Brazen and the Beast (The Bareknuckle Bastards #2)

Her smile broadened, dimple flashing. “I like that.”

He barked another laugh. “As do I, now that you’re awake enough to hear it.” He paused, then looked over his shoulder to the door. “Where’s the damn doctor?”

She shook her head, “No doctor. Not yet,” she said. “Not before I say this: I set out to claim myself—body, business, home, fortune, future. But you own it all.”

“We don’t have to marry,” he said. “You want the business. It’s yours. I’ll have the papers drawn up now. The fortune you’ll no doubt make with your sharp mind and your charm. Have all of it to yourself. But . . .” A plea edged into his words. “Let me share your future. Not as your husband. Not as your protector. As your partner. As your equal. However you like. I’ll take whatever you’ll give, as long as we’re together.”

She shook her head with a little wince that had him looking for the doctor again. “No, Whit. You misunderstand. You own it all. Every bit of me. And I give it, freely.”

He pressed a kiss to her knuckles and then to her lips, to her cheeks and forehead and then back to her mouth. “I own nothing. Everything of mine is yours, nothing if it is not shared. My business, my life, my world, my heart.”

She smiled, small, but there. “I am your protector.”

He closed his eyes at the words. At the pleasure that rioted through him with them. “Yes. Christ, yes.”

“Tell me again.”

And he did, low and sweet against her lips. “I love you.”

The doctor came and went, pronouncing her on the mend but requiring observation for several days in the infirmary. Their assembled guests left with proper introductions and relieved kisses and promises to visit daily, and moments later, a cacophonous cheer sounded from outside, shaking the windows in their seats.

Inside, Hattie’s eyes went wide, and she lifted her head from where it rested on Whit’s chest, as the moment they were alone, he’d climbed into bed with her and vowed not to leave the place until she did. “What was that?”

“The Rookery, cheering their lady on the mend.”

She smiled at that. “Their lady?”

“My lady.”

“My Beast.” A pause and then, “Kiss me again.”

He did, first gently, and then, when she pulled him closer, deeper. When he finally lifted his head, she sighed. “Tell me again.”

“I love you.”

Pink washed over her cheeks—a mark of her pleasure, and of her health. And then she closed her eyes and said, “Now tell me all the other things. All the things you said when I couldn’t hear them.”

And Beast settled in, his lady in his arms, content to spend the rest of his life doing just that.


One Year Later

Hattie stood at the helm of the ship, taking in her city.

The sun set over the rooftops, the whole of London burning amber in the light, the river gleaming like gold. She could hear the shouts of men and women up and down the docks, chattering and laughing and calling out to each other, late afternoon on the Docklands bursting with life. A half-dozen other ships were berthed along the quay, all owned by Sedley-Whittington Shipping, all crawling with dockworkers hauling product, all aboveboard.

But not this one. This one quiet, left only to her.

This one belonged to the Bareknuckle Bastards.

“There you are.”

Hattie turned at the dark, satisfied words to find her husband crossing the deck, greatcoat billowing out behind him as his long legs and sure strides consumed the oak boards. She lifted a hand as he approached the steps leading up to where she stood. “Wait.”

He did, instantly, looking up at her with a smile on his lips and a question in his eyes—eyes that glittered amber as the setting sun. His face bronzed from a summer of work on the ships—he remained breathtakingly handsome. “What is it?”

She smiled down at him. “I just like to look at you.”

Whit’s smile turned wolfish. “As I like to look at you, wife.” He took the steps two at a time, meeting her halfway across the raised deck, taking her into his arms. “I like to touch you, as well.”

He caressed down her arms, over the turquoise dress she wore. “I like this pretty frock.” Lifting one hand to her hair, pushing a long lock behind her ear. “I like your beautiful eyes.” And then he set his hand possessively to her belly, round and full with their first child. “And I like this more than I can say.”

She blushed at the low, sinful words, at the memory of how well he had proved the last the night before. She tilted her face up to his. “And what do you think of kissing me?”

