Home > Hello Stranger (The Ravenels #4)

Hello Stranger (The Ravenels #4)
Lisa Kleypas

Chapter 1

London

Summer, 1876

Someone was following her.

The uneasy awareness crept along the nape of Garrett’s neck until the fine hairs stood on end. Lately she had the feeling of being watched whenever she went on her weekly visit to the workhouse infirmary. So far there had been no evidence to justify her unease—no glimpse of a person behind her, no sound of footsteps—but she could feel him somewhere close.

Carrying her leather doctor’s bag in her right hand and a hickory cane with the other, Garrett continued to walk at a brisk pace. Her gaze took in every detail of the environment. The East London parish of Clerkenwell was not a place to be careless. Fortunately, she was only two blocks away from the new main road, where there would be a hansom cab for hire.

As she passed the grates that covered Fleet Ditch, noxious fumes wafted upward and made her eyes water. She would have liked to cover her mouth and nose with a scented handkerchief, but that wasn’t something a resident of the parish would do, and she wanted to blend in.

The soot-blackened tenements, built as close as a row of teeth, were eerily quiet. Most of the dilapidated buildings had been condemned and closed in preparation for a new development site. The glow from the lamps on either end of the street strained through the fog that had settled in the recent summer calms, nearly obscuring the bloodshot moon. Soon the usual assortment of hucksters, pickpockets, drunkards, and prostitutes would emerge to crowd the area. Garrett intended to be long gone by then.

But her pace faltered as a few figures emerged from the reek and gloom. It was a trio of soldiers dressed in off-duty uniforms, laughing raucously as they advanced in her direction. Garrett crossed to the other side of the street, keeping to the shadows. Too late: one of them had caught sight of her and was swerving in her direction.

“Here’s luck,” he exclaimed to his companions. “A handy lightskirt for our evening sport.”

Garrett surveyed them coolly, while her grip tightened on the crook handle of her cane. The men were obviously the worse for drink. No doubt they’d been loitering at a tavern all day. There were few amusements to occupy common soldiers during their off-duty hours.

As they approached, Garrett’s heartbeat escalated. “Allow me to pass, gentlemen,” she said crisply, crossing the street once again.

They moved to block her, chortling and weaving. “Talks like a lady,” observed the youngest of the trio. He was bareheaded, his hair springing up in rusty coils.

“She b’aint a lady,” remarked another, a hulking, hatchet-faced man whose patrol jacket was missing. “Not if she’s out walking at night, all of ’er lone.” He regarded Garrett with a yellow-toothed leer. “Go stand next to the wall and lift your skirts, fancy piece. I’m in the mood for a three-penny upright.”

“You’re mistaken,” Garrett said shortly, attempting to walk around them. They barred her way again. “I’m not a prostitute. However, there are brothels nearby where you can pay for such services.”

“But I don’t want to pay for it,” the large man said nastily. “I want it free. Now.”

This was hardly the first occasion when Garrett had been insulted or threatened while visiting impoverished areas of London. She had trained with a fencing master to defend against this kind of situation. But she was exhausted after attending to at least two dozen patients in the workhouse infirmary, and infuriated to be confronted by a trio of bullies when she wanted to go home.

“As soldiers in Her Majesty’s service,” she said acidly, “has it occurred to you that your sacred duty is to protect a woman’s honor instead of violating it?”

To her disgust, the question elicited hearty chuckles instead of shame.

“Needs to be taken down a peg,” commented the third man, a stout and coarse-looking fellow with a pockmarked face and heavy-lidded eyes.

“She can ride on my peg,” offered the young one, rubbing his crotch and pulling the fabric of his trousers tight to display the shape of his endowment.

The hatchet-faced man grinned at Garrett with easy menace. “Over to the wall, my fine lady. Whore or no, we’re going to make use of ’ee.”

The stout soldier pulled a bayonet knife from the leather frog sheath on his belt, and held it up to display the wickedly serrated edge on the spine. “Do as he says, or I’ll carve ye like bacon for larding.”

Garrett’s stomach flipped unpleasantly. “Drawing a weapon while you’re off duty is illegal,” she observed coldly, her pulse thundering. “That, added to the offenses of public drunkenness and rape, will earn you a flogging and at least ten years in prison.”

“Then behap I’ll cut out yer tongue, so ye won’t tell anyone,” he sneered.

Garrett didn’t doubt that he would. As the daughter of a former constable, she knew that pulling out a knife meant it was likely he would use it on her. More than once in the past, she had stitched up the slashed cheek or forehead of a woman whose rapist had wanted to give her “something to remember me by.”

“Keech,” the younger man said to him, “there’s no need to terrify the poor girl.” Turning to Garrett, he added, “Let us do what we want.” He paused. “It’ll go easier on you if you don’t fight.”

Taking strength from a surge of anger, Garrett recalled her father’s advice about handling confrontation. Maintain your distance. Avoid being flanked. Talk and distract while you choose your moment.

