Brazen and the Beast (The Bareknuckle Bastards #2)

She banged on the roof of the hack. “Stop this carriage right now!”

“Can’t help!” came the muffled reply from the driver. “The man gave me a quid to take you to Mayfair!”

“A quid to abduct me, you mean!”

“If I was abductin’ you, lady, I wouldn’t be takin’ ye to Berkeley Square!”

She didn’t even live in Berkeley Square, but that was a moot point. “I’ll pay you to stop!”

Hesitation. “Seems like whatever was going on at the docks wasn’t for you, luv!”

So now the hack driver had decided to find his sense of right and wrong. “Argh! Men!” Hattie pounded on the roof of the carriage. She didn’t need protection from this stranger or from the man who’d just tossed her into his carriage. Dammit, hadn’t it been Hattie who’d tossed Whit out of a carriage all those nights ago?

“Dammit, dammit,” she screamed, moving to the door, watching the buildings sail past. She’d never felt as useless as in those moments as the carriage raced from the docks, where Whit and his men raced against water and flame.

She belonged there. With him. Alongside him.

Marry me. Join me.

Had he honestly believed that if she agreed to his offer, she wouldn’t stand with him? Did he not see that being a wife meant being a partner? Being an equal? Did he not know that if he was going to share his life with her, she wanted all of it? Even this bit?

Especially this bit.

The carriage decelerated, and she looked out the window. They were coming up on a collection of taverns where people flooded the streets, making high speed impossible . . . now was her chance.

The hack slowed to a crawl, and Hattie measured the curve in the street. She took a deep breath and pushed open the door, closing her eyes and leaping.

She tumbled, a heavyset black man with a wide-brimmed hat and a big beard breaking her fall with a loud “Oof!” followed by a “Christ, gel! What in hell would possess you?” And then . . . “Wait! Yer the Sedley gel. The one who bought up the hooks tonight.”

She nodded, already righting herself and turning to return to the docks in question. “Hattie Sedley.”

He smiled. “Bollocks of brass, goin’ in against the Bastards.”

“Not against,” she said. “With. I simply needed to get their attention.”

He laughed, full and deep, and said, “Beast’s lady, then?”

“If he’d come to his senses,” she tossed over her shoulder, already leaving him, heading back to the docks, as quickly as she could.

She wove her way in and out of the streets and alleys of the neighborhood until she landed back where she’d come from, where Whit had left her. Turning a corner, she passed through the crowd that had assembled outside a popular drinking hole on one end of the dock, tankards in hand and each man with a theory on what had happened a hundred yards away. “I heard the Bastards are fighting each other. Beast don’t like Devil’s bride.” What utter nonsense.

“That ain’t it. I heard another group wants in on the ice business.” Hattie nearly laughed at that, as though the trade in frozen water was cutthroat enough to involve explosives.

“Must be somefin’ to do with Sedley payin’ the dockworkers not to work tonight. Too much of a coincidence—no one local on the dock to get ’urt when a damn bomb sinks the Bastards’ cargo.”

“Tide’s out,” came a reply. “There ain’t no sinkin’ to be done. Ice’ll just slide out the hold and melt into the river.”

“Winter freeze’ll come early this year,” came a loud masculine guffaw.

Hattie rolled her eyes, having no patience for the gawkers and gossipers who knew nothing but seemed to enjoy fabricating plenty. She looked to one of the quieter observers. “Has anyone been hurt?”

“Three men taken to the Bastards’ surgeon in the Garden. Beast refused to let the dockside butcher touch ’em.”

Of course he had. Whit would have rather cut off his own arm than let a leech with a bloody apron and a sturdy saw see to his men. Hattie increased her pace, eager to find him. She could see the ship now, lit by the flames still burning but now under better control—managed by a line of men working in unison—lifting river water by the bucketful, working to combat the fire that threatened the whole dock. The men moved quickly and with steady control, as though they’d done this precise thing a dozen times before. More.

