buildings across the street. The patrons at the long central table gradually filtered out and were replaced by new customers. Kit brewed pot after pot of coffee, and whenever he looked out of the corner of his eye, he saw dark velvet, a shiny shoe, and a pair of keen eyes.

His mind, he decided, had been finally driven over the brink by too much boredom, and now it looked for intrigue where in reality there was only a reasonably attractive man paying him too much attention.

Finally, Kit left Betty to manage the shop and stomped upstairs to punish himself by balancing the books.

He always left the door to his office not only unlocked but open. Across the landing, the door to his bedchamber was fastened by a heavy bolt, but he wanted Betty to be able to reach him—and his dagger, his pistol, and the rest of the modest arsenal he kept about his person—with a single shout. He also wanted to be able to hear the hum of voices from down below. He wanted to hear the clatter of cups, the sound of chair legs scraping across the wood floor, all almost loud enough to drown out the sounds of the street outside his window. Anything was better than silence.

And in through that unlocked door walked the powdered, beribboned gentleman.

Kit didn’t say anything, nor did he get to his feet. It would be not only useless, but an admission that he didn’t have the upper hand, if he asked what this man thought he was doing. Instead, he calmly rested his dagger on the table before him, his hand relaxed on the hilt. For some reason, the sight of this made the stranger break into a broad, slow smile, revealing a row of small white teeth that transformed what might have been a pleasant face into something altogether vulpine.

“Oh, marvelous,” the stranger said. “Really, well done. You are Kit Webb, are you not? Short for Christopher, middle name Richard, alias Gladhand Jack?” He pulled a chair out from the wall and brought it to face Kit’s desk, and then he sat, one leg delicately crossed over the other as he had done downstairs. That surprised Kit, even more than the fact that this man knew who Kit was. This man was rendering himself vulnerable, open to any attack Kit might choose to make, and surely he knew that Kit had every motive to attack him. “I’m Edward Percy.”

At the name, Kit’s fingers involuntarily closed around the hilt of his dagger. Not because he recognized it, but because he didn’t. He had never had any dealings with a man of that name, and if this stranger were acquainted with a friend of Kit’s, he would have led with that information. Instead, he had announced that he knew exactly who Kit was and what Kit had done. Briefly Kit considered telling this Percy that he had the wrong man. But this stranger knew. Kit could see it in his eyes. Somehow—and Kit would dearly like to know who had informed on him—Percy had found out, and denying the truth would only make getting rid of him more tedious.

Percy’s gaze traveled to Kit’s hand, still wrapped around the hilt of the weapon, and then back to Kit’s face. Nothing in his posture changed, nothing to indicate that he knew he was in danger, not the slightest trace of fear or even vigilance. That, in Kit’s experience, meant one of two things: either the man was enormously stupid and overconfident, which were certainly common enough traits among the wigged and powdered set, or he thought knowing who Kit really was would be enough to keep him safe, in which case he was very stupid indeed.

“To what do I owe the pleasure, Mr. Percy?” Kit said, trying to imbue his words with as much boredom as he could, barely bothering to turn his voice up at the end.

“I have a proposition for you,” Percy said, crossing his legs in the opposite direction. His silver shoe buckle caught a beam of light from Kit’s candle, drawing Kit’s attention to Percy’s ankle. It was thin, almost delicate, and those clocks on his stocking seemed almost to writhe before Kit’s eyes. For one mad moment, he wondered if he might like whatever proposal Percy had to offer, however insulting.

“Eyes up here, Mr. Webb,” Percy murmured softly, and Kit felt his cheeks heat at having been caught out, but also at the lack of rebuke in the man’s voice. There were times when a lack of rebuke was almost an invitation, certainly a concession, and Kit did not know what to do now that he found himself in one of those situations.

“You enjoyed looking at me downstairs, too,” Percy went on. And, damn it, Kit knew he ought to have been more discreet. He hoped the dimness of the room concealed his flushed cheeks but had the sense that he was rapidly losing whatever upper hand he might have had at the start of this interview.

“I wasn’t the only one looking,” Kit replied.

“Indeed, you were not,” Percy said promptly. “Can you blame me?” He slowly raked his gaze down Kit’s body, and Kit had the inane idea that this man’s penetrating eyes had rendered the heavy oak desk as transparent as glass. “But work before play, Mr. Webb,” he said, a note of arch reprimand in his voice, as if Kit had started this, whatever it was. “Not to put too fine a point on it, I’d like to engage your services.” He paused, as if deliberately giving Kit a chance to get ideas about what those services might be, and whether he would like them. Kit let his thoughts trail down this path for a moment. Patrons were forever attempting to purchase Betty’s favors, so perhaps it wasn’t so very odd for one to attempt to do the same with Kit.

The fact was that Kit didn’t let himself look at men the way he was looking at Percy, at least not often, and certainly not so obviously as to get caught. He wondered what it was that had tipped his hand to this gentleman. Kit’s closest friends, such as they were, didn’t even know. He had the uncomfortable sense that this man saw everything Kit wished to conceal.

“I’d like to hire you to remove some papers from the possession of a man of my acquaintance,” Percy said, a trace of laughter in his voice, as if he knew precisely what Kit was thinking and that it wasn’t about stealing papers.

It took a moment for Kit’s brain to catch up with Percy’s meaning. “No,” he said, any thoughts of well-turned ankles and slender calves evaporating into the air. “I don’t do that.”

It would have been easy for Percy to point out that Kit didn’t do that anymore. But Kit had already learned that this man never said the obvious thing. Instead, the gentleman nodded. “Quite. I’m hoping you’ll make an exception for the right price.” He uncrossed and recrossed his legs, as if he knew what that did to Kit’s ability to think straight—and he probably did, damn it. “And for the right person,” he added, as if to drive home the point.

“I said I don’t—”

“Is it because of your leg? Are you not able to ride?”

Kit searched the man’s face for a sign of insult or insolence, but found only the same amused curiosity. “I can ride,” he said, which wasn’t quite a lie. He could ride, and he could walk, and he could climb stairs, as long as he didn’t mind pain and if one employed a fairly generous definition of ride, walk, and climb.

“Interesting. I thought there had to be a reason for a man with your storied past to live the way you do now.”

“Well, you’re wrong.”

Percy rose to his feet but didn’t turn toward the door. “Pity,” he said. “Could have been fun. You can’t tell me that a man with your skills and your history is content to stand in one place all day, warm and safe and terribly, terribly bored.” He adjusted the lace at his cuffs. “Could have been quite fun.”

Kit picked up the knife, allowing its blade to catch the candlelight, so Percy could be under no misapprehension as to what Kit meant. “No,” he repeated, putting his free hand flat on the desk, as if preparing to stand. “Get out.”

Percy left, and as Kit heard his near-silent progress down the stairs, he wondered how the stranger had known things he had hardly admitted to himself.





Chapter 4




Percy certainly hadn’t anticipated using his questionable powers of seduction to persuade the man, but if he could get that book from his father and also get into that highwayman’s breeches, he’d consider it time well spent. Not only did Webb have that jawline and those shoulders, but he spoke with a pleasantly rough growl of a voice. He would probably be as boring in bed as he was out of it, but when a man looked like that, one could lower one’s standards.

Buoyed along by this pleasant train of thought, he decided to perform a task he had been delaying.

“The book your father won’t let out of his sight,” Marian had murmured that morning while she and Percy once again sat for their portrait, “is bound in dark green morocco and has faded gold lettering embossed on the cover.”

Percy’s heart had given a thump, and he’d forced himself to remain very still and very calm so as to conceal any trace of his excitement. “So, it is my mother’s book,” he responded, equally low. Until this point, all Percy had known was that his father was taking great pains to guard and conceal a book he kept about his person at all times. That alone told Percy of the book’s value to the duke. If Percy could steal it, then he could force his father to pay for its return; that was reason enough to want the blasted thing. If the book had been his mother’s, however, that opened up a rather intriguing vista of possibilities.

