Brazen and the Beast (The Bareknuckle Bastards #2)

And in the realization—something else.

He moved toward her, marveling at her strength, at the way she held her ground, his brave, brazen beauty. He could see so much in her eyes. Doubt, yes, and concern, no doubt out of fear that he’d been an ass before, and what was to stop him now? But there was something more there. Something that lit when he moved toward her. Something that he recognized, because he felt it so keenly himself.

Hope.

But before he could give voice to it, before he could make his case, before he could beg her to give him a chance, before he could tell her he could learn, before he could tempt her with all the things she’d wanted . . . all the things he wanted . . .

An explosion cut through the night, setting the docks ablaze.





Chapter Twenty-Five


Hattie watched him come for her, slow and deliberate, his eyes clear and a smile teasing at his lips, dreading his wonderful touch, his soft words, the promises she knew would tempt her to believe that he might be able to give her everything she asked. She steeled herself for whatever he was about to say, knowing that it would be impossible to resist him—this man she had come to love beyond reason—knowing he was about to touch her with soft strokes and warm kisses, and worrying she would not be able to bear it even as she wanted it badly.

But he didn’t touch her as she expected. Instead, when the thunderous explosion rocked the docks, he flew toward her, his eyes filled with terror, knocking her down, rolling her mid-air, collecting her in his arms, and bearing the brunt of impact as they slid across the deck and into the side wall of the ship.

When they came to a stop, Hattie was immediately turning to face him. “Are you—”

His hands were everywhere, sliding over her arms and her torso, “You’re not hurt?”

“No.” She shook her head, her own hand against his chest, feeling his heart thundering beneath her touch. “You shouldn’t have done that. You’ll have wicked splinters from the deck.”

“You think I give a shit about splinters when you might have been—” He reached for her, pulling her closer, squeezing her tightly. “We have to get you out of here.”

“What’s happened?” She pulled away and looked up to the sky, where sparks floated into the night. Shouts rang out from down the dock. “Something’s been attacked.”

“Stay here.” He moved across the deck like lightning, fetching his holster and strapping it on before turning to investigate. He assessed the situation in seconds. “The shipment.”

Cold dread settled. “My brother?”

He did not meet her eyes. “No. Mine.”

Her eyes went wide. “Ewan.”

He came for her, reaching down to catch her hand and help her up. “We’ve got to get you out of here.”

“Absolutely not.” Shock flared. “I’m going to help.”

“No.” He grasped her hand and pulled her to the gangway, and down the slip to solid ground, where men were already pouring into the docks to stem the fire. “If he’s here, you’re in danger.”

Hattie looked toward the ship burning in the berth. “How many men?”

He wasn’t paying attention, too focused on the crowd amassing nearby. “What?”

“How many men were on the ship?”

He turned to her, met her gaze. “I don’t know.” He grabbed a boy running by, nearly lifting him from his feet. “Brixton.”

“Beast! Yer a’right!” The boy’s eyes went wide. “Sarita said she saw you comin’ down ’ere, but ye didn’t leave.”

“I’m all right, bruv,” he said, and Hattie saw the relief in the boy’s eyes. Understood it. She would have come running for him, too. “Get gone. ’S not safe here.”

“No, boss.” Brixton looked to the boats and lifted his chin. “I’m goin’ to help.”

“Who’s on the watch?”

“It’s ten o’clock, Beast,” the boy said, and she heard the fear in his voice. “Yeah?”

Whit stiffened, and she saw the hesitation in his frame. Saw him resist something primal. “Yeah. Get in there. But if anything seems wrong, you get out.”

The boy smiled, reckless and far too young. “Anyfin’ like a Derry and Tom?”

Whit cuffed the boy on the chin at the Cockney slang for bomb. “Yeah. Like a Derry and Tom.”

He released the boy and turned for Hattie, grabbing her hand and pulling her away from the crowd. “Come.”

Away from the fire.

“What? Why?” He didn’t respond, pulling her into a narrow passageway leading up between a tavern and a sail shop. She tugged at her hand, but his grip only grew tighter. “Where are you taking me? What does ten o’clock mean?”

