Brazen and the Beast (The Bareknuckle Bastards #2)

“Who is it?” he asked again.

Devil shook his head, his eyes filled with something awful. Something Whit didn’t understand. What then? What else could it—

“Whit.” Devil wasn’t angry. It wasn’t frustration in his words, thick with the accent of their past. Thick with sorrow. “Bruv. It’s Hattie.”

Whit stilled, his brother’s face coming into sharp focus. Full of sadness. Fear, too. Fear of what might happen when Whit understood everything. And something else—fear that it might one day happen to him.

And that fear—tinged with the hot, panicked relief of a man who had dodged a bullet—brought the truth. Whit froze, understanding crashing through him. A third explosion. One that did more damage than the others.

Nik came toward him, horror on her pale face. “Beast,” she said softly. Entirely un-Nik-like.

He dropped the hook to the floor of the hold, his step toward Devil the only movement, no one working, everything stopped, like time. Like his heart. “No.”

Devil nodded. “The boys found her on the docks, a hundred yards from here.”

Whit looked over his shoulder to where Nik stood sentry, several feet away, her brow furrowed. He shook his head. “It’s not her. I put her in a hack.”

He’d paid the driver. Sent her to Mayfair.

Sent her away, not wanting her here. In danger.

Protecting her.

And she’d begged him to stay. Believe in me.

If he had—she would have been with him. Safe.

“She came back,” his brother said. “The second explosion must have—”

Whit slid a hand into his pocket, running a thumb over the pocket watch within. His warrior wouldn’t have waited half a block before finding a way back if she wanted to be here.

She’d found a way back. To stand beside him. His equal.

Would you know if she were dead?

Ewan’s question the night he’d threatened Hattie. The night he’d promised to take her from Whit if he didn’t give her up.

Would you know if she were dead?

He’d know. He’d know that the whole world was upended. He’d know the light had gone out. He’d know.

He shook his head. He’d know. “Where is she?”

“They’re bringing her to the surgeon.”

The surgeon.

“I have to get to her.” He couldn’t be late this time.

Devil nodded. “Yes. But—Whit . . .”

Fuck that. He wasn’t losing her. Not now. Not ever. “No.”

No. Whatever his brother was trying to say, Whit wasn’t hearing it. He was already tearing out of the hold to get to Hattie.

High on the rooftops above the docks, the third Bareknuckle Bastard crouched low, watching as her brother exited the hold of the burning ship, fresh with the news that his love was lost. She saw the fear in his gait, the determination, too, the way his expression flattened into stoic, strong resolve, as though he could go up against death.

As though he would, if it meant keeping her.

She watched as he landed on the firm ground, his mind fracturing just as his life would if Henrietta Sedley didn’t survive, into two halves—like a mast in a storm—before and after Hattie.

Grace watched, and she ached for Beast, and for his love.

She knew what it was to lose the most important person in the world.

She knew what it was to have him ripped from you.

And she knew what it was to survive it.

But she was through with mere survival. And she was through with the boy she’d lost—the boy they’d all lost—toying with them for sport.

She came to her full height, her long coat billowing out behind her, hat low over her brow. “This ends now,” she said to the pair of women who stood at her side. “As it should have ended years ago.”

Her lieutenants stood in silent sentry, watching the tableau below, blades at their belts. Grace pointed to the darkness, to the doorway where the wounded man had dragged himself into hiding after the blast. Where he’d watched as the Bastards’ lookouts had collected Hattie.

“Bring him to me.”

He’d waited for a ghost for twenty years.

Tonight, the Duke of Marwick got his wish.

She wouldn’t wake. So he kept vigil.

Whit didn’t remember how he got to the infirmary, didn’t remember the path he’d taken, whether he’d come via hack or on foot. Didn’t remember if he’d met anyone else along the way, nor how he got inside. Had he knocked on the door or kicked it in? Had he been led here? To this bed in a poorly lit corner of the main room of the Rookery hospital, where a single candle burned on a nearby table—the only thing that kept the darkness at bay?