Percy remembered his mother removing her little green book from the folds of her gown, sometimes running her finger down a page as if to remind herself of something, other times writing something inside. He had never seen its contents but was certain that she had used the book as a means to amass power, and that his father was now doing the same: gathering and hoarding power was the one thing Percy’s parents had in common.

Percy had known from his earliest days that his parents were engaged in a protracted domestic war that seemed to have originated some time before their marriage, and over a cause no more complicated than their long-standing hatred for one another. Percy often only learned of the individual skirmishes long after the fact, and from overheard whispers among servants; this was how he learned the duke locked the duchess in her rooms after the duchess caused the duke’s morning chocolate to be laced with what was either an emetic or arsenic, depending on who one believed. It was also how he learned the duke had his mistress housed in the east wing of Cheveril Castle, and also that the duchess, either in retaliation or in provocation, had sold a coronet and used the proceeds to build a Roman Catholic chapel on the grounds of that same estate.

During these years of civil war, Percy was well aware that his parents were equally matched adversaries, and that the only people who imagined the duchess to be an innocent victim were the same people who could not imagine a woman as conniving as his mother even existing. But none of that mattered: Percy was a partisan of the duchess, a fact as immutable as his yellow hair or his gray eyes.

The duchess had other partisans, of course, and Percy needed to visit one of them to confirm his suspicions about the book.

Lionel Redmond was a distant maternal cousin. He had been sent to seminary in France and was now a Roman Catholic priest in London. His mother’s family, the Percys, were an old family of Catholics. His father’s family, the Talbots, were emphatically Church of England. After decades upon decades of persecution, English Catholics could now, at least, be relatively certain that they could huddle in an alehouse or a cockpit for a makeshift mass without finding themselves burned at the stake, but that didn’t prevent Percy from looking repeatedly over his shoulder as he made his way from the carriage to the narrow little house where his cousin lived.

“Cousin Edward,” Lionel said when he saw Percy waiting in the parlor.

“Father,” Percy responded, getting to his feet and bowing his head.

“Have you come to tell me of your travels?” Lionel asked, and Percy realized his cousin probably imagined that Percy had dined with the pope or some such.

“You’re a kind man to invite me to bore you with my stories,” Percy said. “But in fact, I have a more sorrowful reason for my visit.”

“Oh dear,” Lionel said, and gestured for Percy to sit.

“As you know, I was in Florence when news of my mother’s death reached me during the summer of last year. The solicitor wrote to me about the portions of her marriage settlement that pertained to property left to me upon her death.” There had been startlingly little. The property that was his mother’s dowry passed into his father’s hands at the time of their marriage, with a nominal amount held back for the dowries of their future daughters.

“I hoped you could tell me what became of her personal property. When I returned last month, I discovered that her rooms were now occupied by the new duchess, and my mother’s little things—books and combs and so forth—were gone. My father claims to have distributed them among the servants, but I hope he sent you something as well.”

Lionel frowned. “Indeed, he did not. But, as you know, your father is hardly sympathetic to the true faith.”

Percy hummed in understanding. “I wish I had something of hers to remember her by,” he said. Which was the kind of truth he didn’t like to think about, so he uttered the words without letting them seep into his thoughts. “Do you remember that little green book she carried about? I’d pay a king’s ransom for the chance to even see it one more time.”

Percy didn’t know if it was his imagination or if something shifted in his cousin’s posture—a tilt of the head, a narrowing of the eyes, but suddenly the old man looked as shrewd as Percy’s mother.

“The only book I ever saw your mother with was her Bible,” Lionel said.

As far as lies went, that was a bad one, because there was no possibility Lionel had somehow escaped noticing that little book. An easily disproven falsehood is no better than a confession was one of the duchess’s lessons.

“That’s a pity,” Percy said lightly. “If you remember anything about it, please do tell me. Meanwhile, I’ve brought a bank draft for you to use as you see fit in the tending of your flock.” He took the paper from his pocket and left it casually on the chimneypiece, and hoped that his cousin would correctly interpret that as a promise to pay for future information.

When he returned to Clare House, Percy found his valet waiting in his apartments.

“If you’ll forgive my forwardness, my lord,” Collins said as he helped Percy out of his coat, “but my lord is satisfied with my service, I hope.”

Startled, Percy regarded his manservant in the looking glass. “Of course I am. We’ve been to Italy and back. You got me through that beastly sickness in the Alps. When you do something daft, like try to get me to wear crimson, I tell you so.”

“That is a relief, my lord.”

“What prompted this crisis of confidence?”

“The duke has dismissed Mr. Denny.”

“He’s done what?” Percy asked, astonished. Denny had been the duke’s manservant since before Percy was born.

“Indeed, my lord. Mr. Denny’s replacements are two large and scruffy ruffians, neither of whom seems capable of brushing a coat or dressing a periwig. They take turns sleeping in the duke’s antechamber.”

“Ah.” Percy wondered if Collins knew he was describing guards. “And where is Denny?” If the duke’s former manservant had been sacked and cast out without a farthing, Percy could possibly employ him to help access his father’s inner chamber.

“He mentioned to the underhousemaid that he planned to open a public house in Tavistock, where his people are from.”

Percy raised an eyebrow. That didn’t sound like the man was dismissed so much as paid off. He wondered if Marian’s brother could be persuaded to make a trip into Devon to have a chat with the fellow.

“Thank you,” Percy said to his valet. “You are, as ever, invaluable.” He wanted to say more, wanted to assure Collins that whatever was happening in the rest of the household, Percy would see that Collins was treated fairly. But he did not, first because he knew he was in no position to make promises, and second because he knew better than to be effusive in his praise or excessive in his reassurances—both were sure signs of a desperate man, according to the duchess, and the duchess had seldom been wrong about these things.





Chapter 5




Percy was surprised to find that he was an adequate spy. After twenty-odd years of assuming that attention and notice were his due, it was rather humbling to see how quickly he became invisible. Without all the usual accoutrements of fashion—wig, powder, patch, rouge, and so forth—and wearing a forgettable brown coat and a similarly forlorn pair of breeches Collins grudgingly acquired at the secondhand stalls, he was able to spy on Webb unnoticed. For a week, he sat at the central table of the coffeehouse, sometimes armed with a newspaper but always keeping a keen eye on the proprietor. Nobody cast him a second glance, not even Webb, who had hardly been able to take his eyes off Percy when he had been dressed to attract attention.

After a week, Percy realized that he had badly missed his mark by offering Webb money. While Percy was certain that everybody had his price, Webb’s price would not be strictly monetary. He was plainly living within his means. He kept the premises in good repair, let the girl—Betty—keep any tips the patrons left, and often swept and polished the tables and fittings himself. When a drunken street brawl became a regular melee and a broom handle got put through one of Webb’s windows, Webb had the glazier repair the broken pane that very day and paid him on the spot without even attempting to haggle over the cost.

While Webb’s upstairs office was furnished in a spare, almost spartan, manner, Percy had noticed a wax candle burning in the simple pewter candlestick, not cheap and smelly tallow or a humble rushlight. Percy didn’t know much about poverty, but he knew what it looked like when a man wasn’t in the least bit worried about where his next meal was coming from—mainly because he could compare what he and Marian had looked like before their present crisis with what they looked like now. Perhaps Webb had just been that good at his former trade and now had ample savings.

If Webb couldn’t be enticed with money, then Percy would have to find another way to persuade him to join in his scheme. He watched Webb, looking for a weakness he could exploit. A weakness, according to his mother, was anything at all that Percy could use to his advantage. He’d find Webb’s weakness; it was only a matter of time. Meanwhile, it was no hardship watching the man.

Webb was tall, possibly even taller than Percy. He filled out his ill-tailored breeches admirably and, even while using his cane, carried his weight with the ease of a man who had always been strong. His hair was the same dark brown as the coffee he brewed, falling past his shoulders in heavy waves. He made some minimal attempt to keep it confined to a respectable queue, but whenever Percy saw him, some strands around his face had broken free. He seldom smiled at anyone other than the serving girl, but when he did, he exposed a chipped incisor, and Percy’s heart flipped around in his chest for no good reason at all.

But Webb had lines around his eyes that hinted at some old, forgotten readiness to smile. He also had other lines, the kind that never came from laughing.

