Brazen and the Beast (The Bareknuckle Bastards #2)

It wasn’t true, of course. Men did not clamor after Hattie. Oh, they liked her fine. After all, she liked ships and horses and had a head for business, and she was clever enough to amuse during a dinner or a ball. But when a woman looked as she did and talked as she did, men were far more likely to clap her on the shoulder than they were to clutch her to them in passionate embrace. Good old Hattie, even when she’d been in her first season out and not old at all.

She didn’t say all that, though, and Nora filled the silence. “Perhaps they, too, are looking for something . . . untethered.” They watched the women rap on the door of 72 Shelton Street, a small window opening and closing before the door itself followed suit, and they had disappeared within, leaving the street silent once more. “Perhaps they, too, are looking to captain their own fates.”

A nightingale cooed above them, answered almost immediately by another, at a distance.

The Year of Hattie.

She nodded. “All right, then.”

Her friend grinned. “All right, then.”

“You are certain you don’t wish to come in?”

“And do what?” Nora asked with a laugh. “There is nothing within for me. I thought I’d take a drive—see if I can beat my time round Hyde Park.”

“Two hours?”

“I shall be here.” Nora tipped her coachman’s cap and flashed Hattie a grin. “Enjoy yourself, milady.”

That had been Hattie’s plan all along, hadn’t it? To enjoy herself on this, the first night of the rest of her life, when she closed the door on the past and took her future well in hand. With a nod to her friend, she approached the building, her eyes fixed on its great steel door and the tiny slot within that opened the moment she knocked, revealing a pair of darkly kohled, assessing eyes. “Password?”

“Regina.”

The window closed. The door opened. And Hattie stepped inside.

It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dark interior of the building, a jarring enough change from the brightly lit exterior that she instinctively reached for her mask. “If you remove it, you cannot stay,” came a warning from the woman who’d opened the door, tall and lithe and beautiful, with dark hair and darker eyes and the palest skin Hattie had ever seen.

She lowered her hand from the protection. “I am—”

The woman smiled. “We know who you are, my lady. There is no need for names. Your anonymity is a priority.”

It occurred to Hattie that it might be the first time anyone had ever told her that she was a priority in any way. And she rather liked it. “Oh,” she replied, for lack of anything else to say. “How kind.”

The lady turned away, pushing through a thick curtain and into the main receiving room, the three women Hattie had seen outside pausing their chatter to study her. Hattie began to move to a nearby empty settee, but her escort stayed her, pushing through another door. “This way, my lady.”

She followed. “But they arrived before me.”

Another small smile on the beauty’s full lips. “They do not have an appointment.”

The idea that one might turn up at a place like this unannounced ran wild through Hattie. After all, such a thing would mean that one frequented the location—what would it be like to be the kind of woman who not only had access to such a place, but regularly took advantage of it? It would mean she had enjoyed it.

Excitement thrummed through her as they entered the next room, this one large and oval, richly decorated in deep red silks and gold brocade, lush blue velvets and silver platters laden with chocolates and petits fours.

Hattie’s stomach growled. She hadn’t eaten earlier in the day, as she’d been too nervous.

Her beautiful escort turned to face her. “Would you care for refreshments?”

“No. I’d like to get this done.” Her eyes went wide. “That is—I mean to say—”

The woman smiled. “I understand. Follow me.”

She did, through the labyrinthine corridors of the building, which from the outside seemed deceptively small for the expansive space within. They climbed a wide staircase, and Hattie could not resist running her fingers along the wall coverings of deep sapphire silk embossed with silver-threaded vines. The whole place dripped with luxury, and she should not have been surprised by it—she’d paid a fortune for the privilege of an appointment, after all.

At the time, she’d thought she was paying for secrecy, not extravagance. It seemed she was paying for both.

She looked to her chaperone as they reached the top of the staircase and turned down a well-lit corridor, lined with closed doors. “Are you Dahlia?”