And they had. The landing saw its fair share of gunpowder and rifle ships—and fire. Confident in the men’s work, she pushed forward, aiming for the burning ship. For the man she loved.

“Lady Henrietta?”

She turned at the sound of her name as a man stepped from a doorway in the darkness, tall and fair. Recognition flared. He was the Duke of Marwick—recognizable to any self-respecting spinster in the ton, even unshaven and wild-eyed. Hattie did not for a moment believe that this particular duke was simply taking a late night stroll on the London docks, no matter how mad society thought him to be.

Rage came tight in her throat and she slipped her hand into her pocket, feeling her pocketknife there, heavy and warm. “Ewan.”

Surprise flashed in his eyes. “He told you about me.”

“He told me he had another brother who was a monster.” She tightened her fist on her knife. “You look the part.”

A shout came from down the dock, and she looked to it, two men racing past, unaware of the two conversing in the darkness. Returning her attention to Ewan, she said, “This is your doing.”

“Yes.” His words were devoid of emotion.

“And it’s not enough? Three men to the surgeon? Another shipment destroyed? Now you think to what . . . come for me?”

“Do I?”

“Isn’t that what you do? Threaten your brothers and their livelihoods and their future?”

“And you are Saviour’s future?”

The wind picked up, and Hattie’s skirts billowed out around her. Her hair came loose from its pins. “I want to be,” she said, and there was no sorrow in the words. Only fury. “I have spent a great deal of my life fighting for the things I desire—and the things I deserve. And now I fight for my future, and you threaten that, too. And for what?” She paused, watching him. “Some cheap revenge.”

He stepped toward her, his amber eyes—at once so familiar and so foreign—flashing. “There is nothing cheap about my revenge. They took everything from me.”

She scowled at him. “They took nothing from you. They built a kingdom from nothing—a world of good people who know your brothers’ kindness and generosity and loyalty. Loyalty of which you can only dream. And you . . .” she spat. “You have tried to strip them of it. And I won’t have it.”

Surprise flashed. “You won’t?”

The wind whipped her skirts about her legs as she came to her full height. “I won’t. Whit has spent a lifetime worrying about what might happen when you come for him. And here is the truth of it—you would do well to heed it—it is you who should worry. Because if you harm them, these good men with good hearts and strong minds, I will come for you. And there is no past between us to keep you safe.”

“Saviour always lived his life as though name was destiny,” he said with a little laugh. “And here you are, protecting him. Like a guardian angel.”

“I think you’ll find I’m far less angel than I am warrior.” She extracted her knife and took a step toward the awful man. “It is time for you to go, Ewan.”

His gaze fell to the blade, and he reached into his coat, extracting one of his own. No. Not his own. Whit’s. The missing blade she’d noticed earlier. She looked up at the duke, their enemy, fear rioting through her. And still, fury won out. “That doesn’t belong to you.”

“Does it belong to you?” He flipped it in his hand, offering her the hilt. She reached for it. Took it in hand, and he let it go. “Perhaps you are a gift to all of us.”

She heard hope in the words. A plea. Something else. “I can see why he loves you.”

In that moment, Hattie realized that Whit did love her. And she wasn’t leaving these docks until he told her. And this man was in the way of it. “Then you can see why I won’t let you take that from him.”

“Tonight”—he looked down the docks, past the empty boats to the massive cargo ship being unloaded—“this . . . none of it matters to them.”

She shook her head. “You taught them that. Money does not make power. Title does not make might. And none of it—none of it makes happiness.”

“Not like love.”

There was a truth in the words, clear and sad, and if it had been anyone else speaking them, Hattie would have ached with sympathy for him. But this man had spent a lifetime threatening the man she loved, and he could sod off. “Do you doubt my willingness to put a knife in you if you come for him again?”

“No.”

“My ability to do it?” She fairly itched to do it.

“I told him to give you up,” Ewan said. “Threatened to take you from him if he didn’t.”

The confession was unexpected and somehow utterly obvious. Of course Whit had pushed her away. He would have done anything to protect her. Her savior. Her gaze narrowed. “That was misjudgment.”