Percy watched to see who Webb paid attention to. He didn’t look twice at any of the handful of women who ventured into his coffeehouse, but he didn’t look at men, either. The only person he seemed to care about was Betty, and he treated her like a daughter. In fact, Percy had thought she might actually be his daughter, but Webb couldn’t yet be thirty and the girl had to be nearly twenty.

After a week of close observation, Percy concluded that Kit Webb was grouchy, sullen, and palpably bored, and no wonder. Percy was bored just watching him, and nobody would accuse Percy of having a taste for adventure. Webb had to be chafing at the bit for some excitement. Percy had seen the man’s expression when he gripped his dagger the other evening. He had seemed almost relieved, as if he had been waiting for an excuse to wield the thing, as if a spot of violence would be a welcome reprieve.

His entire life was a picture of almost soporific boredom, and if Marian’s informant hadn’t been certain, Percy wouldn’t have believed that this man had ever done anything as thrilling as go for a walk without an umbrella, let alone engage in any criminal activity. It seemed unfathomable that he was a highwayman of such famous charm and bravado that a ballad, multiple handbills, and no small number of engravings paid tribute to his feats of daring and his cunning escapes from the law.

Percy could use that; he knew he could. Webb would want to join in their scheme if only Percy could come up with a pretext that would allow him to gracefully agree. Percy had to give him a reason why saying yes would be easier than saying no.

In preparation for their second meeting, Percy dressed in much the same way he had for their first: coat and breeches of duck-egg blue, waistcoat just a few shades darker, stockings a few shades lighter with clocks the same hue as his waistcoat. He wore a freshly curled wig that was powdered to the requisite shade of alabaster, generously powdered his face, applied a velvet birthmark over the corner of his mouth, and then added just enough rouge to make it clear that he was wearing it. If his valet noticed that Percy’s toilette was as elaborate as it would be for a dinner party whose guests included members of the royal family, he did not mention it.

Percy descended carefully from his carriage, stepping gingerly over one of the more egregious puddles that stood between himself and the door to Webb’s coffeehouse. He could not do what he was about to do with muddy stockings.

He took his time opening the door and stepping through it, giving Webb the opportunity to notice him. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Webb turn his head, stiffen momentarily, then bring a hand to his hip. That, Percy assumed, was where Webb kept his dagger, or perhaps a pistol. Whatever it was, Webb didn’t remove it, didn’t even put his hand inside his coat to grip it. Percy supposed that was partly because he wasn’t afraid, and partly because he didn’t want to frighten his patrons. Either way, Percy was counting on that weapon remaining inside Webb’s coat.

Percy went directly to the table where Webb brewed his coffee. “Mr. Webb,” he said, smiling in the way he would before asking someone to dance. “My apologies. I realized after leaving last week that I left vital information out of my proposition.” Before Webb could object, Percy went on, leaning in. “I’m going to tell you a story. There’s a man who is, shall we say . . .”—he drummed his fingers on the table—“a stunning piece of shit. I could enumerate his misdeeds, but you have a business to run and my shoes aren’t meant for standing around in. Suffice it to say, he’s a negligent landowner and in general a brute.”

This was so far from a comprehensive list of his father’s worst misdeeds that it was almost incorrect, the understatement so severe as to verge on dishonesty. But he could hardly explain the whole truth. Webb looked at him, flat and unimpressed. Remembering how Webb saw the serving girl home on dark nights, Percy added as if in afterthought, “He’s also one of the worst husbands a woman could ask for.”

Something shifted in Webb’s expression, a hardening of his jaw and a flintiness that crept into his dark eyes, and Percy suppressed a victorious smile. One corner of Webb’s mouth hitched up in the beginnings of a smile—but not, Percy noticed, the kind smile he shared with the serving girl. “But what kind of father is he, Mr. Percy?” Webb asked, his voice low and scratchy. His voice was, Percy reflected inanely, the verbal equivalent of the stubble on his jaw—rough, careless, inconveniently attractive. Percy was trying to determine which trait he found more distressing, when the full import of Webb’s question struck him. Percy had carefully avoided disclosing his relation to the man he wished to rob and wasn’t sure what he had said that gave it away. Stupidly, he allowed himself to become flustered for a moment, and he knew that one moment of letting his thoughts show on his face was enough to confirm Webb’s suspicions.

“What is it you wish to steal from your father, Mr. Percy?” Webb asked in that same sandpaper voice. “Is your allowance insufficient? Do you have gaming debts? Did you get a girl in trouble?” He spoke as if each of these predicaments was boring, as if anything that might afflict Percy was beneath Webb’s notice. Percy might have been offended if he didn’t entirely agree that those problems were laughable compared to the truth.

Then he remembered that Webb had repeatedly addressed him as Mr. Percy rather than Lord Holland, which meant he didn’t know who Percy was or who his father was. That was a relief. It meant that Webb was nothing more than a good guesser. He allowed a flicker of amusement to pass over his face. “If you think I’m interested in personal gain, Mr. Webb, you’re badly mistaken. In fact, you’re welcome to help yourself to anything of value you find during the robbery,” he said, his voice nothing more than a murmur. Webb would have to strain his ears to hear. “All I want is a book.”

“A highway robbery is the most dangerous, least reliable method you could possibly have come up with if all you want is a book,” Webb said, his voice hardly above a whisper. “Hire a housebreaker, Mr. Percy. Hire a burglar and a lockpick. There are many who would jump at the chance. You don’t need a man of my skills.”

“He sleeps in a room guarded by two armed men. The book is always on his person.”

And that, of all the things, was what made something like interest flicker in Webb’s eyes. Percy wanted to crow in victory. Webb opened his mouth and snapped it shut, as if he was dying to know what exactly this book was but didn’t want to ask. Well, Percy wasn’t going to help him out.

“Pity you can’t help,” Percy said. He turned on his heel and walked through the coffeehouse and out the door, feeling Webb’s gaze on him all the while.





Chapter 6




Try as he might, Kit couldn’t stop thinking about Percy. No, not about Percy, he told himself, but about Percy’s proposition. Percy’s target, moreover. A man who needed two guards was interesting in and of himself; a man who had a book he never let go of was even more interesting, especially if Percy valued the book over whatever jewels or gold this man had on him. And Kit would wager that a man who could afford two guards and a son who dressed like the worst kind of popinjay carried around plenty of valuables.

Kit was certain the mark was indeed Percy’s father. The man had seemed caught out, and he had the sort of face that didn’t look like it was in the habit of giving away any secrets. Kit was inclined to trust that fleeting hint of surprise.

“You look lively,” Betty said as they were closing up the shop. “Nice change not to see you sulking about. I don’t think you snapped at a single customer all afternoon.”

“I don’t sulk,” Kit said, depressed by the realization that contemplating a return to crime had put him in a sunny mood. “Christ, I’m an unprincipled bastard.”

“Of course, you are, pet,” said Betty, handing him a clean rag to polish his half of the table. “Famous for it, you are.”

“It wasn’t meant to be a boast and you know it,” he protested, dutifully attempting to scrub off a stain left by a dripping cup of coffee. “It was meant to be a confession.”

“If you want to confess to something, confess to being sad as shit and a thorn in my side. Never in my life have I seen a man carry on the way you are. You’re like a lady in a play, pining.” She clutched the polishing cloth to her chest in a way he gathered was meant to be theatrical.

“I am not pining,” Kit said, torn between outrage and amusement. “My face doesn’t do that.”

“You keep telling yourself that. Lord, do I wish you’d just go and nick somebody’s handkerchief and be done with it. Get it out of your system. Nick a handkerchief, receive stolen goods, clip some coins. I have a lot of ideas, just ask,” she said helpfully.

“You’re a real mate, Betty.”

She gave him a shrewd sideways glance, the one that always made Kit suspect her of mind reading. “Plenty of mischief you can get up to even with a bad leg.”

That fucking leg. Every time he almost got used to it, it found a way to get worse. Every time he thought he figured out how far it would carry him, it decided to give out completely, and Kit would need to hire a bloody chair to get home. It was better to just stay put.