“Why force an unwilling woman?” she asked, carefully setting down her doctor’s bag. “If it’s for lack of coin, I’ll give you shillings enough to visit a brothel.” Surreptitiously her hand dipped into the outer pocket of the bag, where she kept a leather roll of surgical knives. Her fingers closed around a slim silver handle of a scalpel, and she deftly concealed it from view as she stood. The familiar delicate weight of the instrument comforted her.

In the periphery of her vision, Garrett saw the stout soldier with the bayonet knife circling around her.

At the same time, the hatchet-faced man began to close the distance between them. “We’ll take those shillings,” he assured her. “But first we’ll make use of ye.”

Garrett adjusted her grip on the scalpel, resting her thumb on the flat side of the handle. Gently she applied the tip of her index finger along the blade’s spine. Make use of this, she thought. After drawing her hand back, she released the scalpel in a slinging motion, snapping her wrist straight to ensure no spin. The wickedly sharp little blade sank into his cheek. He roared with astonished fury, stopping in his tracks. Without pausing, Garrett pivoted around to the soldier with the bayonet knife. Whipping her cane in a horizontal forehand strike, she smashed it against his right wrist. Taken by surprise, he cried out in pain and dropped the knife. Garrett followed the blow with a backhand strike against his left side and heard a rib crack. She jabbed the tip of the cane at his groin to make him double over, and finished him off with an upward vertical strike of the handle against his chin.

He sank to the ground like an undercooked soufflé.

Garrett snatched up the bayonet knife and spun to face the other two soldiers.

In the next moment she froze in surprise, her chest rising and falling rapidly.

The street was silent.

Both men were sprawled on the ground.

Was this a trick? Were they pretending to be unconscious, to lure her closer?

She was filled with quivery, nerve-jangling energy, her body slow to recognize that the emergency was over. Slowly she ventured forward to have a closer look at the fallen men, taking care to stay out of arm’s reach. Although her scalpel had left a bloody wound in the larger one’s cheek, that wouldn’t have been enough to render him unconscious. There was a red mark on his temple that appeared to have been caused by blunt force.

Her attention went to the younger soldier, whose nose was streaming blood and had almost certainly been broken.

“What the devil . . . ?” Garrett murmured, looking up and down the silent street. She had that feeling again, the prickly awareness that someone was there. There had to be. Obviously these two soldiers hadn’t knocked themselves to the ground. “Come out and show yourself,” she said aloud to the unseen presence, although she felt a bit foolish. “There’s no need to lurk like a rat at the back of the cupboard. I know you’ve been following me for weeks.”

A masculine voice came from a direction she couldn’t detect, nearly causing her to jump out of her sensible shoes.

“Only on Tuesdays.”

Garrett turned a quick circle, her gaze chasing over the scene. Seeing a flicker of movement at one of the tenement doorways, she gripped the bayonet knife handle more firmly.

A stranger emerged from the shadows, cool darkness spun into the form of a man. He was tall and well-proportioned, his athletic form clad in a plain shirt, gray trousers, and an open vest. His head was covered by a flat cap with a slight brim at the front, the kind worn by longshoremen. Stopping a few feet away, the stranger removed his cap, revealing straight dark hair cut in efficiently short layers.

Garrett’s jaw slackened as she recognized him. “You again,” she exclaimed.

“Dr. Gibson,” he said with a brief nod, resettling his cap with a tug. He kept his fingertips on the brim for an extra second or two, a deliberate gesture of respect.

The man was Detective Ethan Ransom, of Scotland Yard. Garrett had met him on two previous occasions, the first nearly two years ago, when she’d accompanied Lady Helen Winterborne on an errand in a dangerous area of London. Much to Garrett’s annoyance, Ransom had been hired by Lady Helen’s husband to follow them.

Last month she’d encountered Ransom again, when he had visited her medical clinic after Lady Helen’s younger sister, Pandora, had been injured in a street attack. Ransom’s presence had been so quiet and unobtrusive that one might have taken little notice of him, except that his dark good looks were too striking to ignore. His face was lean, the mouth firm and distinctly edged, the nose strong with a slightly thickened bridge, as if it had once been broken. His eyes were piercing and heavy lashed, deeply set under straight thick brows. She couldn’t recall the color. Hazel, perhaps?

She would have thought him handsome, if not for the air of toughness that robbed him of gentlemanly refinement. No matter how polished the surface, the impression of a ruffian would always lurk beneath.

“Who hired you to follow me this time?” Garrett demanded, executing a deft spin with her cane before resting the tip on the ground in the “ready” position. It was a bit of a show-off move, admittedly, but she felt the need to display her skill.

Subtle amusement flickered across Ransom’s face, but his tone was grave. “No one.”

“Then why are you here?”

“You’re the only female physician in all of England. It would be a shame for anything to happen to you.”

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