He didn’t slow. “On nights when we’re not moving cargo, the guard changes at ten.”

Understanding, quick and painful. “Double the number of men at the ship.”

He grunted.

“Oh, my God, Whit. I did this. I locked up the hooks. If I hadn’t, this wouldn’t have happened.”

He didn’t turn back. “Or we’d have two dozen dead men down there instead of whatever we have.”

She stopped, digging her heels into the cobblestones. “We have to go back.”

“No.” Unequivocal.

She straightened her shoulders. “I am responsible for whatever happened there tonight. I shall help. I can help.”

He cursed under his breath and looked up at the sky. “You’re not going back there. There’s been an explosion large enough to decimate a hauler, I’ve got a hold full of ice and contraband aflame and Ewan has already said he’s willing to hurt you to get to me.”

“He shan’t hurt me with half the docks watching!” she said. “Let me make it right!”

“These are not your sins, Hattie,” he said. “You’re going home.”

“Of course they’re not my sins!” she shouted. “You think I don’t know that? But this is my world, too! This is my turf, too! If you are worried, I am worried. If you are there, I am there. And let Ewan come. We shall face him together. Together.”

He turned away from her, raising a hand to flag down a hack. “We will do no such thing. I don’t want you near him. He’ll come for you to punish me. And I can’t have that.”

“Why?”

“Because I took the only thing he ever cared about from him.”

“What? What could possibly be more valuable than his brothers?” She thought back to the docks. “Than the lives of the men and women who work for them?”

“Not what. Who.”

Understanding came swift and certain. “Grace.”

“Clever girl,” he said softly.

The hack pulled to a stop nearby, its horses huffing in the night. The driver looked to the orange light flickering over the rooftops, then to the knives strapped to Whit’s chest, nervously. “All right, milord?”

“Better when you get her far from here,” Whit growled as he pulled the door open.

“No,” she said, fury raging. “I am not leaving you here to face an inferno and a madman and whatever else is down there.”

He met her eyes, a small smile on his lips. “You plan to fight my battles for me, love?”

She shook her head. “Never for you. Alongside you.”

He smiled, sad. “Ever my warrior.”

He wasn’t going to let her. He was going to put her into this carriage and be off to a fight that could leave him destroyed. Worse. “Don’t do this. Believe in me.”

Believe in us.

“You don’t have to protect me.”

The words seemed to unlock him, filling him with determination. Lengthening him. Broadening him. Steeling him. “I do, though. It’s all I must do. You’ve asked me why I carry two watches,” he said, quick and stern, as though he was giving her directions to an impossibly difficult location. And perhaps he was. “I am never late. I am never late, because I was too late to save my mother. She was dead when I arrived, of whatever plague had ripped through the rooming house that week. Dead and alone. And I couldn’t protect her.”

“Oh, no . . .” Hattie said softly, reaching for him, her fingertips brushing the leather straps of the holster that caged him. The weapons he kept close.

“But I can protect you,” he went on. “I can protect you forever. I can keep you away from my brother. And I can keep you away from all of this.”

“This is part of it!” she said. “It’s part of the world I wish. Part of the life I wish. With you.” She shook her head. “Don’t you see? I’d rather have a night with you than a lifetime without you.”

He shook his head. “No. I’ll never see you into danger.”

Tears sprang, frustrated and angry. “You don’t get to decide. I do.”

“Goddammit, this isn’t the Year of Hattie anymore, this is your life! This is my sanity!” He closed his eyes. “Please. Get in the fucking hack. Now.”

She narrowed her gaze. “Make me.”

And he did, the wretched man, lifting her from her feet like she was a sack of grain and tossing her into the conveyance. Making sure she was unbalanced enough that she wouldn’t be able to stop him from closing the door.

She heard the thump of his fist on the side of the hack, barely sounded before the wheels were in motion. Outrage and fury flared as Hattie sat up, looking out the window, barely able to make out the shape of him, running back to the docks. Back to danger.