And now his leg was ruining his chance to either take part in a very interesting robbery or prove to himself that he was capable of being decent for once in his life. Because either way, he was going to turn Percy down. He couldn’t stay in his saddle at anything over a trot. Hell, he couldn’t even dismount his horse without falling on his face. He certainly couldn’t hold anyone up, not if he wanted to get away with his life. It would have been nice to have the choice, though.

Bugger that. It would have been nice to just do one last job. To once more see the look on a gentleman’s face when he realized there were some things out of his control, and to feel, however briefly, the dark satisfaction of revenge. He missed the rest of it, too—the thrill of making an escape, lying low, disposing of their haul.

“I see we’re back to sulking,” Betty said. “I hope you’re enjoying your penance, because I’m not.”

Kit let out a frustrated huff. “Only you, Betty, would see a man trying to do his best for once in his life and think there had to be some twisted explanation for it.”

“Only you, Christopher, would have his head so far up his arse to think that this”—she gestured around the shop with the rag—“was the first time you did your best.”

He pointedly ignored her and resumed tidying up the shop, all the while wondering how he had been brought to a point where he was so thoroughly bossed around by a woman ten years his junior, and also wondering how he’d even begin to get on without her.

After walking Betty home, his leg was in a right state. He turned down her mother’s invitation to stay for supper, then ignored her brother’s shouted invitation to meet at the corner tavern for a pint. Instead, he turned into a lane, as he always did, and leaned against the wall to rest. After a year of this routine, he thought there might be a Kit-shaped indentation in the bricks. He knocked his fist into the side of his right leg, which sometimes made his hip remember that it had a purpose. Gingerly he put some weight on it and, when he didn’t crumple to the ground, called it a success and returned to the street.

Sometimes on his way home he stopped at the baths and soaked his miserable leg, and sometimes he stopped at an eating house, and sometimes he ran into someone he knew and had a chat. Sometimes, when he was really in the mood for misery, he stopped by the stables where he put Bridget up and gave her an apple. But most of the time he went home, hauled himself up the stairs, and read by the light of a candle until he fell asleep.

At some point in the last year, Kit’s world had compressed to the span between his coffeehouse and Betty’s house, with increasingly infrequent forays into the wider world. After spending most of his adulthood stalking his quarry and running from the law, flying back and forth across the countryside as he saw fit, he felt every inch of his imprisonment.

Maybe Betty was right and he was punishing himself—for Rob’s death, for years of unrepentant theft, for not being able to thieve anymore. It didn’t make sense, but in Kit’s experience, not a lot of things that happened in a person’s mind really did. Maybe he was hobbling around one tiny corner of London because he wanted to feel like rubbish; if so, he was doing a fine job of it.

He tried to remember the last time he had gone anywhere outside his usual circuit—two weeks ago he visited the cobbler to have his boots mended, then returned a few days later to pick them up. Before that? In September he went to the apothecary when a spate of damp weather aggravated his leg and he needed a new tin of salve.

When he got home, he hauled himself up the stairs and collapsed into bed, not even bothering to take off his boots. The boots could wait until it hurt a little less to move. So could supper. So could everything that wasn’t staring at the ceiling and watching a spider weave a cobweb in the corner.

He wondered what Percy did of an evening. Surely, he didn’t mope around whatever fine house he lived in. Kit bet that Percy dressed even more absurdly than he did during the daytime, and then spent the night dancing and flirting with ladies. And probably doing a fair bit more than flirting with men. Those remarks he had made, those looks he had given Kit—they didn’t leave much room for doubt about Percy’s preferences. He didn’t make any kind of secret about it.

That thought was enough to ruin what had been shaping up to be a fine little fantasy. The only reason Percy was able to ogle other men in broad daylight without getting hit, arrested, or flat-out murdered was that he was rich. He wondered if rich men took their wigs off while fucking, and then got very annoyed with his prick for not finding wigs sufficiently unattractive. His prick didn’t understand anything. Bringing himself off to an aristocrat in a goddamn wig would be a humiliating end to a foul day.

He dragged himself out of bed, lest his thoughts and hands wander, and crossed the landing to his office to balance his books.





Chapter 7




Percy decided that it was high time to put the screws to the highwayman. It had been days since their last encounter, and besides, the errand would get him out of Clare House, fill a few hours, and bring his father one step closer to public ruination, so all in all, a morning well spent.

He took extra care with his toilette. It was a bleak and dismal day, so he chose yellow. It was not, he would concede, his best color, but one of the many advantages of beauty was that he could wear the ugliest conceivable color and still look better than almost everybody. He had Collins button him into his jonquil silk waistcoat and the saffron-colored coat that was positively stiff with gold embroidery. A lesser man might find yellow breeches to be a bridge too far, but Percy was not a lesser man.

He sailed into the coffeehouse with the maximum possible to-do only to find the place bursting with patrons. The weather was grim, so it stood to reason that these commoners would wish for a more hospitable environment than whatever hovels they undoubtedly hailed from. But he was disappointed to realize the table he occupied on his previous visits—at least those visits he had made as himself, rather than in his boring spy clothes—now seated four men in depressing black coats.

But he could hardly leave, not after sweeping into the place as he had done, so he settled himself at the end of a bench at the long central table, adjusting his coat around him. He could feel Webb’s gaze. He looked up, meeting the highwayman’s eye.

“You’ll be wanting coffee, then,” Webb grumbled.

“Yes, I am here for coffee,” Percy said. “How observant of you. No wonder this place is such a bustling success.”

Webb wordlessly plonked a cup of coffee onto the table, causing a not insubstantial quantity to spill over the rim of the cup. Percy ignored both the spill and the coffee.

“Good God, Kit,” said the man who sat beside Percy. “You’ll soak my book if you don’t mop that up. Give me a rag, why don’t you.” Then, turning to Percy, “The place goes to ruin without Betty here to see to things. Ruin, I tell you.”

“Ruin,” Percy agreed, and apparently that was all one needed to do at a place like this to begin a conversation, because then they were off. The man told him what a grave tragedy it would have been if Kit had managed to destroy his book when here he was, mere pages from the end. And that prompted Percy to confess that he hadn’t read the book.

“You must take it!” the man cried. His name was Harper, or Harmon, or possibly even Hardcastle. He spoke with a rustic accent that sounded like so much nonsense to Percy’s ears. Also, Percy did not much care what the fellow’s name was. “Here,” said Harper or whoever he was, pressing the book into Percy’s hands.

“I couldn’t possibly,” Percy said. If Percy wished to read this book about a Tom Jones, or some such common-sounding fellow, he would order a copy bound in the same green leather as the rest of his library. He would certainly not read a book that belonged to an utter stranger and which looked like it had been read by several people with hands in various stages of dirtiness. “I don’t wish to impose on your kindness.”

“And you wouldn’t be, my good man. It’s not my book. It’s Kit’s.” Harper gestured at a wall on the far side of the room, lined with bookcases and hardly visible through the tobacco smoke.

“Is Mr. Webb running a lending library as well as a coffeehouse?” Percy asked. The mind boggled at the career choices of retired highwaymen.

“That,” said a man across the table, not looking up from a paper on which he had been furiously scribbling, “would imply that he charged.”

“I do charge!” interjected Webb, who was stomping around the table collecting empty cups.

“No, you don’t,” said the man across the table.

“You’re supposed to put an extra penny in the bowl.”

“Nobody does that,” Harper told Percy in confiding tones. “You just take the book and put it back when you’re done.”

“And put a fucking penny in the bowl,” said Webb. “What are you all still doing here? Don’t you have homes to go to?”

Harper left soon after, shoving the book in front of Percy as he went. Percy ignored it, preferring instead to watch Webb poke at the fire and grumble at the pot of coffee that brewed near the hearth.

Around supper time, the crowd at the coffeehouse began to thin. Percy really ought to be going as well. When he checked his watch, he discovered he had been sitting on a hard wooden bench for three hours. He had read four pages of the novel, idly listened to a debate that sounded shockingly seditious on both sides, and spent the rest of the time watching Webb.

