Home > Hello Stranger (The Ravenels #4)(4)

Hello Stranger (The Ravenels #4)(4)
Lisa Kleypas

Despite his previous nonsense about “sweethearting,” Garrett was certain he had no romantic designs on her, which suited her perfectly. She had never wanted a relationship that might have interfered with her career. Oh, there had been a minor dalliance here or there . . . a stolen kiss with a handsome medical student at the Sorbonne . . . a harmless flirtation with a gentleman at a dance . . . but she had deliberately avoided anyone who might have posed a real temptation. And any involvement with this insolent stranger could lead to trouble.

However, she did want to learn a few of his street-fighting maneuvers.

“If I agree to let you teach me,” she asked, “would you promise to stop following me on my Tuesday rounds?”

“Aye,” Ransom said easily.

Too easily.

Garrett gave him a skeptical glance. “Are you a truthful man, Mr. Ransom?”

He laughed quietly. “With my job?” Looking past her shoulder, he saw an approaching hansom, and signaled it. His gaze returned to her face and held intently. “I swear on my mother’s grave, you have nothing to fear from me.”

The hansom rolled to a jangling, rattling halt beside them.

Abruptly Garrett made a decision. “Very well. Meet me tomorrow at four o’clock, at Baujart’s fencing club.”

Ransom’s eyes flashed with satisfaction. He watched as Garrett ascended to the footboard of the two-wheeled vehicle. With the ease of vast experience, she ducked beneath the overhanging reins and climbed up to the passenger seat.

As Ransom handed the doctor’s bag to Garrett, he called up to the driver. “Mind you take care not to jostle the lady.” Before Garrett could object, he stepped onto the footboard and gave the driver a few coins.

“I can pay my own fare,” Garrett protested.

Ransom’s midnight-blue eyes stared steadily into hers. Reaching out, he pressed something into her hand. “A gift,” he murmured. Easily he descended to the ground. “Tomorrow, Doctor.” He touched the brim of his hat, letting his fingers linger in that way he had, until the vehicle pulled away.

Feeling slightly dazed, Garrett looked down at the object he’d given her. The silver whistle, slightly warm from the heat of his body.

What nerve, she thought . . . but her fingers closed gently around it.

Chapter 2

Before going to his flat on Half Moon Street, Ethan had one more appointment to keep. He took a hansom to Cork Street, which was almost entirely occupied by Winterborne’s, the famous department store.

A few times in the past, Ethan had done private work for the store’s owner, Rhys Winterborne. The jobs had been easy and quick, hardly worth his time, but only a fool would turn down a request from such a powerful man. One of them had involved shadowing Winterborne’s then fiancée, Lady Helen Ravenel, when she and a friend had visited an orphanage in a hazardous area near the docklands.

That had been two years ago, when Ethan had first met Dr. Garrett Gibson.

The slim chestnut-haired woman had been battering an assailant twice her size with precisely aimed strikes of her cane. Ethan had loved the way she’d done it, as if attending to some necessary task, like carrying a household bin out to the rubbish carter.

Her face had been unexpectedly young, her complexion clean-scrubbed and as smooth as a tablet of white soap. All cheekbones and cool green eyes, with a sharp little rampart of a chin. But amidst the elegant angles and edges of her features, there was a valentine of a mouth, tender and vulnerable, the upper lip nearly as full as the lower. A mouth with such pretty curves that it did something to Ethan’s knees every time he saw it.

After that first encounter, Ethan had taken care to avoid Garrett Gibson, knowing she would be trouble for him, possibly even worse than he would be for her. But last month he’d gone to visit her at the medical clinic where she worked, for information concerning one of her patients, and his fascination had ignited all over again.

Everything about Garrett Gibson was . . . delicious. The dissecting gaze, the voice as crisp as the icing on a lemon cake. The compassion that drove her to treat the undeserving poor as well as the deserving. The purposeful walk, the relentless energy, the self-satisfaction of a woman who neither concealed nor apologized for her own intelligence. She was sunlight and steel, spun into a substance he’d never encountered before.

The mere thought of her left him like a stray coal on the hearth.

He had already sworn to himself that he would take nothing from her. All he intended to do was keep her safe on her visits to the Clerkenwell workhouse, or the Bishopsgate orphanage, or wherever she chose to go on her Tuesday rounds. That much he would allow himself.

It had been a mistake, arranging to meet her tomorrow. Ethan still wasn’t sure how that had happened—he’d heard the words leaving his lips as if they were being spoken by someone else. Once he’d made the offer, however, he couldn’t retract it, and then he’d found himself longing for her to accept.

One hour in Garrett Gibson’s company, and then he would never approach her again. But he wanted, needed, craved those minutes alone with her. He would hoard the memory for the rest of his days.

Winterborne’s department store appeared as an unbroken row of grand marble-faced buildings, fronted with massive display windows. The famed central stained-glass rotunda towered over four stories of columned arcades. It was a palatial structure, built by an ambitious man who’d wanted the world to know that a Welsh grocer’s son had made himself into someone of consequence.

