Brazen and the Beast (The Bareknuckle Bastards #2)

Goddammit.

Fear spread through him, hot and unpleasant. He knew what she meant by equal. He’d heard her proposal of partnership.

But if they were partners, he couldn’t keep her safe—not from Ewan, and not from anything else.

If he loved her, he’d lose her.

She sat up in his silence, reaching for her clothes, and he hated that they were here again—her dressing and him feeling like he’d been smacked over the head with a tea service in a blow he absolutely deserved.

Coming to her knees, she tugged her skirts over her full hips and pulled the bodice around her before saying, quietly, “I don’t wish to force the issue. I don’t wish to be the person you maybe love. The one it takes thought to know you love.” She paused. “I wish to be the answer that pours from your lips—no matter how stoic you are. I wish to be the person you cannot save for high days and holidays, because you want me by your side on all the other days.”

She was too precious for the other days.

“I deserve that. Partnership. Equality. You taught me that.” She gave him a little smile. “I know that’s impossible. And so, no . . . I won’t marry you.”

There was such emotion in the words, sadness and resignation and honesty, as though she’d known these words long before she’d had cause to speak them. As though she’d been prepared for them. God, he hated the idea that she’d been prepared for them.

“Hattie.” He stood, pulling his trousers up and finding his shirt, pulling it on over his head. “You don’t understand.”

She sighed and said, “I don’t wish to be rivals. I wish to be . . .” She shook her head, and he loathed it. “I shall release the men tomorrow.” She waved in the direction of his pocket. “I assume you have a watch to confirm it, but I imagine it is too late to bring all the hooks back to work tonight.”

He extracted a watch, barely registering the warm metal that backed it as he read the time. “It’s six minutes to ten.”

She looked up from tightening the lacing of her bodice to look down the dock to the ship sitting lower in the water than all the others. “You should be half done with your unloading—all that ice on wagons trundling through the city.”

“Not half. But you’re not far off. Hattie—”

She cut him off. “I’ll release them tomorrow,” she said again.

“How did you do it? Lock them down?”

She smiled. “You’re not the only one with loyal friends, Beast.”

The moniker thrummed through him. “I believe that without question.” He wished she counted him among them. “It’s not often someone calls me that without fear in the word.”

“I am not afraid of you.”

He knew that. And it gave him more pleasure than he could say. He cast about for the right words. “You have always been fearless. Always knowing what you want and how you intend to get it. Never allowing others to set you on a path.” He paused, then told her the truth. “I have never had that fearlessness.”

Her brow furrowed and he pressed on, shaking his head. “All I am is fear. I was forged in it. Made in the terror that one day, someone I love would face danger, and I would not be able to save them.” He exhaled on a shuddering breath. “I can’t keep you safe.”

Her beautiful violet eyes did not waver. “Of course you can’t.” The words cut through him like a blade. “There is nothing fearless about me. I am scared every day. I fear the wide world and the way it stares at me and sneers at me and whispers about me when it thinks I cannot hear. I fear a life of half measures, full of shadows of emotions and hints of possibilities and a thousand things I might have had if only I’d reached a bit farther.”

He shook his head. “That’s not a life you’ll ever have.”

He’d make sure of it.

Tears sprang in her beautiful violet eyes, and an ache started in Whit’s chest. Why was she crying? “There was a time when I wanted marriage, you know. When I wanted children and domestic idyll. Of course I did. It’s what women are told we should want from birth. Our fathers tell us, and our brothers, and the world around us. Except, when you’re like me—too loud and too big and with too many ideas—you can’t have the dreams everyone insists you must have. Because they aren’t really for you.”

He resisted the urge to tell her to stop. He hated how she qualified herself. Hated how she always made herself seem less, when she was so infinitely more.

But he understood those qualifications better than anyone.

Instead, he whispered, “Hattie,” her name coming soft on his lips as he ran a hand over his chest.

She ignored him, pressing on. “It wasn’t hard to convince myself I didn’t want it—the marriage, the companionship. After all, plenty of women age into spinsterhood. Plenty of men remain bachelors. And I had a plan.”

He nodded. “The Year of Hattie.”

She smiled at him. “That’s all a bit nonsense now, isn’t it?”

I’ll give you a year. I’ll give you a lifetime.

She seemed to hear the thoughts, as though he’d spoken them aloud. “I don’t want it from you.”

The words stung.

“I learned to adapt. I learned to want the business and to want to be captain of my own fate. I learned to accept that I could not have it all.”

But she could. He would make sure she had it all. She loved him, and he was willing to give her everything she wanted. The boats, the business . . . and all the bits she’d been told she could not have.

Before he could say it, she added, “And then you turned up.” She shook her head. “You turned up and you threatened all the things I wanted. You threatened the business I’d helped to build—the one I’d planned to sustain. You threatened the future I’d so carefully planned out.”

He shook his head. Not anymore. Had he not just offered it to her?

She looked at him and took a deep breath, then said, “But worse than all that, you made me want the rest. All the bits I told myself I had not wanted before. You made me want them. And not from just anyone. You made me want them from you.” She paused. “Not instead of. In addition to. All of it. Every bit of life that I might have. Vibrant and wild and full of mornings in the Covent Garden market and evenings on the docks and nights in your beautiful rooms, surrounded by candles and books and cushions in every color.”

She looked into the distance, where a lantern bobbed in the wind on the deck of the ship that held the Bastards’ most recent shipment, and she added, so soft that the words were lost on the wind, “I know it sounds mad. Like the wild dreams of a girl with no sense. But it’s not mad. I don’t need protection from it. I need a partner for it. I want it all.”

The words were not lost to Whit. He heard them. He heard them, and they rioted through him on a vision of her living that life. He could see Hattie’s skirts billowing in the riverfront breeze, as she watched over the men and their hooks—the men she’d already proven adored her by the way she’d plucked them from his reach that night. And they would adore her still—they would look to her for guidance and for direction and she would reign over them like a queen.

Like his queen. Because he would be by her side. He would be at her back, keeping the wind at bay. And perhaps, in time, there would be children, too, learning to climb on their mother’s boats and playing hide-and-seek in their father’s warehouse—little girls with violet eyes, shouting down at him from the rigging, and boys with bright smiles and a taste for raspberry sweets and lemon ice.

He reached for her, pulling her to him, loving the way she came without hesitation, even now, even as she denied him the thing he wanted most in the world. “Take it then. All of it. I give it, freely. Everything you want.”

Her eyes found his, the lantern light making them glitter. “I want love. And you cannot both love me and keep me locked away, precious and protected from the world. You cannot keep me safe and let me stand by your side.”

The words froze him. How many times had he told himself that he could save the world if only he did not love it? He couldn’t have another weakness. Not one that racked him with fear that he might one day not be able to protect her.

She was already enough of a weakness.

She’d already laid him low.

If he loved her—he’d never be free of his need for her.

Too late.

She shook her head and pulled away, out of his embrace. “I don’t want any of it in half measures. Not the business, not the fortune, not the future. And certainly not you.”

She stepped away, out of reach, wrapping her arms about her, and Whit’s heart began to pound, his mind resisting the movement, self-loathing filling him to his core. She was protecting herself.

From him.

And he wanted to scream at the realization. He wanted to scream, and go to her, and take her in his arms and promise her everything she wanted. The whole life. Himself included. He would love her.

And they would face the world—Ewan—all of it—together.

Perfectly matched.