He watched Webb sweep, add what seemed to be utterly indiscriminate and unmeasured quantities of herbs to the coffeepot, pour coffee in a way that could only be described as reluctant, shelve a pile of books in a manner that could have nothing to do with the alphabet, and tell about three dozen patrons that “Betty isn’t here, God damn you, just drink your coffee and get out.”

Percy knew nothing about shop keeping and would have been gravely insulted by anyone who suggested otherwise, but he had spent enough money at enough places to know that Webb’s manner of running his business was both eccentric and not especially likely to encourage customers to return. But still, the place had been full every time Percy had seen it.

Maybe they were all there to admire the proprietor. There was certainly a lot of him to admire. Even his scowl didn’t ruin his looks. He had the jaw to carry it off, making the scowl into a proper manly glower.

Now there were only three people left, including Percy himself, and surely it was past time for Percy to be going. He had only meant to show his face and remind Webb of what fun and intriguing criminous activities he could be engaging in instead of brewing coffee. But somehow he had whiled away the entire afternoon.

One of the remaining patrons got to his feet and made not for the door, but for the stairs. “That garret still empty, Kit?” he called when he was already on the bottom step, so he must have been fairly sure of the answer in advance.

“It’s yours.” Webb glanced up from the counter, where he was counting out the day’s earnings into neat stacks of coins. “Mrs. Kemble is on the floor below, so mind that you tread lightly. You know how she gets.”

That was the most Percy had heard Kit say that day or any other day, and it was the first time he had heard the man speak in anything other than a grumble. He had a nice voice, too—low and a bit rough. His accent was hardly polished, but neither was it rustic. He didn’t sound illiterate, and indeed, now that Percy thought about it, he had seen Webb reading books from his own library. One could put him in a respectable coat, introduce him to the concept of a hairbrush, and scrape off that stubble and he would pass for a prosperous shopkeeper, a respectable member of the middling sort—which was, Percy supposed, exactly what Webb was, felonious past notwithstanding.

“Stop staring at me like that,” Webb said when the two of them were alone in the shop. He didn’t look up from his coins.

“No, I don’t think I shall,” Percy said.

“You’ll get yourself arrested if you carry on acting like that.”

Percy raised his eyebrows. “I have to say, I wasn’t expecting to receive counsel on being a law-abiding citizen from you.”

Webb made a noise that it took Percy a moment to realize was a laugh. Webb recovered himself immediately and scowled at Percy, as if he were cross with Percy for being amusing.

“You’re not going to tell me that a man like you minds a brush with the law,” Percy said.

Webb gave him an odd look, but still there were no offended dramatics about him not being that sort of man, how dare Percy, et cetera and so forth. The man wasn’t even blushing.

“Did you take my advice?” Webb asked.

“To stop staring at you?”

Webb looked up, exasperated. “To hire a thief.”

“I already told you why that wouldn’t work.”

“Ah, yes, because your father has guards.”

If Webb thought he could so easily get Percy to admit that his target was his father, he could guess again. “What a fool you must think me to fall for such a trick,” Percy said. “How demoralizing.” He got to his feet and walked out the door, taking the tattered first volume of Tom Jones with him and pointedly dropping a penny into the bowl, feeling Webb’s eyes on him all the while.





Chapter 8




Kit leaned heavily on his cane, looking at the familiar building. The same lace curtains fluttered in the evening air as fiddle music drifted out to the street on a breeze. He thought he might even be able to smell the women’s perfume all the way from the pavements, but that was probably his imagination.

He knocked, and the door was opened by a girl Kit hadn’t seen before. She had red hair and beneath her powder he could see a smattering of freckles on her cheeks.

“Good evening,” she said in what sounded like it was supposed to be a seductive lilt but actually came out with a bit of a nervous stammer. Kit knew the girls who were truly nervous didn’t work the door. This one, with her half-concealed freckles and her shyness and the way she moved a hand to her chest as if in an arrested effort to tug her bodice higher, was there to appeal to the sort of man who wanted to take care of a girl. Scarlett knew what she was doing, and so did this girl. He’d bet that within six months she would be set up in a cozy house by some man who was set on rescuing her. And bully for her. Kit hoped she fleeced the fellow.

“Would you tell your mistress that Kit Webb is here to see her?”

She opened her eyes wide, and he couldn’t tell whether she recognized his name or whether she did that to all the men who called at the house. He took off his hat and she showed him through a series of rooms papered in shades of rose and ivory. They passed a salon in which a handful of men clustered around a woman who played a lively tune on the harpsichord, then a room in which men and women played cards, some of the women perched on the laps of their companions.

At the end of the corridor, the girl gestured to an empty parlor and instructed Kit to wait. He sat near the fire, gingerly lowering himself onto a delicate settee. The furniture on the ground floor of Scarlett’s establishment was all constructed along similar lines—chairs that seemed just a shade too fragile, tables that were maybe half an inch too low, all designed to make men feel like huge strangers in a feminine place. When Kit had first asked Scarlett about it, he had questioned her logic—wouldn’t it make more sense to fill the house with furniture built on a more masculine scale, so as to welcome paying customers? She had simply told him that the beds were sturdy and her pockets were full.

“It really is you,” came a throaty voice from the door. “I thought Flora had to be mistaken.”

“In the flesh,” he said, rising to his feet and turning to the door.

Scarlett crossed the room and took his hands, looking up into his face. “Twelve months, Kit.” He wondered if she could see the passage of time on his skin. He thought she might have new lines on her face, maybe another strand or two of gray hair among the auburn.

“The girl who answered the door,” he said. “Flora, I think you called her. Is she your sister?”

She smiled and shook her head. “Flatterer.”

“Daughter?”

“Clean living has made your mind go soft if you think I’ll admit to having a daughter old enough to own her keep.” Which, he noticed, was not a denial. “But what brings you here? I don’t dare hope it was for the pleasure of my company.”

“Intelligence,” he said.

“The usual arrangement, then?” She sat in one of the armchairs and gestured for Kit to do the same.

“Not exactly,” he said, sitting. In the past, she had worked as something of a scout for Kit and Rob. If one wanted to hold up a gentleman’s conveyance, one had to be sure the man carried enough on his person to make the job worthwhile. A highwayman also needed to know what roads the man was likely to travel, and when. Men, while in their cups and well satisfied, were liable to let this sort of information slip. Scarlett’s girls knew they’d be well compensated if they relayed useful details to their mistress.

“Pity,” she said. “I’ve a list as long as my arm of men I wouldn’t mind coming to harm.”

“Don’t we all,” Kit said.

“Sometimes when I hear about an especially bad one,” Scarlett said, “I think, Well, Rob would like to hear about that.”

Kit tamped down the swell of grief he felt at hearing Rob’s name. It felt unexpectedly fresh. He was used to grief, couldn’t even remember a time when he hadn’t been grieving somebody. But his parents’ deaths were half a lifetime ago, long enough for that wound to have long since scabbed over. And as for Jenny and—and everything that had followed from that, he had been too angry and tired and out of his mind with drink to remember now what it had felt like.

But he had grieved Rob while sober, and with plenty of time to go over the events of that last day again and again until the memory was frayed at the edges, blurry like a print in a book that had been handled too many times. He could hardly remember it without also seeing every moment he could have acted differently, turned back, picked a different mark, a different route, a different life entirely.

It wasn’t as if he and Rob had set out to become highwaymen, for God’s sake. Rob’s father had been a gardener at the manor; Kit’s parents owned a small tavern. They could each have followed in their fathers’ footsteps, and indeed they would have if it hadn’t been for the whims and caprices of the Duke of Clare.

“I should have visited you earlier,” Kit said, tearing his thoughts from events of a decade earlier and looking at the woman before him. It was a shabby thing to leave a woman alone with her grief.

A peal of laughter came from a room upstairs. Not that Scarlett was alone, of course. But a brothel keeper could hardly put on black crepe and draw the curtains.

“We’ve both been busy.” Scarlett glanced at his cane. “I heard you were injured but hoped it was a rumor.”

