Brazen and the Beast (The Bareknuckle Bastards #2)

“Whatever it is.” She pushed her shoulders back. “I shall see it returned.”

Four shipments. Three outriders with bullets in them. After tonight, Whit’s own throwing knives, which he prized above all else. And, if he was right, more than could ever be repaid.

He shook his head. “It’s not possible. I require a name.”

She stiffened at the doubt. “I beg your pardon; I do not fail.”

Another man might have found the words amusing. But Whit heard the honesty in them. How was she involved in this mess? He couldn’t resist repeating himself. “What is the Year of Hattie?”

“If I tell you, will you leave me alone?”

No. He didn’t say it.

She took a deep breath in the silence, seeming to consider her options. And then, “It is what it sounds like. It is my year. The year I claim for myself.”

“How?”

“I’ve a four-point plan to captain my own fate.”

His brows rose. “Four points.”

She lifted a hand, ticking the answers off on her long, gloved fingers. “Business. Home. Fortune. Future.” She paused. “Now, if you would tell me what precisely was removed from your possession, I will see it returned, and we can go about our lives without bothering one another ever again.”

“Business. Home. Fortune. Future.” He tested the plan. “In that order?”

She tilted her head. “Likely.”

“What kind of business?” Whit had money to spare and could aid her in whatever business she wished . . . for the information he required.

Her gaze narrowed, and she remained silent. She likely had aspirations as a dressmaker or a milliner, both of which would buy her a home, but neither of which would earn her a fortune. But wouldn’t this woman be better suited to a future as a wife and mother on some country estate?

That, and not one of her four points made sense in the context of the Shelton Street brothel. He pointed to the paper clutched in her fist. “What were you hoping for from Nelson, investment?”

She huffed a little laugh at the question. “Of a sort.”

Whit narrowed his gaze. “What sort?”

“There’s a fifth point,” she said.

A clock chimed in the hallway beyond, loud and low, and Whit extracted his watches without thinking, checking the time on both before returning them. “And what is that?”

Her gaze followed his movements. “Do you have the time?”

He did not miss the teasing in the question. “Eleven.”

“On both watches?”

“The fifth point?”

A wash of red flashed over her cheeks at the question, and Whit’s curiosity about this strange woman became almost unbearable. And then she said, clear as the clock in the hallway beyond, “Body.”

When Whit was seventeen, he’d come out of the ring reeling from a bout that had gone too long with an opponent who was too big, the roar of the crowd stuck in his ears for the heavy blows he’d endured. He’d landed in the rear alleyway of a warehouse, where he’d sucked cold air into his lungs and imagined himself anywhere but there, in a Covent Garden fight club.

The door behind him had opened and closed, and a woman had approached, a length of linen in hand. She’d offered to clean the blood from his face. Her soft words and kind touch marked the most pleasure he’d ever felt in his life.

Until the moment he heard Hattie speak the word body.

In the silence that stretched between them, she gave a little nervous laugh. “I suppose it’s more of a first point, considering it is essential to the rest of the points.”

Body.

“Explain.” The word came on a growl.

She appeared to consider the possibility of not explaining, as though he would allow her to leave this place without doing so. She must have realized it, because finally, she said, “There are two reasons.”

He waited.

“Some women spend their whole lives searching for marriage.”

“And you do not?”

She shook her head. “Perhaps at one point I would have welcomed . . .” She trailed off, and Whit held his breath, waiting for her next words. She shrugged a shoulder. “Tomorrow, I am twenty-nine. At this point, I’m a dowry and nothing more.”

Whit did not for a moment believe that.

“I don’t wish to be a dowry.” She looked to him. “I do not wish to be commodified. I wish to be mine. To choose for myself.”

“Business. Home. Fortune. Future,” he said.

She smiled, wide and winning, that damn dimple flashing, and he could not resist lingering on those lips, the feel of which he keenly remembered from earlier in the evening. They moved again. “There is only one way to ensure that I am allowed to choose for myself.” She paused. “I do away with the only thing about me that is prized. I claim myself. And I win.”

“And you came here to . . .” He trailed off, knowing the answer. Wanting her to say it.

Wanting to hear it.

That blush again. Then, magnificently, “To take my virginity.”

The words rang in his ears.

And somehow this woman laughed. “Well, I can’t take my own virginity, obviously. It’s more a metaphor. Nelson was to do the deed.”

He let silence reign for a moment while he collected a riot of thoughts. “You relieve yourself of your virginity and you become free to live your life.”

“Precisely!” she said, as though she was delighted that someone understood.

He grunted. “And what’s the second reason?”

The red wash again. Who was this woman, somehow both bold and also blushing? “I suppose—” She stopped. Cleared her throat. “I suppose I want it.”

Christ.

She could have said a thousand things he would have expected. Things that would have kept him quiet, unmoved. And instead, she said something so fucking honest, he had no choice but to be moved.

But to move.

He stopped it before it began, holding back his desire, sliding the hand that reached for her into his pocket and extracting the paper sack there, fetching a candy from within. He popped the sweet into his mouth, lemon and honey exploding over his tongue.

Anything to distract him from her words.

I want it.

Hattie squinted at the pouch. “Are those—sweets?”

He looked down at them. Grunted his acknowledgment.

She tilted her head. “You shouldn’t partake in treats if you are not willing to share, you know.”

Another grunt. He extended the sack toward her.

“No, thank you,” she said with a smile.

“Then why ask for one?”

Another grin. “I didn’t ask for one. I asked to be offered one. Which is a different thing altogether.”

She was incredibly frustrating. And fascinating. But he didn’t have time to be fascinated by her.

He returned the candy to his pocket, trying to focus on the lemon, a tart, sweet pleasure—one of the few he allowed himself. Trying to ignore the fact that it was not lemon he desired in that moment.

Trying not to think about almonds.

He required the woman’s knowledge. And that was it. She knew who was attacking his men. Who was stealing his cargo. She could confirm the identity of his enemy. And he would do what he must to get her to do just that.

“You’re not going to tell me I’m wrong?” she asked.

“Wrong about what?”

“Wrong to want . . .” She trailed off for a moment, and a thread of cold fear went through Whit as he considered the possibility that she might say it again. When this woman said it, a man wanted to fill the space between those two minuscule letters with a score of filthy things. “. . . to explore.”

Good Christ. That was worse.

“I’m not going to tell you you are wrong.”

“Why not?”

He had no idea why he said it. He shouldn’t have said it. He should have left her there in that room and followed her home and waited for her to reveal what she knew. For there was no way this woman kept secrets well. She was far too honest. Honest enough to be trouble.

But he said it nonetheless. “Because you should explore. You should explore every inch of yourself and every inch of your pleasure and set your course for your future.” Her lips fell open as he closed the space between them, speaking a longer string of words than he’d offered another in an age. In a lifetime.

He reached for her. Lifting his hands slowly, letting her see him coming. Giving her time to stop him. When she didn’t, he removed her mask, revealing her wide, kohl-darkened eyes. “But you should not hire Nelson.”

What was he doing?

It was the only option.

Lie.

She caught the mask in her free hand, lowering it between them. Fiddling with it, her fingers brushing against him. Singeing him. “It will be difficult to find another man to assist me without repercussions.”

“I assure you it won’t,” he said, leaning in, lowering his voice.

She swallowed. “You intend to find me such a man?”

“No.”

Her brows shot together and he ran his thumb over the furrow there. Once, twice, until it smoothed. He traced the lines of her face, the sweep of her cheekbones, the soft curve of her jaw. Her plump lower lip, as soft as he remembered.

“I intend to be him.”





Chapter Five


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