Ethan walked to the street behind the department store, where the mews, delivery yard, and loading docks were located. Winterborne’s private house was at the far end of the street, connected to the store through private passageways and stairwells. It was Ethan’s habit to enter at the back, through the door used by servants and deliverymen.

A footman admitted him inside. “Mr. Ransom. This way, if you please.”

Ethan followed him, hat in hand, as they proceeded to the central staircase of the five-story house. The hallways were lit with crystal sconces and lined with paintings with views of mountains, oceans, and sunny pastoral scenes. A long pier table set against a wall had been laden with blue and white chinoiserie vases filled with ferns and lavish sprays of orchids.

As they passed a trio of potted palms, Ethan noticed a few black grains of dirt on the floor beside one of them. He paused and ducked low enough to look beneath the feathery fronds. A little parade of carved wooden animals, the kind that might belong to a Noah’s ark set, had been set up in the soil around a tiny hut made of matchboxes. It looked like a child’s secret hiding place. Amusement tugged at the corners of Ethan’s lips as he recalled that Lady Helen’s young half sister, approximately five years old, was being raised by the Winterbornes. Seeing that one of the toy elephants had fallen onto its side, he surreptitiously set it back on its feet.

“Sir.” The footman had stopped to look back at him, frowning at the guest’s untoward interest in a houseplant.

Ethan stood, giving him an innocent glance. “Just admiring the palm.” He continued to follow the footman after bending to whisk the telltale flecks of soil away from the pot with a quick swipe of his hat.

They proceeded to the gentlemen’s room where Ethan had met with Winterborne on previous occasions. The masculine parlor was seasoned with pleasant hints of oiled leather, cigar tobacco, expensive liquor, and a dry whiff of billiard chalk.

After entering the room, Ethan paused near the doorway, his gaze sharpening.

Winterborne stood beside a massive terrestrial globe set in a walnut floor stand, spinning it idly, while another man browsed among a nearby wall rack of billiard cues. The two were laughing quietly together in the manner of long-standing friends.

Noticing his presence, Winterborne said easily, “Ransom, come in.”

Ethan didn’t move, his nerves crawling with the awareness that he had been manipulated. Winterborne, the bastard, had led him to expect that he would be alone.

At six feet, Ethan was hardly a small man, but Winterborne eclipsed him by at least four inches in height. Winterborne approached in a relaxed manner. He was large and powerfully built, with the shoulders and sturdy neck of a prizefighter. Big fists. A punishing reach. From instinct and habit, Ethan’s brain rapidly calculated the most efficient sequence of moves to defeat him. Start with a dodge to the side—grab the shoulder of his jacket—hammer him with a few left hooks to the solar plexus and lower ribs—finish him with a knee to the gut—

“Ethan Ransom, allow me to introduce Mr. Weston Ravenel,” Winterborne said, gesturing to his companion. “One of my wife’s relations. He asked if I would arrange a meeting with you.”

Ethan’s gaze shot to the stranger, a man in his mid to late twenties with brown-black hair, polished good looks, and an easy smile. He was lean and exceptionally fit, his clothes impeccably tailored. Curiously, his complexion was sun bronzed, and his hands were work roughened, like someone in a manual trade.

To London society, the Ravenel name connoted aristocratic privilege and power. But the Ravenels had never settled into staid respectability like the Cavendishes or Grosvenors. They were a hot-blooded lot, intemperate and reckless in nearly everything they did. The Ravenel lineage had nearly come to an end with the last earl’s death, but they’d managed to find a distant cousin to assume the title.

“Please forgive the subterfuge,” Weston Ravenel said pleasantly, coming forward. “I have a bit of business to discuss with you, and I didn’t know how else to reach you.”

“Not interested,” Ethan said coldly, turning to leave.

“Wait. It’s in your interest to hear me out. I’ll pay for your time if necessary. God, I hope you’re not expensive.”

“He is,” Winterborne assured him.

“I suppose I should have—” Ravenel began, but stopped as he drew close enough to have a more thorough look at Ethan in the light. “Damn,” he said quietly, looking into his eyes.

Ethan drew in a measured breath and released it slowly. Focusing at a blank space on the wall, he considered his options. There wasn’t much point in dodging the bastard now; he might as well find out what he wanted. “I’ll stay for ten minutes,” he said curtly.

“Would you make it twenty,” Ravenel asked, “if Winterborne opened a decent bottle of cognac?” He glanced at Winterborne. “By ‘decent,’ I’m referring to the Gautier ’64.”

“Do you know how much that costs?” the Welshman asked him in dawning outrage.

“I’ve come all the way up from Hampshire. How often do you have the pleasure of my company?”

“Pleasure is not what I usually call it,” Winterborne grumbled, and went to ring for a servant.

Ravenel grinned after him before leveling an assessing glance at Ethan. The mask of easy charm settled back into place. “Shall we?” he asked, gesturing to the grouping of deep leather chairs.

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