Brazen and the Beast (The Bareknuckle Bastards #2)

“I know,” Hattie said, holding the lantern near the rope at the man’s wrists, and sweeping it down to the place where he was bound at the ankles, “because August Sedley can’t tie a Carrick bend worth a damn, and I fear that if we leave this man here, he’ll find his way loose and head straight for my useless brother.”

That, and if the stranger didn’t find his way loose, who knew what Augie would do to him. Her brother was as cabbageheaded as he was reckless—a combination that routinely required Hattie’s intervention. Which, incidentally, was a significant reason for her decision to claim her twenty-ninth year as her own. And still, here her infernal brother was, ruining everything.

Unaware of Hattie’s thoughts, Nora said, “Recently unconscious or no . . . this doesn’t look like a man who loses in a fight.”

The understatement was not lost on Hattie. She sighed, reaching in and hanging the now glowing lantern on its peg, taking the opportunity to cast a long, lingering look at the man in her carriage.

Hattie Sedley had learned something else in her twenty-eight years, three hundred and sixty-four days: If a woman had a problem, it was best she solve it herself.

She pulled herself up into the carriage, stepping carefully over the man on the floor before looking back at wide-eyed Nora on the drive below. “Come on, then. We’ll drop him on our way.”

Chapter Two

The last thing he remembered was the blow to the head.

He’d been expecting the ambush. It was why he’d been driving the rig, six fine horses pulling a massive steel conveyance laden with liquor and playing cards and tobacco, destined for Mayfair. He’d just crossed Oxford Street when he’d heard the gunshot, followed by a pained cry from one of his outriders.

He’d stopped to check on his men. To protect them.

To punish those who threatened them.

There’d been a body on the ground. Blood on the street beneath it. He had just sent the second outrider for help when he heard the footsteps at his back. He’d turned, knife in hand. Thrown it. Heard the shout in the darkness as it found its seat.

Then the blow to the head.

And then . . . nothing.

Not until an insistent tapping against his cheek returned him to consciousness, too soft for pain, still firm enough to be irritating.

He didn’t open his eyes, years of training allowing him to feign sleep as he gathered his bearings. His feet were bound. Hands, too, behind his back. The bindings stretched the muscles of his chest tight enough for him to take note of what was missing—his knives, eight steel blades, set in onyx. Stolen along with the brace that strapped them to his chest. He resisted the urge to stiffen. To rage.

But Saviour Whittington, known in London’s darkest streets as Beast, did not rage; he punished. Quick and devastating and without emotion.

And if they’d taken the life of one of his men—of someone under his protection—they would never know peace.

But first, freedom.

He was on the floor of a moving carriage. A well-appointed one, if the soft cushion at his cheek was any indication, and in a decent neighborhood for the smooth rhythm of the cobblestones beneath the wheels.

What was the time?

He considered his next move—envisioning how he would incapacitate his captor despite his bindings. He imagined breaking a nose with the flat weapon of his forehead. Using his bound legs to knock the man out.

The tapping at his cheek began again. Then a whispered, “Sir.”

Whit’s eyes flew open.

His captor wasn’t a man.

The wash of golden light in the carriage played tricks with him—seeming to come somehow not from the lantern swaying gently in the corner, but from the woman.

Seated on the bench above him, she looked nothing like the kind of enemy who would knock a man out and tie him up in a carriage. Indeed, she looked like she was on her way to a ball. Perfectly done, perfectly coiffed, perfectly colored—her skin smooth, her eyes kohled, her lips full and stained just enough to make a man pay attention. And that was before he got a look at the dress—blue the color of a summer sky, perfectly fitted to her full figure.

Not that he should be noticing anything about that, considering she had him tied up in a carriage. He shouldn’t be noticing the curves of her, soft and welcoming at her waist, at the line of her bodice. He shouldn’t be noticing the gleam of the smooth, golden skin at her rounded shoulder in the lantern light. He shouldn’t be noticing the pretty softness of her face, or the fullness of her lips, stained red with paint.