72 Shelton Street was owned by a mysterious woman, known to the ladies of the aristocracy only as Dahlia. It was Dahlia with whom Hattie had corresponded in the lead-up to the evening. Dahlia who had asked her a handful of questions about desires and preferences—questions that Hattie had barely been able to answer for her flaming cheeks. After all, women like Hattie were rarely given the opportunity to explore desire or to have preference.

She had preference now.

The thought arrived illustrated—the man in the carriage, handsome in slumber and then . . . awake, undeniably beautiful. Those amber eyes that assessed and valued, that seemed to see straight to the core of her. The ripple of his muscles as he fought the bindings. And his kiss . . .

She’d kissed him.

What had she been thinking?

She hadn’t been.

And still . . . she was grateful for the memory, for the echo of his sharp inhale when she’d pressed her lips to his, for the soft grunt that had followed, the sound pooling deep inside her, a punctuation as he gave himself to it. As he’d submitted to her desire. As he’d become her preference.

Her cheeks went hot again. She cleared her throat and looked to her escort, whose full lips were curved in a secret smile. “I am Zeva, my lady. Dahlia is not in residence this evening, but not to worry. We have prepared for you in her absence,” the beauty continued. “We believe you will find everything to your liking.”

Zeva opened a door, allowing Hattie to enter.

Her heart began to pound as she looked about the room. She swallowed against the knot in her throat, refusing to allow nerves to show despite what had once been a wild idea now becoming a concrete eventuality.

This was no ordinary room. It was a bedchamber.

A beautifully appointed bedchamber, with silks and satins, and a velvet counterpane in a vibrant blue that shone against the elaborately carved posts of the room’s centerpiece—an ebony bed.

The fact that beds traditionally were the centerpieces of bedchambers seemed suddenly, completely irrelevant, and Hattie was certain that she’d never in her life seen a bed. Which explained why she could not stop looking at it.

It was impossible to ignore the amusement in Zeva’s voice when she said, “Is there a problem, my lady?”

“No!” Hattie said, barely recognizing the squeak of the word, which came in a pitch reserved only for hounds. She cleared her throat, the bodice of her dress suddenly seeming entirely too tight. She put a hand to it. “No. No. Everything is perfect. This is all very expected. Entirely as planned.” She cleared her throat again, still riveted by the bed. “Thank you.”

From behind her, Zeva spoke. “Would you perhaps like a moment of peace before Nelson joins you?”

Nelson. Hattie turned to face the other woman at the name. “Nelson? Like the war hero?”

“Just. One of our very best.”

“And by best you mean . . .”

Dark brows rose. “Aside from the qualities you requested, he is charming, knowledgeable, and exceedingly thorough.”

Exceedingly thorough in bed, she meant.

Hattie choked on the sand that seemed to fill her throat. “I see. Well. What more can one ask?”

Zeva’s lips twitched. “Why not a few moments to acquaint yourself with the room—”

With the bed, she meant.

She waved at a pull on the wall. “—and ring the bell when you are ready?”

Ready for bed, she meant.

Hattie nodded. “Yes. That sounds ideal.”

Zeva floated from the room, the quiet snick of the door the only evidence that she’d been there at all.

Hattie let out a long breath and turned to face the empty room. Alone, she was able to take in the rest of it, the shimmering gold wallpaper, the beautifully tiled fireplace, and the large windows that would no doubt reveal the web of Covent Garden rooftops by day, but now, by night, were made mirrors in the darkness, reflecting the candlelight of the room, and Hattie at its center.

Hattie. Ready to begin her life anew.

She approached one large window, trying her best to ignore her reflection, considering instead the darkness surrounding her, limitless, like her plans. Her desires. The decision to stop waiting for her father to realize her potential, and instead to take what she wanted. To prove herself strong enough, clever enough, unfettered enough.

And perhaps just a little bit reckless.

But what was the path to success without a bit of recklessness?

This recklessness would take her out of the running as a wife to any decent man, and make it impossible for her father to refuse her what she truly wanted.

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