“If you heard the version of the tale that had me shot with a poisoned arrow in defense of Bonnie Prince Charlie, then I’m afraid it’s fiction. It was a very ordinary pistol and a very frightened coachman. But I didn’t come here to bore you with tales of my injuries. Somebody came to me for help,” he said. “A stranger.”

She raised her eyebrows. “After nearly a year, it’s a stranger who gets you to come to me? She must be pretty.”

“He,” Kit said absently, and Scarlett’s eyebrows rose even higher. “But no, that isn’t why I’m tempted.”

“Then why?” She toed off her slippers and stretched her legs toward the fire.

“Because,” he said carefully, “he knows who I am.” He had debated whether to tell her this. He didn’t want it to sound like an accusation. “He knows my name, and who I—who Rob and I, rather—used to be.” There were only a handful of people who knew enough to make the connection. He and Rob had been prudent about that, if about nothing else. And Scarlett was one of them.

He thought she’d protest her innocence, but instead she frowned. “That’s troubling. I don’t like it.”

“Neither do I,” he admitted. “I’d like to know how he found me. He wants me to do a job for him. Wants me to hold up”—he stopped himself before he could say his father—“some aristo. The job, to be frank, sounds like the sort of thing I’d have done in a heartbeat, but I’ve never worked on my own and now I couldn’t even if I wanted to.” He gestured vaguely at his leg and hoped she understood. “But I want to know who he is and why he came to me. It would help me put the matter to rest,” he said. “He says his name is Edward Percy.”

“Edward Percy,” she repeated. “I’ll find out whatever I can.”

He walked home and let himself into his dark shop, feeling something he told himself wasn’t anticipation.





Chapter 9




The girl entered Kit’s with the same air of bashful self-consciousness with which she had answered the door to the brothel a few days earlier. A hush fell over the coffeehouse at the sight of her, as not many women ventured into coffeehouses, and never alone unless they were selling their favors. Kit watched in amusement as his patrons tried to figure out if this pretty, meek girl could possibly be a prostitute.

“Mistress Flora,” Kit said when she approached the counter.

“Mr. Webb,” she answered, her cheeks flushing, and Kit longed to ask whether she was able to do that at will. “I have a message for you from my mistress.” From between the folds of her cloak, she withdrew a sealed letter and held it out to Kit in an immaculately gloved hand.

As Kit broke the seal, he could smell the scent of rosewater that always surrounded Scarlett, and he wondered if she deliberately scented her stationery or if it simply picked up the scent from being near her. He’d bet on the former: nothing Scarlett ever did was by accident. The missive was brief and direct.

“There is no Edward Percy,” the letter read. “Nobody by that name has attended any of the usual schools. No Edward Percy has ever been presented at court. No Edward Percy is known to any of the servants at any of the great houses. He could, of course, be the son of a merchant or some other personage who has taken to dressing like his betters, but in that case, I’d be even more certain to have heard about him. Yours, S.”

Kit frowned. He had hoped that Scarlett would have been able to tell him something that would lessen his curiosity, not stoke it even higher. Kit had always liked a riddle, a puzzle, a challenge. Even robbery—hell, especially robbery—had been a sort of puzzle. Does this baronet travel with a purse full of coin? Are his outriders armed? At what time would he be likely to reach that ever-so-convenient bend in the Brighton road? How many men would Kit need in order to see the job safely done? How should they get away once the job was over? Avoiding the hangman satisfied some part of Kit’s brain in the way unpicking a stubborn knot might. Now, a year after planning his last robbery, it occurred to Kit that some of the challenge may have come from how persistently drunk he had been in those days. It was more than possible that sober he’d need more than a simple holdup to occupy his mind. He might need more of a mystery.

He was interrupted by the sound of Flora delicately clearing her throat. Now, why had Scarlett sent this girl to him? She had boys she used as couriers. There was no reason to send one of her prettiest and greenest girls out on an errand, unattended. Except—of course. The whole point of this was to display Flora in front of as many men as possible. Scarlett was all but having an auction.

“We’re putting our best merchandise in the shop window today, are we?” Kit murmured. In answer, Flora ducked her head and looked up with a sly wink. Well, she was in on it, then, and that put his mind at ease. “I’m meant to walk you home, aren’t I?” Scarlett would know that Kit would never let this girl out into the street on her own. While he thought it more than likely that she could take care of herself, walking her home was a small enough favor.

“If you please, sir,” she answered. “But you needn’t do so until you’re ready to close up the shop. I have a book to occupy myself.”

“Of course you do,” he said. “Take a seat and I’ll bring you coffee and some cake.”

He watched as she sat near the window, where she would be seen by everybody walking past and everybody within. When he brought her coffee and a plate of seedcakes, he huffed out a laugh when he realized that the book she had brought with her was the Bible. He couldn’t help but grin. He hoped she landed herself a lord and took him for every penny she could.

He was still smiling when he heard footsteps approach the table where he brewed the coffee. Looking up, he saw a now-familiar wigged head and powdered face. The theme of the day, he noticed, was rose: rose silk waistcoat, rose ribbon at the nape of his neck, and he knew that if he looked down, he’d see stockings with rose clocks adorning the sides. He was predictable, orderly, this man who had taken the decidedly outlandish step of attempting to hire a highwayman to rob his father.

Only when he saw Percy’s mouth quirk up at the sides into a grin matching his own did Kit realize he was still smiling like a fool. He also remembered that Percy wasn’t Percy at all.

“You lied about your name,” Kit said, pointing a finger at the other man’s rose-clad chest.

“Did I?” the man asked. “I can’t recall.” He spoke the words as if he were sharing a private joke, rather than defending an accusation of lying. Kit had the strangest wish to be in on the jest, to know what had stolen away the man’s arrogance and replaced it with a smile that managed to be both wry and soft.

“Why are you here?” Kit asked.

“So suspicious, Mr. Webb. I’ve become rather fond of your coffee. Isn’t that reason enough to visit your establishment?”

“It’s very inconvenient, you know,” Kit said, the words leaving his mouth before he could think better of it, “not to know with what name to think of you.”

“Is it? You must think of me often if that poses such an inconvenience.” His arrogance was back in force now, written in the lift of his eyebrow and the way he leaned forward toward Kit, his hands on the table, pushing into Kit’s space ever so slightly. Kit didn’t lean away—this was his coffeehouse and he had all the power in this situation, no matter how he felt. But he could smell lavender and powder, could see that the man’s eyes were the dark gray of wet cobblestones, could tell that the patch he had affixed over his lip wasn’t a circle, as Kit had assumed, but rather a tiny heart. It was, perhaps, the heart that did Kit in—the utter ridiculousness of a heart-shaped fake birthmark ought to have made Kit loathe the man but it achieved quite a different result.

It was too much to hope that Percy (Kit had resigned himself to thinking of him as Percy, as the alternative was a mysterious blankness that posed the danger of becoming as peculiarly compelling as every other detail about the man, whereas Percy was a very boring and ordinary name) hadn’t noticed Kit’s reaction. “I knew it,” Percy said, leaning forward even further. Kit still refused to retreat, telling himself that it was because he would not cede a single inch of ground, but even as he formulated the thought, he knew it to be a lie.

“I don’t do that,” Kit said, because, evidently, he was an idiot.

“Do what, Mr. Webb? I hadn’t realized we had reached that stage of the proceedings.”

“Uh,” Kit said, eloquently. “I don’t—”

“But you want to,” Percy said, undeterred and unabashed. He helped himself to a seedcake from the basket that Kit had forgotten to put away. He took a small bite, chewed thoughtfully, and then brought a lace-trimmed handkerchief to his mouth. “Quite good. Why haven’t I had any cakes on my previous visits? I spent hours here without seeing so much as a crumb.”

Kit snatched the basket away and put it under the table. “I save them for the customers I like.”

“I think I’m shaping up to be your favorite customer ever,” Percy said, leaning close and taking another bite of cake. A crumb lingered on the swell of his lower lip, and Kit couldn’t tear his gaze from it. When Percy swiped the crumb away with one flick of his pink tongue, Kit thought his heart might stop.

“What’s your name?” Kit asked in a desperate bid to regain control of this conversation. “The truth this time.”