She wasn’t for noticing.

He narrowed his gaze on her, and her eyes—was it possible they were violet? What kind of a person had violet eyes?—went wide. “Well. If that look is any indication of your temperament, it’s no wonder you are tied up.” She tilted her head. “Who tied you up?”

Whit did not reply. He did not believe she didn’t know the answer.

“Why are you tied up?”

Again, silence.

Her lips flattened into a straight line and muttered something that sounded like “Useless.” And then, louder, firmer, “The point is, you’re very inconvenient, as I have need of this carriage tonight.”

“Inconvenient.” He didn’t mean to reply, and the word surprised them both.

She nodded. “Indeed. It’s the Year of Hattie.”

“The what?”

She waved a hand, as though to push the question away. As though it weren’t important. Except Whit imagined it was. She pressed on. “It is my birthday. I have plans for myself. Plans that don’t include . . . whatever this is.” Silence stretched between them, then, “Most people would wish me a happy birthday at this juncture.”

Whit did not rise to the bait.

Her brows rose. “And here I was, ready to help you.”

“I don’t need your help.”

“You’re quite rude, you know.”

He resisted the unwelcome instinct to gape. “I’ve been knocked out and tied up in a strange carriage.”

“Yes, but you must admit the company is diverting, no?” She smiled, the dimple flashing in her right cheek impossible to ignore.

When he did not reply, she said, “Fine then. But it strikes me that you’re in a bind, sir.” She paused, then added, “You see how diverting I can be? In a bind?”

He worked at the ropes at his wrists. Tight, but already giving. Escapable. “I see how reckless you can be.”

“Some find me charming.”

“I do not find things charming,” he replied, continuing to manipulate the ropes, wondering what possessed him to spar with this chatterbox.

“That’s a pity.” It sounded like she meant it, but before he could think of what to say, she added, “No matter. Even if you won’t admit it, you do need help and, as you are bound and I am your travel companion, I’m afraid you are stuck with me.” She crouched by his feet, as though it were all perfectly ordinary, untying the ropes with a soft, deft touch. “You’re lucky I am quite good with knots.”

He grunted his approval, stretching his legs in the confined space when she set him free. “And that you have other plans for your birthday.”

She hesitated, her cheeks pinkening at the words. “Yes.”

Whit would never understand what made him press further. “What plans?”

Her ridiculous eyes, an impossible color and too big for her face, shuttered. “Plans that for once don’t involve cleaning up whatever mess you are.”

“Next time I am clubbed unconscious, I shall endeavor to do it where I shan’t be in your way, my lady.”

She grinned, that dimple flashing like a private jest. “See that you do.” Before he could reply, she said, “Though I suppose it won’t be an issue in the future. We clearly don’t run in the same circles.”

“We run in them tonight.”

Her grin became a slow, easy smile, and Whit couldn’t help but linger on it. The carriage began to slow, and she peeked out the curtain. “We’re nearly there,” she said quietly. “It’s time for you to go, sir. I’m sure you’ll agree that neither of us will have any interest in you being discovered.”

“My hands,” he said, even as the ropes slackened further.

She shook her head. “I can’t risk you taking revenge.”

He met her gaze without hesitation. “My revenge is not a risk. It’s a certainty.”

“I’ve no doubt of that. But I can’t risk you taking it through me. Not tonight.” She reached past him for the door handle, speaking at his ear, above the rattle of wheels and horses from the street beyond. “As I’ve said . . .”

“You have plans,” he finished for her, turning toward her, unable to resist her scent, like an almond teacake, sweet temptation.

She met his eyes. “Yes.”

“Tell me the plan, and I’ll let you go.” He’d find her.

That smile again. “You’re very arrogant, sir. Must I remind you that I’m the one letting you go?”

“Tell me.” The command was rough.

He saw the change in her. Watched hesitation turn to curiosity. To bravery. And then, like a gift, she whispered, “Perhaps I should show you, instead.”

Christ, yes.

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