Brazen and the Beast (The Bareknuckle Bastards #2)

72 Shelton Street was more than welcoming of full bodies and full lips and women who knew how to use them.

But this woman didn’t know how to use them. She was stiff as stone, clinging to the bedpost with one white-knuckled hand and to an empty champagne flute with the other, holding herself at an odd angle, looking altogether out of place.

Even more so when she straightened impossibly further and said, “I beg your pardon, sir. I am waiting for someone.”

“Mmm.” He leaned back against the door, crossing his arms over his chest, wishing she weren’t in shadow. “Nelson.”

She nodded, the movement like jerking clockwork. “Quite. And as you are not him—”

“How do you know that?”

Silence. Whit resisted the urge to smile. He could nearly hear her panic. She was about to back down, which would put him in the position of power. She’d give up the information he wished in minutes, like a babe to sweets.

Except, she said, “You do not match my list of qualifications.”

What in hell? Qualifications?

Somehow, miraculously, he avoided asking the question outright. The chatterbox provided additional information nonetheless. “I specifically requested someone less . . .”

She trailed off, and Whit found himself willing to do nearly anything to have that sentence finished. When she waved a hand in his direction, he couldn’t stop himself. “Less . . . ?”

She scowled. “Precisely. Less.”

Something suspiciously like pride burst in his chest, and Whit pushed it away, letting silence fall.

“You’re not less,” she said. “You’re more. You’re much. Which is why I tossed you from the carriage earlier—I apologize for that, by the way. I hope you were not too bruised in the tumble.”

He ignored the last. “Much what?”

That hand wave again. “Much everything.” She reached into the voluminous fabric of her skirts and extracted a piece of paper, consulting it. “Medium height. Medium build.” She looked up, assessing him frankly. “You are neither of those.”

She didn’t have to sound disappointed about it. What else was on the paper?

“I did not realize how large you were when we met earlier.”

“Is that what we are calling it? A meeting?”

She tilted her head in consideration. “Have you a better term?”

“An attack.”

Her eyes went wide behind her mask and she came to her feet, revealing a height he had not imagined in the carriage. “I didn’t attack you!”

She was wrong, of course. Everything about her was an assault, from her lush curves to the brightness of her eyes to the shimmer of her gown to the scent of almonds on her—as though she’d just come from a kitchen full of cakes.

The woman had felt like an attack from the moment he’d opened his eyes in that carriage and found her there, talking up a storm about birthdays and plans and the Year of Hattie.

“Hattie.” He hadn’t meant to say it. Definitely hadn’t meant to enjoy saying it.

Her eyes went impossibly larger behind the mask. “How did you know my name?” she asked, coming to her feet, panic and outrage pouring from her. “I thought this place was the height of discretion?”

“What is the Year of Hattie?”

Realization flashed, memory of revealing her name earlier. A pause, and then she said, “Why do you care?”

He wasn’t sure of the answer, so he did not offer it.

She filled the silence, as he was discovering she was wont to do. “I suppose you’re not going to tell me your name? I know it’s not Nelson.”

“Because I’m too much to be Nelson.”

“Because you do not match my qualifications. You are altogether too broad in the shoulder and too long in the leg and not charming, and certainly not at all affable.”

“You’ve made a list of qualifications for a hound, not a fuck.”

She did not take the bait. “And all that before we even consider your face.”

What the hell was wrong with his face? In thirty-one years, he’d never had a complaint, and this wild woman was going to change that? “My face.”

“Quite,” she said, the word coming like a speeding carriage. “I requested a face that wasn’t so . . .”

Whit hung on the pause. Now the woman decided to stop talking?

She shook her head and he resisted the urge to curse. “Never mind. The point is, I didn’t request you and I didn’t attack you. I had nothing to do with you turning up unconscious in my carriage. Though, to be honest, you are beginning to strike me as the kind of man who might well deserve a whack to the head.”

“I don’t believe you were a part of the assault.”