“I’m afraid I can’t tell you that,” Percy said, looking genuinely remorseful, which Kit could not begin to make sense of. “Sorrier than you can know.” He was whispering now, his words little more than a breath on Kit’s cheek. Kit could have turned his head an inch to the left and—and kissed him, he would have thought if he were having an even somewhat normal reaction, if wanting to kiss strange men in broad daylight in a crowded coffeehouse could be considered in any way normal. But no, Kit’s impulses were entirely run to mayhem, so what he actually imagined was running his teeth over the black velvet of that stupid heart-shaped patch. He was manifestly losing his mind.

Kit was usually very good at controlling this sort of urge. Hopping into bed with attractive strangers had never appealed to him very much anyway. It always seemed like a lot of hassle and risk for pleasure that never quite lived up to one’s expectations. And that was with women; with men, things were even more complicated because a heaping great dose of danger was thrown into the bargain. And while Kit was far from averse to danger, he didn’t want it in his bed. The fact was that he was spoiled by knowing what it was like to love someone and be loved in return; he knew what it felt like to want to be with someone in bed but also build a future with them. Anything other than that seemed too dismal to consider.

Although, strictly speaking, he still wasn’t considering it. What he had in mind didn’t involve any bed at all, just this counter and a bit of ingenuity. It would be easy—all he had to do was clear the shop, bolt the door, and draw the curtains. Percy seemed like he’d be game—had spent the last fortnight making as much clear to anyone with eyes and ears. Now his lips were parted, and at this close distance Kit could see his pulse coming hot and fast beneath the lace of his collar.

“Pardon me, Mr. Webb,” said a small voice. Kit looked up to see Flora holding a coffee cup in one hand and her Bible in the other. “May I trouble you for a cloth? I’m afraid I spilled my coffee all over the table and now the book is quite soaked. It was my mother’s,” she said, opening the sodden flyleaf to expose a page of smeared ink. There were tears in her eyes, and her voice had a dangerous wobble.

It was as if the girl’s words freed Kit from whatever godforsaken spell he was under. He handed her a clean cloth and showed her how to press it between the damp pages to absorb the worst of the spill. The book wasn’t badly damaged after all, and Kit more than suspected that Flora’s tears—and possibly the spill itself—had been engineered for Percy’s benefit. When he looked up, he expected to see Percy and wondered whether the man would have caught on to what was happening. But when he raised his head, Percy was gone.





Chapter 10




With a great deal of effort and the unfortunate necessity of breaking into an unbecoming sweat, Percy managed to get back to Clare House, wash his face, change into drab clothes, and return to Webb’s coffeehouse before it closed for the evening. The serving girl hadn’t been there that afternoon, and Percy wanted to see if her absence changed Webb’s routine at all. Without Betty to walk home, might Mr. Webb actually do something interesting?

Percy knew he was close to getting Webb to agree. He had to be. Percy had seen it in his eyes that afternoon. All he needed was a push, and maybe tonight Percy could get an idea about exactly what might make that happen.

Percy watched from the shadows across the street as Webb stepped outside and locked the door, accompanied by the pretty red-haired woman who had been in the shop earlier that day. Percy hadn’t been paying her any attention at the time, and his memory supplied only a lacy white cap, a demurely cut gown, and a coffee-soaked Bible. A prostitute, no doubt, but the way Webb led her through the streets was how Percy imagined a man might walk with a niece—faintly gallant but no hint of anything sexual.

Gladhand Jack had a reputation for gallantry, in fact. At least two stanzas of that idiotic ballad were devoted to his chivalry, not that Percy had seen any evidence of it in person, unless grumbles were considered particularly charming. But the ladies he robbed returned home safe and sound with tales of how Gladhand Jack allowed them to keep some favorite bauble. The husbands, needless to say, had no such tales to tell, only empty purses and a disrupted journey. Even a highwayman who fancied men—as Webb plainly did—would likely not flirt with the men he robbed, although Percy was quite certain he could while away a pleasant afternoon daydreaming about getting held up by Kit Webb, with those dark eyes and big hands.

Before he could get too carried away, Webb and the girl stopped before a building Percy recognized but had never entered. The place was a famous brothel, easily one of London’s most expensive and exclusive. Webb saw the girl inside, and no sooner had Percy congratulated himself on correctly identifying her as a prostitute than Webb descended the steps, returning in the direction from whence he came and heading straight for Percy.

It was too late to avoid Webb, so Percy ducked his head, relying on the down-turned brim of his hat, his plain attire, and the nearly moonless night to conceal his identity. He thought he had succeeded when Webb seemed prepared to walk right past him. Just as he was about to breathe a sigh of relief, Webb looped his arm through Percy’s, spinning him so they were walking in the same direction, and led him into a side street with so little fuss that no passersby would have noticed anything amiss. Percy was almost impressed.

“This isn’t the first time you’ve followed me. Who the hell are you?” Webb demanded. The street they stood in was little more than a lane, one of those narrow passageways that seemed to exist only to confuse strangers and to provide natives a series of expedient shortcuts. It was hardly wide enough for a single cart, with the result that it was mostly shadows. It had the air—and odor—of a place seldom frequented by anyone other than feral cats.

“Haven’t we already had this conversation once today?” Percy answered. “Let’s not be tedious, Mr. Webb.”

Webb’s eyes widened, and Percy realized his error. Webb hadn’t recognized Percy as the man from the coffeehouse; he had recognized Percy as the person who had already followed him several times. But now Percy watched as realization dawned in Webb’s eyes. He stared searchingly into Percy’s face, as if looking for traces of the man from the coffeehouse, then dropped his gaze, taking in Percy’s plain and utilitarian attire.

“Which is the disguise?” he asked flatly, and of all the questions in the world, Percy couldn’t have expected that one.

“This is,” Percy answered.

Webb shook his head. “Unless my source is wrong, and she never is, there isn’t any Edward Percy among the quality.” He pronounced the last word with an acid irony that was not lost on Percy. He was, of course, correct: there was no Edward Percy among the quality. There was an Edward Talbot, but when Talbot was stripped away, he’d be left with his mother’s maiden name. Percy shrugged.

“Who is your father?” Webb continued.

This, fortunately, was a much more straightforward matter. “The Duke of Clare.”

Percy had expected Webb to scoff, to express skepticism or to demand proof. He hadn’t expected Webb to go so pale that his colorlessness was obvious even in the scant moonlight. “The Duke of Clare,” he repeated, raking his gaze over Percy’s face again. But now he looked not curious so much as horrified. “What’s your given name?” he asked. “And don’t fucking lie to me.”

“I told you already. It’s Edward, but nobody calls me that because my family is lousy with Edwards. And honestly, everyone calls me Holland anyway—”

Percy might have kept babbling indefinitely if he weren’t silenced by the blow of a fist colliding with his jaw.





Chapter 11




Percy—no, Lord Holland, damn him—spit out a mouthful of blood with astounding delicacy. “I take it you’re not one of my father’s more ardent supporters, then,” he said, voice too steady and too wry for a man who had just been assaulted in a dark alley by a known criminal. “Well, neither am I, come to that. See, we’re going to get along splendidly.”

“Shut up, you,” Kit said, because he couldn’t decide what to do next, and the sound of Holland’s voice and the sight of blood on his split lip was making it impossible for him to hear himself think.

“Or is it that you respect and admire my father so greatly, and were so grievously offended by my plan to rob him, that you simply had to hit me? That must be it,” Holland said, idly tapping one long index finger against his lower lip.

“Shut up,” Kit growled, clenching his bruised knuckles into a fist.

“Why, are you going to hit me again?” Holland asked, not seeming particularly worried about that prospect. “Because if you are, please get on with it. I’m expected at supper in an hour and it’ll take an age to cover what will surely be an impressive bruise. And if you aren’t going to hit me, will you kindly bugger off, as I believe is the custom in these situations? Not, I hasten to add, that I’ve ever been accosted in an alley or anywhere else before this evening, so my intelligence may be lacking. It’s mainly from the theater,” he added confidentially.

“Do you ever shut up?” Kit asked, now fully exasperated.