He growled low in the back of his throat and showed her just how well he liked that, too, kissing her long and lush, stroking deep until she was lost to it, giving herself up to him. Only then did he break the caress with a second, soft and sweet, and a third on her cheek, and the last in her hair as he pulled her close and breathed her in. “I love you,” he whispered, the words stolen by the wind before Hattie could hear them.

But she felt them, nonetheless, curling into his warmth. “So here I am, as requested.”

“Mmm,” he said, holding her tight to him. “On our ship.”

She smiled, turning her face into his chest, a hint of embarrassment coming with understanding. Whit had refused to allow the ship, once called the Siren, to become a part of Sedley-Whittington, pointing out again and again that the level of sin the vessel had hosted made it much better suited to the Bareknuckle Bastards. Hattie had rolled her eyes at the theory . . . until he’d rechristened it the Warrior. And then she’d rather liked that he kept it for the business that had been with him the longest.

“Nik wanted to get it out before low tide, but I told her I have plans for it tonight.” The words were low and dark, and Hattie shivered at the promise in them.

“What kind of plans?” she sighed.

“The kind of plans that end with my wife naked under the stars.”

Her arms wrapped about his neck, and she tucked herself into the warmth of his coat. “Well, it is my birthday.”

“So it is.” Whit leaned down and kissed her, nipping her full lower lip with his teeth. “I was thinking more about how it is a new year.”

She raised a brow. “It’s September.”

“Ah, but the Year of Hattie is complete. And you’ve ticked off your items, have you not?” He pulled her tight and whispered at her ear. “Body.”

She sighed as he nipped at her ear, then kissed down the side of her neck, and her hands came to his shoulders, clinging to him for balance. “You did very well with helping me with that one.”

“I wonder if perhaps we might revisit it,” he said, walking her back and lifting her up to sit on the edge of the ship, holding her tight and tucking himself between her thighs, pressing against her core.

“I think it could be arranged.” She laughed as he licked at the curl of her ear. “What else?”

“Business and fortune,” he growled.

“Oh, I did quite well with that. I married a rich man with a head for business.”

Another grunt. “I believe it is more that he married a rich woman with a head for it.”

Hattie had barely left the infirmary after Ewan’s attacks on the docks when Whit produced a special license for them to marry. The wedding had been in the Covent Garden church, and was followed by a wild celebration on the docks, with lanterns and music and food and lemon ice and raspberry treats for anyone who wished them.

After that, Hattie and Saviour Whittington had built a shipping business that rivaled anything the city had seen before—employing every able body in Covent Garden and the Docklands and gaining the admiration and the envy of most of London’s aristocrats and all of London’s businessmen.

“One might even say Sedley-Whittington threatened to turn the Bareknuckle Bastards into upstanding gentlemen,” Whit said, kissing down the column of Hattie’s neck.

“Mmm. Thankfully, that threat never came to fruition.” She smiled, the dimple in her right cheek flashing. Whit kissed the divot, one of his large hands coming to her belly, where their child grew, healthy and strong. And awake. Sensing its father’s touch, it kicked, and Whit’s eyes went wide, wider still when Hattie said, “She’s preparing to be a Bareknuckle Bastard.”

His laugh was perfect, and then he said, softly, “Home.”

She met his eyes. “You are home.”

The reply earned her another kiss, long and lingering, until she was clinging to him, and wishing they were anywhere but here, and anything but clothed.

But Whit wasn’t ready to be done with talking, remarkably. “And so? What will come next? How shall we top your first Year of Hattie—a rollicking success?”

She shook her head. “It wasn’t a success, you know—not a rollicking one, at least.”

“What does that mean?”

“Only that there is one item left on my list.” She pulled him close, the sun disappeared behind London, darkness falling over the docks, cloaking them in nothing more than each other. “Would you help me with it?”

“Anything,” he whispered, holding her gaze. “Name it.”