Brazen and the Beast (The Bareknuckle Bastards #2)

She kissed him, pressing her lips to his, soft and sweet and inexperienced and tasting like wine, tempting as hell. He worked double time to free his hands. To show this strange, curious woman just how willing he was to see her plans through.

She freed him first. There was a tug at his wrists, and the ropes loosened a heartbeat before she lifted her lips from his. He opened his eyes, saw the gleam of a small pocketknife in her hand. She’d changed her mind. Cut him loose.

To capture her. To resume the kiss.

As she’d warned, however, the lady had other plans.

Before he could touch her, the carriage slowed to take a corner, and she opened the door at his back. “Good-bye.”

Instinct had Whit turning as he fell, tucking his chin, protecting his head, and propelling himself into a roll, even as a single thought thundered through him.

She’s getting away.

He came to a stop against the wall of a nearby tavern, scattering the collection of men outside.

“Oy!” one called out, coming for him. “All right, bruv?”

Whit came to his feet, shaking out his arms, rolling his shoulders back, shifting his weight back and forth to test muscle and bone—ensuring all was in working order before extracting two watches from his pocket and checking their clockwork. Half-nine.

“Cor! I ain’t never seen anyone right ’imself from such a thing so fast,” the man said, reaching out to clap Whit on the shoulder. The hand stilled before it settled, however, as eyes set on Whit’s face, immediately widening in recognition. Warmth turned to fear as the man took a step back. “Beast.”

Whit lifted his chin in acknowledgment of the name, even as awareness threaded through him. If this man knew him—knew his name—

He turned, his gaze narrowing on the curve in the dark cobblestone street where the carriage had disappeared, along with its passenger, deep into the maze of tangled streets that marked Covent Garden.

Satisfaction thrummed through him.

She wasn’t getting away after all.

Chapter Three

“You pushed him out?” Nora’s shock was clear as she peeked inside the empty carriage after Hattie had descended. “I thought we didn’t wish for his death?”

Hattie ran her fingers over the silk of the mask she’d donned before exiting the carriage. “He’s not dead.”

She’d hung out the door of the carriage long enough to make sure of it—long enough to marvel at the way he’d launched himself into a roll before springing to his feet, as though he were frequently dispatched from carriages.

She supposed that, since she’d discovered him bound in her carriage that very evening, he might well be tossed from conveyances regularly. She’d watched him nonetheless, holding her breath until he’d come to his feet, unharmed.

“He woke, then?” Nora asked.

Hattie nodded, her fingers coming to her lips, the feel of his firm, smooth kiss a lingering echo there, along with the taste of something . . . lemon?


She looked to her friend. “And what?”

Nora rolled her eyes. “Who is he?”

“He didn’t say.”

A pause. “No, I don’t suppose he would.”

No. Not that I wouldn’t give a great deal to know.

“You should ask Augie.” Hattie’s gaze shot to her friend. Had she spoken aloud? Nora grinned. “Do you forget that I know your mind as well as my own?”

Nora and Hattie had been friends for a lifetime—more than one, Nora’s mother used to say, watching the two of them play beneath the table in her back garden, telling secrets. Elisabeth Madewell, Duchess of Holymoor, and Hattie’s mother had existed together on the outskirts of the aristocracy. Neither had received a warm welcome, fate having intervened to make an Irish actress and a shop girl from Bristol into a duchess and countess, respectively. They’d been destined to be friends long before Hattie’s father had received his life peerage, two inseparable souls who did everything together, including birth daughters—Nora and Hattie, born within weeks of each other, raised as close as sisters, never given a chance not to love one another as such.

“I’ll say two things,” Nora added.

“Only two?”

“All right. Two for now. I shall reserve the right to say more,” Nora amended. “First, you’d better hope you are right and we didn’t accidentally murder the man.”

“We didn’t,” Hattie said.

“And second . . .” Nora continued without pause. “The next time I suggest we leave the unconscious man in the carriage and take my curricle, we take the damn curricle.”

“If we’d taken the curricle, we might have died,” Hattie scoffed. “You drive that thing far too quickly.”

“I’m in complete control the whole time.”

When their mothers had died within months of each other—sisters even in that—Nora had come searching for comfort she could not find with her father and older brother, men too aristocratic to allow themselves the luxury of grief. But the Sedleys, born common and now the kind of aristocrats who weren’t considered at all aristocratic, had no such trouble. They’d made space for Nora in their home and at their table, and it wasn’t long before she was spending more nights at Sedley House than at her own, something her father and brother seemed not to notice—just as they’d seemed not to notice when she’d begun spending her pin money on carriages and curricles to rival those driven by society’s most ostentatious dandies.

A woman in charge of her own conveyance was a woman in charge of her own destiny, Nora liked to say.

Hattie wasn’t entirely certain of that, but she did not deny that it paid to have a friend with a particular skill at driving, especially on nights when one did not wish coachmen to talk—which any coachman would do if he’d deposited two unmarried aristocratic daughters outside 72 Shelton Street. It was no matter that 72 Shelton Street did not, at first glance, appear to be a bordello.

Was it still called a bordello if it was for women?

Hattie supposed that did not matter, either, but the beautifully appointed building looked nothing like what she imagined its male-serving counterparts looked like. Indeed, it looked warm and welcoming, shining like a beacon, windows full of golden light, planters exploding with autumnal colors hanging on either side of the door and above, in boxes at every sill.

It did not escape Hattie’s notice that the windows were covered, however, which did seem reasonable, as the goings-on within were surely of a private nature.

She lifted a hand and checked the seat of her mask once more. “If we’d taken the curricle, we would have been seen.”

“I suppose you’re right.” Nora shrugged one shoulder and flashed Hattie a grin. “Well then, out of the carriage with him.”

Hattie chuckled. “I shouldn’t have done it.”

“We aren’t going back to apologize,” Nora said, waving a hand at the door. “And so? Are you going in?”

Hattie took a deep breath. This was it. She turned to her friend. “Is this mad?”

“Absolutely,” Nora replied.


“It’s mad in the best possible way. You have plans, Hattie. And this is how you get to them. Once this is done, there’s no going back. And frankly, you deserve it.”

Doubt whispered, barely there and heard nonetheless. “You have plans, too, but you haven’t done anything like this.”

A pause, and Nora shrugged. “I haven’t had to.” The universe had gifted Nora with wealth and privilege, and a family that didn’t seem to mind if she used both to take life by the horns.

Hattie had not been so lucky. She wasn’t the kind of woman who was expected to take life by the horns. But after tonight, she intended to show the world just how well she intended to do just that.

But first, she was required to do away with the one thing that held her back.

And so, she was here.

She turned to Nora. “You’re certain this is—”

An approaching carriage interrupted, the clattering horses and rattling wheels thundering in her ears as it pulled to a stop. A trio of laughing women descended in beautiful silk gowns that gleamed like jewels and harlequin masks nearly identical to Hattie’s. Long-necked and narrow-waisted, with wide smiles, it was easy to tell these women were beautiful.

Hattie was not beautiful.

She took a step back, pressing up against the side of the carriage.

“Well, now I’m certain this is the place,” Nora said dryly.

Hattie looked to her friend. “But why would they—”

“Why would you?”

“But they could have—” Anyone they liked.

Nora slid her a look, a dark brow arching. “You could, too.”

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