“I’m afraid not,” Holland said apologetically with a faint smile. He oughtn’t to have been able to smile. Kit hadn’t pulled that punch in the slightest and had aimed right at the sweet spot of Holland’s jaw. His jaw wasn’t nearly as red as it ought to have been, either. Even without powder, his skin was the sort of white that bruised instantly and reddened easily. If his jaw wasn’t as red as a beet, it could only mean that either Kit had aimed badly, which he hadn’t, or Holland had managed to dodge at the last instant, so Kit’s fist only landed a glancing blow.

He grabbed Holland’s jaw and tilted it to the side so he could see the bruise. “You have good reflexes,” he said.

“Why, thank you,” Holland said graciously. “The theater really didn’t prepare me for this in the least. I shall write a letter about the slanderous treatment of footpads and miscreants in modern drama.”

“Are you able to get home safely?”

“Am I— Yes, you lackwit, I can get home safely. You really are gallant. I wonder how much of the rest of that ballad is accurate.”

That jolted Kit back to his senses. “Then get the hell out of here.”

“Or what? You’ll give me another extremely mild bruise?” But Holland was already at the mouth of the alley. “Have a lovely evening. I’ll call on you later this week!” he shouted before disappearing around the corner.

Kit leaned back against the damp stone of the nearest wall. The Duke of fucking Clare. It was that name, that man, and every man like him, who had led Kit to become what he had been. Rage at Clare had fueled a decade of retribution against his entire class. But Kit had never been able to lay hands on Clare himself. His outriders were too well armed, his journeys too unpredictable, and his path usually limited to well-traveled roads. More than once, Kit had thought Clare lived like a man in constant expectation of being attacked. And well might he be, if he made a practice of treating people as cruelly and needlessly as he had treated—

But Kit could get him now. After nearly ten years, he could have his revenge. He’d have not only revenge, but the satisfaction of knowing that Clare’s own son had helped him get it. He’d have a chance to do one last job and with the only target he had ever really wanted.

He pressed his palms against the stone wall behind him and pushed off. He made his way through streets lit only by a sliver of the moon and the candlelight flickering through the windows of the buildings lining the street.

Kit had seen the Duke of Clare only once, when he had sentenced Jenny. At the time, Kit had thought he had the man’s appearance seared into his memory, but now he could hardly conjure up a picture of the man. When Holland had said who his father was, though, Kit had seen traces of the duke on his son’s face. They had the same cold eyes, the same aquiline nose, the same air of a man used to moving through a world without obstacles.

Unchecked power gave a man a certain look; it set him apart from normal people. Something terrible was unleashed when a person knew that not only could he tear down homes, take away a family’s livelihood, and send people to the far corners of the earth, but he would be praised for it. There were rich men who didn’t use their money and power as cudgels, but they still always knew that they had a cudgel ready at hand. They got so used to it, they probably thought they were doing a grand thing by not wielding it.

And Kit hated them all for it. People might say that what he really hated was the system that put too much power in too few hands. But Kit knew he also hated the men.

That hatred had been the engine of his life for the better part of a decade, and at the center of it was the Duke of Clare.

Led by instinct or old habit or just the darker recesses of his nature, Kit turned one corner, then another, until he found himself in the sort of neighborhood where every old lady sold gin out of her front window. He found one of these shops, knocked, paid his money, and before he could think better of it, had a tin cup in his hand. He knocked back its contents in a single gulp, the spirits burning their way down his throat and making his eyes water.

“Blimey,” said the old woman. “Needed it, did you?” Her hair was white and thin, her back stooped, and her face deeply lined. She spoke with the blurred syllables of a woman with very few teeth. She reminded Kit of Jenny’s grandmother, and in the middle of a Saint Giles street he was assailed by the memory of a brace of pheasants roasting in the hearth of a crumbling cottage in Oxfordshire.

He hated to think that far back, in the same way that he refused to go back to the little corner of Oxfordshire where he had been born and lived out the first eighteen years of his life. He didn’t want to think about that younger version of himself, and above all didn’t want to wonder what that younger man would think of his present-day self.

The gin had already started to work its magic, and the memories came hard upon one another. He could see his father pulling pints and his mother polishing the brass fittings she was so proud of. He could all but smell the wood fire that burned bright all year round in the taproom.

He remembered another cottage, a cradle he had built with his own hands, a child wrapped in fresh linens—

And he remembered how it felt after it was all gone.

“You all right, dearie?” the old woman asked, and Kit had to be in a truly bad state when the purveyor of an illegal gin shop was worried about him.

“It’s just been a while,” he said, handing her the empty cup through the window along with another coin for her to fill it again.





Chapter 12




Percy knew that vanity was not only a sin, but possibly his besetting sin. Or at least it had been before the revelations of the past month introduced him to the various temptations of theft, cruelty, and the general consignment of the entire fifth commandment to the midden pile. But he was vain, and he knew it, and he was not appearing in public with a bruise on his jaw.

Still, he did not relish the prospect of pressing a raw piece of meat to any part of his person. Collins assured him that this was the received practice for treating new bruises, but that didn’t make it any less disgusting. Averting his eyes, he applied the slab of meat to his face. He breathed through his mouth to avoid gagging at the smell of fresh blood. His vision swam, the walls of his bedchamber seeming to dissolve before his eyes; the distant sounds of the household settling down for the night receded as if muffled by cotton wool, so at first he did not hear the tapping at his window.

When the sound came a second time, he shakily got to his feet and pushed aside the curtain with the hand that was not holding the revolting meat. He expected to see a loose piece of ivy or a creeper that had come away from the trellis, or, at worst, an especially large moth.

What he did not expect to see was Marian, three stories aboveground, her face a pale, almost spectral, oval against the darkness of the night. He managed not to jump, but only barely. She gestured impatiently for him to open the window. He gestured for her to move aside so he didn’t open the window directly into her face, causing her to plummet to her death. Finally, he managed to get the window open with one hand, and she stepped inside with an almost acrobatic grace, as if she climbed in and out of windows every day of her life. Her dark hair was pulled into a long plait and she wore black silk knee breeches that he recognized as a pair that had gone missing from his wardrobe shortly after his return home.

“Those are my breeches,” he said by way of greeting.

“They’re your shirt and waistcoat, too. Pity your boots don’t fit.” She gestured to her feet, which were clad in black stockings and her own black dancing slippers.

“A true shame that my wardrobe couldn’t supply all your needs for outfitting yourself as a housebreaker. To what do I owe the honor?”

“You had a bruise on your face at supper,” she said. “I could hardly ask you about it in front of the duke.”

He frowned, the movement tugging at the injury. Percy didn’t need to ask why Marian had sneaked in through his window instead of knocking at his door or approaching him in the drawing room. The duke was suspicious of all men Marian spoke to, even his own son, despite the fact that Percy had never in his life done anything to make anyone think he might be interested in going to bed with a woman. Indeed, during his teenage years, he had been something less than discreet, relying on his name and position to get him out of any trouble he might find himself in. There had been a few boys at school, then the village blacksmith and one of the grooms. And also one of Marian’s grooms. And also Marian’s brother.

“How is Marcus these days?” Percy asked.

She shot him an exasperated look. “Yes, I tiptoed along a ledge for twenty yards to gossip about Marcus. He’s still in France, trying to find Louise Thierry, or whatever that scribble in the parish register was meant to spell. More to the point, he’s trying to find out if she has a son.” Marian pressed her lips together. “We need to know who will be the next Duke of Clare.”

For a moment, Percy was certain the wind outside stopped blowing, the fire in the hearth stopped crackling, and his own heart stopped beating. Until then, he had assumed that the title and estate would go to a third cousin, a cadet branch of the Talbot family to be sure, and hardly worthy of Percy’s notice, but respectable people. Percy was going to be disinherited, Percy’s mother’s memory and Marian would both be dishonored, and for that his father would pay, but at least Cheveril and the rest of the estate would go to someone who would look after it. The idea that instead it might fall into the hands of a French peasant, the son of some woman his father had taken to a foreign church and secretly wed, probably for no reason other than to smooth his path into her bed—Percy found himself choked with something