It didn’t matter.

None of it mattered but her.

Hattie—still as stone in the bed, eyes closed, chest barely rising and falling, as life and death battled for her. Life and death . . . and Whit.

He didn’t remember seeing the doctor. Didn’t remember whatever useless words he’d offered—some explanation of her lack of consciousness. Some reference to a blow to the head. Something about ice and swelling and the mysteries of the human brain.

Something about trauma.

Trauma, Whit remembered, as it coursed through him, too, as he stared at her, as he came to his knees by her bedside and took her cool hand in his own, bringing it to his lips to kiss it, memorizing the weight of it. The feel of it, the softness of it.

Someone brought him a chair, but he didn’t use it. Whit had never thought much of God—but he knew what prayer looked like, and if staying on his knees would bring Hattie back, he’d stay there forever. And he did pray, in those moments, kissing her knuckles one by one, and willing her strong. Willing her fingers to tighten.

He prayed to God, yes, but mostly, he prayed to Hattie. And he prayed out loud, using all the words he could find, as though in giving them to her, he might keep her alive. It was a mad thought, but the only one in Whit’s head, and so for the first time in his life, he talked . . . without thought, without knowing when he would stop.

Because he would talk forever if it meant he could keep her there, with him.

Kneeling by her side, looking down at her perfect, beautiful face, made gold in the candlelight, he told her all his truths.

He began with the most important one. “I love you.”

Regret thrummed through him, opening a wide space between them, and he clung to her hand and refused to take his eyes from her as he repeated himself. “I love you, and I should have told you that before. I should have told you the night at the fights.” He swallowed, fighting for words. “I should have told you before then—in Covent Garden when you went after my best broad-tosser and found the queen.”

He paused, then, the words catching in his throat. “I found the queen that night, too. I found you, and I should have told you that I loved you. I should have told you how beautiful you are. I should have told you how I am laid low by your impossible eyes and your wide, wonderful smile.” He closed his eyes and set his forehead to her hand. “I should like to make you smile again, love. I should like to make you smile every minute of every hour of every day for the rest of our life until you tire of it and I have no choice but to kiss it from your lips and give you respite. And I should like very much for that life to be so long that we grow old next to each other, rattling about in our home, with our children and grandchildren coming and going and rolling their eyes at how I never stopped being a fool over you.”

His gaze tracked her face for movement, running over her full cheeks and her long nose and the twin slash of her brows—which rose and fell with every excitement she felt—a barometer of her emotion, now unmoving. Whit rubbed a hand over his face, panic and anguish running through him. “My brother nearly had to die before he realized how much he loved his wife . . . But this . . .” He didn’t think he could bear it.

“I’d die a thousand times over to prevent this. To prevent you, here . . . I’d trade places with you in a moment. The world doesn’t need me like it needs you. Who will buy up all the extra flowers in the market at the end of the day? Who will hold the loyalty of the London docks like you? Who will—” He swallowed around the knot in his throat. “Who will teach my daughters to tie a decent knot?” His voice cracked on the last, and he bowed his head to the bed, broken by the moment. “Christ, Hattie. Please don’t leave me. Please don’t go.”

People came and Whit barely noticed—Devil and Felicity first, filled with concern, Felicity instantly going to her knees beside him, her strong hand firm on his arm. He didn’t look at her. He couldn’t look into the face of her worry. Instead, he stared into Hattie’s face and said, quietly, “She’s locked away.”

Felicity’s fingers squeezed his arm, strong and sure, but he heard the tears in her voice when she said, “No lock is unpickable.”

But Hattie wasn’t clockwork and steel. She was flesh and bone and love, and if Whit knew anything, he knew those were the most fragile of things, there and gone in an instant.

His brother approached, settling a hand on his shoulder. “The crew is outside, standing guard. Twenty of them, more by the minute.”