Brazen and the Beast (The Bareknuckle Bastards #2)

He nodded. “He wouldn’t do it.”

She shook her head. “No. I wouldn’t. You aren’t a specter to me. You aren’t my past. And you aren’t my future. I don’t fear you. And I will never give him up.”

Silence fell between them. And then, “You remind me of her.”

Grace. “From what I hear, that is a great compliment.”

“He told you about her?”

“Of course,” she said softly. “She is his sister.”

Something shifted in Ewan at that—something that Hattie could not explain except to say that he seemed to settle. “She was their sister,” he said. “But she was my heart.” His eyes flew to hers, and in the wild depths she saw his aching sadness. “He had a life with her, and now a life with you, and I had nothing.”

“You chose nothing.”

He looked to the docks, his gaze unfocused. “I chose her.”

Hattie did not reply. She didn’t have to. He was lost to thought. To memory. And after a long moment, he looked to her—his amber eyes so like Whit’s, and so empty of Whit’s passion—and said, “It’s over.”

Hattie let out a long breath. Relief coursing through her. “You won’t come for him again.”

“I thought I would know . . .” he said, trailing off. Then, again, the words rougher than before. More broken. “It’s over.”

The Duke of Marwick turned from her and walked away, as though he’d never been there at all. She watched him leave, tracking his movements until he was swallowed by the night and she could no longer see him.

She turned back to the docks, slipping the knife in her palm into her pockets, and made for the ship where men worked seamlessly to salvage what they could from the cargo of the ruined ship. Men she knew would stand shoulder to shoulder with Whit and Devil and the Bareknuckle Bastards any time.

She marveled at the long line of them, doing their backbreaking work, heaving ice and cargo, and there, silhouetted by the flames, and wielding a hook like he’d been born with it in hand, their leader. The man she loved, leading his troops.

A single word coursed through her as she traced his strong, broad form with her gaze.

Mine.

He disappeared, presumably down into the hold, to save more of the wreck, and Hattie made for him, crossing the long, barren dock to the ship, a hundred yards away, more resolute than ever.

She didn’t want the boats; she wanted him. She wanted him, and she wanted this life, next to him, on this burning dock. She wanted to be next to him on that burning boat. And if he refused to have her there, she would battle for him, reminding him every day that she did not need a protector. She only needed him.

She increased her pace, eager to close the distance between them and tell him just that.

Hattie had already crossed to the docks, walking close to the line of empty ships when she heard the shout behind her. Turning, she saw Ewan running toward her. She slid her hand into her pocket, palming Whit’s onyx blade, wondering what his enemy was going to do, prepared to sink it into his thigh, his shoulder, his chest—whatever was required.

He hadn’t reached her when the second explosion detonated—breaking the ship behind her into pieces, and sending them both flying.





Chapter Twenty-Six


The ship might be aflame topside, but below deck there were more than seventy tons of ice and cargo still salvageable in one way or another, assuming the men moved quickly.

Once he’d been certain Hattie was being safely ferried away from the docks, Whit had returned to the ship. Nik had arrived with the promise that Devil was on his way, ostensibly to assess the damage, but Whit knew better than anyone that the damage to the ship was irreparable. The contents, however, were a different story.

After checking on the men who’d been sent to the Rookery infirmary, Whit had collected a heavy iron box hook and set to work on the line of men who were working in unison, heaving crates up and passing them from man to man, until they’d saved as much cargo as they could. The men had come quickly from the taverns along the docks, forgetting that Hattie had paid them not to work that night—knowing that there was a difference between a deal made for rivalry and a tragedy requiring assistance.

When he’d assessed the hold, finally, he’d acknowledged a bit of loss—several cases of brandy had been smashed in the reverberations of the explosion, but Whit had been impressed with the security of the cargo.

He’d heard a second explosion in the distance while below deck, the sound tearing a wicked curse from him. The report had come quickly. Another boat. An empty one. Nothing that required his attention. Tonight, this hold required his attention, and quickly—before the ice, which had been carefully packed and cared for on the Oslo end of the journey, melted enough to make it difficult to move the contraband.

The Bastards smuggled inside ice, so as not to risk discovery—not even on a night like tonight, when it seemed every alternate plan should have been in play.

Instead, Whit worked at the head of the line, slowly and methodically, deciding which blocks were moved, which stayed, and which cargo left the hold when. He’d be damned if he’d see their carefully imported, untaxed product suddenly compromised by too much fear and the same amount of speed.

He hooked two crates of bourbon in quick succession, passing them along the line before collecting a block of ice, and then a second. The man working alongside him groaned under the weight of the heavy blocks.

“Those are clear enough to sell,” Whit said of the ice blocks, raising his voice to make sure Nik heard him from her place deep in the hold. “And there’s a half dozen here that are the same—untouched by the explosion.”

The Norwegian nodded, then smirked in his direction. “And would you like them to be sold?”

“No.”

She grinned. “You save them for raspberry ices. How sweet.”

The children of the Rookery got sweets when there was ice in port. Whit saw no reason why that should change because of the evening’s disaster.

“Tell me, Nik,” he intoned as he hefted another block. “Does the Lady Nora have a sweet tooth?”

The men on the line laughed at the question, especially when Nik threw Whit an insulting hand gesture. Whit smiled and returned to his work, letting the rhythm of the line lull him into calm. Into thoughts of Hattie. He wondered if she preferred lemon or raspberry ice; imagined the sounds she would make if he fed her the sugary treat. If he dropped a spoonful of it between her breasts. How long he’d be able to resist the urge to lick it from her skin.

He grunted as he moved a cask of ale, passing it down the line.

I want it all.

Hattie’s strong, sweet voice, demanding everything she desired. Everything she deserved. Insisting that he be her equal partner or nothing at all.

Christ, he wanted it, too.

But tonight this world had almost killed her, and he hadn’t been able to protect her. Ewan had come for them—Whit had no doubt his brother was behind the explosion—but even if the lookouts tracked him and found him, threats would keep coming. The threat was the wide world. And Whit knew, without question, that though he could barely conceive of a life without Hattie, he absolutely could not live without her safe.

He’d been right to push her away. To put her in the hack.

Don’t do this. Believe in me.

He resisted her words, still echoing through him.

You don’t have to protect me.

Of course he did. He had.

“Beast!”

The call came from a distance, from above the hold, and he didn’t reply, not wanting to leave his work, the strain of the casks and crates burning his muscles and keeping the pain of sending Hattie away at bay.

Devil dropped down into the hold behind him nevertheless, pushing his way through the line. “Beast,” he repeated, and that’s when Whit heard the strange tenor of his brother’s voice. Familiar. Unsettling.

Something had happened. Something had gone terribly wrong.

He turned to face Devil, the taller man’s lean face all angles in the lamplight, cheeks shadowed, eyes focused in the darkness. Devil was in shirtsleeves—as was Whit—but he was missing his cane sword. The loss of it was like the loss of a limb, and Whit noticed instantly. He stayed his movement, coming to his full height in the low-ceilinged space. “What’s happened?”

A moment, then Devil shook his head.

Whit cursed in the darkness. “Goddammit.” It could only be news of the men they’d sent to the infirmary earlier. “Abraham? Mark? Robert?” They’d all been conscious—none of them with wounds that had struck Whit as terminal. But things did not always work out the way they seemed. “Did someone not make it? Which one?” He stepped toward his brother. “I shall tear London apart by the bricks until we find Ewan. He dies.”

It never got easier. How many had they seen die? Dozens? A score? A hundred? When one grew up on the streets of Covent Garden, death was a part of life, like violence and illness, but it never got easier.