“Good. Because I wasn’t.”

“Who was?”

Beat. “I don’t know.”

Lie.

She was protecting someone. The carriage belonged to someone she trusted, or she wouldn’t have used it to bring her here. Father? No. Impossible. Even this madwoman wouldn’t use her father’s coachman to ferry her to a brothel in the middle of Covent Garden. Coachmen talked.

Lover? For a fleeting moment he considered the possibility that she was not simply working with his enemy, but sleeping with him. Whit didn’t like the distaste that came with the idea before reason arrived.

No. Not a lover. She wouldn’t be in a brothel if she had a lover. She wouldn’t have kissed Whit if she had a lover.

And she had kissed him, soft and sweet and inexperienced.

There was no lover.

But still, she was loyal to the enemy.

“I think you do know who tied me up in that carriage, Hattie,” he said softly, approaching her, a thrum of awareness coursing through him as he realized she was nearly his height, her chest rising and falling in staccato rhythm above the line of her dress, the muscles of her throat working as she listened. “And I think you know I intend to have a name.”

Her eyes narrowed on him in the dim light. “Is that a threat?” He didn’t reply, and in the silence, she seemed to calm, her breath evening out as her shoulders straightened. “I don’t take kindly to threats. This is the second time you have interrupted my evening, sir. You would do well to remember that it was I who saved your hide earlier.”

The change in her was remarkable. “You nearly killed me.”

She scoffed. “Please. You were perfectly agile. I saw you tumble your way from the carriage like it wasn’t the first time you’d been tossed from one.” She paused. “It wasn’t, was it?”

“That doesn’t mean I am looking to make a habit of it.”

“The point is, without me, you could be dead in a ditch. A reasonable gentleman would thank me kindly and take himself elsewhere at this point.”

“You are unlucky, then, that I am not that.”

“Reasonable?”

“A gentleman.”

She gave a little surprised chuckle at that. “Well, as we are currently in a brothel, I think neither of us can claim much gentility.”

“That wasn’t on your list of qualifications?”

“Oh, it was,” she said, “But I expected more the approximation of gentility rather than the actuality of it. But there’s the rub; I have plans, approximations be damned, and I’m not letting you ruin them.”

“The plans you spoke of before tossing me out of a carriage.”

“I didn’t toss you.” When he didn’t reply, she said, “All right, I tossed you. But you fared perfectly well.”

“No thanks to you.”

“I don’t have the information you want.”

“I don’t believe you.”

She opened her mouth. Closed it. “How very rude.”

“Take your mask off.”

“No.”

His lips twitched at the unyielding reply. “What is the Year of Hattie?”

She lifted her chin in defiance, but stayed silent. Whit gave a little grunt and moved across the room to the champagne, returning to fill her glass. When the task was done, he returned the bottle to its place and leaned back against the windowsill, watching her fidget.

She was always in motion, smoothing skirts or playing at her sleeve—he drank in the long line of the dress, the way it wrapped her unruly curves and made promises that a man wished she would keep. The candlelight teased over her skin, gilding her. This was not a woman who took tea. This was a woman who took the sun.

She had money, clearly. And power. A woman required both in spades for entry to 72 Shelton—even knowing the place existed required a network that did not come easily. There were a thousand reasons why she might wish access, and Whit had heard them all. Boredom, dissatisfaction, recklessness. But he couldn’t see any of those in Hattie. She wasn’t an impetuous girl—she was old enough to know her mind and to make her choices. Nor was she plain, or a dilettante.

He moved toward her. Slowly. Deliberately.

She stiffened. Her grip tightened on the paper in her hand. “I shan’t be intimidated.”

“He stole from me, and I wish it back.”

But that wasn’t everything.

He was close enough to touch her. Close enough to measure the height he’d noticed in her before, nearly equal to his own. Close enough to see her eyes, dark behind the mask, fixed on him. Close enough to be cloaked in almonds.

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