Brazen and the Beast (The Bareknuckle Bastards #2)

A business of her own. A life of her own. A future of her own.

She took a deep breath and turned to face a table nearby, laden with enough to feed an army: tea sandwiches and canapés and petits fours. A bottle of champagne and two glasses stood sentry alongside the food. She shouldn’t be surprised—the survey of her preferences for the evening had been quite thorough, and she’d requested just such a spread, less because she cared for champagne and delicious food—though who didn’t?—and more because it felt like the sort of thing a woman with experience would provide upon such an occasion.

And so, a table lay in wait of a pair, as though this place were a posting inn on the Great North Road, and the room set for newlyweds. Hattie smirked at the silly, romantic thought. But that was the commodity 72 Shelton Street sold, was it not? Romance, as preferred, purchased and packaged.

Champagne and petits fours and a four-poster bed.

Suddenly very ridiculous.

She gave a little nervous laugh. There was no way she was eating canapés or petits fours. Not without immediately casting them up from her roiling stomach. But champagne—perhaps champagne was just the thing.

She poured herself a glass and drank it down like lemon water, warmth spreading through her faster than she’d expected. Warmth and just enough courage to propel her across the room to pull the bell. To summon Nelson. Exceedingly-thorough-like-the-war-hero Nelson.

She supposed there were worse names for the man who would rid her of her virginity.

Hattie pulled the bell—silent in the room, but ringing in some faraway place in the mysterious building, where Hattie imagined a passel of handsome men waited to provide exceeding thoroughness, like horses at a racing start. She grinned at the wild image, at faceless Nelson—wearing a full uniform and an admiral’s hat for lack of more creative imagining—leaping to movement at the sound, running toward her, long legs taking stairs two, perhaps three at a time, huffing his breath in the race to get to her.

How should she be arranged when he got here? Should she be at the window? Would he want to see her standing up? To assess the situation? She wasn’t wild about that thought.

Which left a chair by the fireplace, or the bed.

She highly doubted he’d wish to converse with her. Indeed, she was not certain that she was interested in being conversed with. This was a means to an end, after all.

So. The bed it was.

Should she lie down? That seemed rather forward, though, truthfully, she’d likely passed forward somewhere between seeking out 72 Shelton Street months ago and hitching the carriage that evening. She’d fully lost sight of forward while kissing a man in her carriage.

And for a wild moment, it wasn’t a faceless admiral who raced toward her. It was a different kind of man entirely. Beautifully faced. With perfect features and amber eyes and dark brows and lips that were softer than she’d ever imagined lips could be.

She cleared her throat and pushed the thought away, returning to the question at hand. Lying down felt wrong, as did sitting, ankles crossed, on this bed. Perhaps there was a middle ground? A seductive lean of some kind?

Ugh. Hattie had never been seductive in her life.

She perched on the most dimly lit corner of the bed and leaned back, wrapping an arm about the post to keep herself steady, pressing herself to it, willing herself to look like the kind of woman who did this sort of thing all the time. A seductress who knew her desires and her preferences. Someone who understood phrases like exceedingly thorough.

And then the door was opening and her heart was pounding, and a great shadowed figure was entering, and he wasn’t wearing an admiral’s hat or a uniform. Or anything remotely dapper. He was wearing black. An immense amount of black.

He was inside then, and the light cast his perfect face in a warm, golden glow.

Her heart stopped and she straightened, overcompensating for her shifting position, nearly tossing herself straight off the bed.

He moved with singular grace, as though he hadn’t been unconscious in her carriage an hour earlier. As though she hadn’t dispatched him from it. Her gaze traced over him, checking for scrapes and bruises, for aches and pains from his fall. Nothing.

She swallowed, grateful for the low light. “You’re not Nelson.”

He did not reply. The door closed behind him.

And they were alone.

Chapter Four

She should have been a needle in a haystack.

She should have disappeared.

She should have been one of a thousand women, in a thousand carriages, scurrying like scorpions through the darker corners of London, unseen by the ordinary men of the world beyond.

And she would have been just that, except Whit wasn’t an ordinary man. He was a Bareknuckle Bastard—a king of London’s shadows, with scores of spies posted in the darkness—and nothing happened on his turf without him knowing it. It was laughably easy for his wide-reaching network of lookouts to find the single black carriage headed into the night.

They’d been following it before he took to the rooftops. They had its location as quickly as they’d had the information they’d known he’d want. The shipment he’d been driving was gone, the outriders who had been attacked were alive, and their attackers were disappeared. Unidentified.

But not for long.

The woman would lead him to the enemy—an enemy for whom the Bareknuckle Bastards had been searching for months.

If Whit was correct, an enemy they had known for years.

It didn’t hurt that his boys were always watching the entrances to the brothel. A brother protected a sister, after all—even when the sister in question was powerful enough to bring a city to its knees. Even when the sister was in hiding from the one thing that could strip her of that power.

Whit had easily found his way into the building and past Zeva, pausing only long enough to discover the location of the woman she would not name. He’d known she wouldn’t. 72 Shelton only succeeded because of uncompromising discretion, and secrets were kept from everyone—Bareknuckle Bastards included.

Because of that, he did not press Zeva. Instead, he pushed past her, ignoring the way her dark brows rose in silent surprise. Silent for the moment; Zeva was the best of lieutenants, and kept secrets from all but her employer. And when Grace—known to all London as Dahlia—returned to her rightful post as mistress of this place, she’d know what happened. And she wouldn’t hesitate to come asking about it.

There was no relentless curiosity like that of a sister.

But for now, there was no Grace to pester him. There was only the mysterious woman from the carriage, full of information, the final piece to the clockwork he’d been waiting to set in motion. The spring, waiting to be wound. She had the names of the men who had fired on his shipment. Fired on his boys. The names of the men who were thieving from the Bastards.

The names of the men who were working with his estranged brother. His enemy. And here she was, in a building belonging to his sister, on the land that belonged to Whit himself.

Waiting for a man to pleasure her.

He ignored the thrum of excitement that coursed through him at the thought, and the thread of irritation that followed. She was business, not pleasure.

It was time to get business done.

He saw her the moment he entered, his eyes finding her perched on the edge of the bed, clutching a bedpost in the darkness. As he let the door close behind him, he was consumed by a singular thought: Sitting here, in one of the most extravagant brothels in the city—one designed for women of discerning taste and promising the utmost discretion—the woman could not have looked more out of place.

She should have looked completely at home, considering she had poked him awake, carried on a full conversation with him as though it were entirely ordinary, and then pushed him from a moving carriage.

After kissing him.

The fact that she’d been headed here had seemed fully in keeping with the rest of her wild night.

But something was off.

It wasn’t the dress, luxurious silken skirts exploding from the darkness in wild, turquoise waves that suggested a modiste of superior skill. It wasn’t the matching slippers, toes peeking out from beneath the hem.

It wasn’t the way the bodice glistened in the darkness, hugging the curve of her torso and showcasing the lovely swell above it—no, that bit was perfect for Shelton Street.

It wasn’t even the shadow of her face—barely recognizable in the darkness, but just visible enough to reveal her mouth gaping in surprise. Another man might find that open mouth ridiculous, but Whit knew better. He knew how it tasted. How those full lips softened and yielded. And there was nothing remotely out of place about that.

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