Home > Hello Stranger (The Ravenels #4)(5)

Hello Stranger (The Ravenels #4)(5)
Lisa Kleypas

Stone-faced, Ethan went to occupy one of the chairs. He leaned back with his fingers laced lightly across his midriff. As the silence stretched out, he deliberately focused on the rosewood-and-brass mantel clock.

“Counting the minutes, are we?” Ravenel asked. “Very well, I’ll go to the point as quickly as possible. Three years ago, my older brother unexpectedly inherited an earldom. Since he knew nothing about estate management, or God help us, farming, I agreed to move to Hampshire to help him make a go of it.” Ravenel paused at a knock on the door.

The conversation paused while a butler brought in a silver tray bearing a set of egg-shaped glasses and the bottle of Gautier. Ceremoniously the cognac was poured and served. After the butler had departed, Winterborne sat on the arm of a heavy leather chair. He held a glass of cognac in one hand, while using the other to lazily turn the globe as if contemplating which parts of the world he wanted to own next.

“Why would you change your life like that?” Ethan couldn’t resist asking. Leaving London for a quiet rural existence was his idea of hell on earth. “What were you trying to escape?”

Ravenel smiled. “Myself, I suppose. Even a life of debauchery can become tiresome. And I discovered that estate farming suits me. The tenants have to pay attention to me, and I’m easily amused by cows.”

Ethan was in no mood for light banter. Weston Ravenel reminded him of things he’d spent most of his twenty-eight years trying not to think about. The elation he’d felt after meeting with Garrett Gibson had drained away, leaving him surly and annoyed. After taking a swallow of the fine cognac and barely tasting it, he said curtly, “You have eighteen minutes left.”

Ravenel lifted his brows. “By all means, Chatty Cheerful, I’ll get to the point. The reason I’m here is that my brother and I have decided to sell some family property in Norfolk. It’s a large house in good condition, set on approximately two thousand acres. However, I just found out that we can’t do anything with it. Because of you.”

Ethan gave him a questioning glance.

“Yesterday,” Ravenel said, “I met with our former estate manager and family solicitor, respectively Totthill and Fogg. They explained that selling the Norfolk property is impossible because Edmund—the old earl—left it to someone in his will by means of a secret trust.”

“What is that?” Ethan asked warily, having never heard of such a legal device.

“A declaration, usually verbal, concerning a bequest of property or money.” Ravenel lifted his brows in a mocking expression of astonishment. “Naturally, we were all rather curious as to why the earl would have left such a generous gift to a man we’d never heard of.” After a long pause, he continued in a more serious tone, “If you wouldn’t mind talking to me about it, I think I know why—”

“No,” Ethan said stonily. “If the trust wasn’t written down, ignore it.”

“I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way. According to English law, a verbal trust is absolute. It’s illegal to ignore it. There were three witnesses to the trust: Totthill, Fogg, and the earl’s longtime valet, Quincy, who has confirmed the story.” Pausing, Ravenel swirled the remaining cognac in his glass. His steady gaze met Ethan’s. “Totthill and Fogg tried to notify you about the trust upon the earl’s death, but you were nowhere to be found at the time. Now it falls to me to relay the happy news: Congratulations, you’re now the proud owner of a Norfolk estate.”

With great care, Ethan leaned to set his glass on a nearby table. “I don’t want it.” All the tricks he knew to control his emotions, the regulation of his breathing, the deliberate refocusing of his thoughts, weren’t working. He was appalled to feel a bloom of sweat on his face. Standing, he rounded the grouping of chairs and headed for the door.

Ravenel followed him. “Damn it, wait,” came his exasperated voice. “If we don’t finish this conversation now, I’ll have to go to the trouble of finding you again.”

Ethan stopped in his tracks, facing away from him.

“Whether or not you want the property,” Ravenel continued, “you have to take it. Because even though the Ravenels can’t do anything with the godforsaken place, we’re paying annual taxes on it.”

Ethan reached into a trouser pocket, pulled out a wad of pound notes, and flung it at Ravenel’s feet. “Let me know the balance of what I owe,” he snapped.

To Ravenel’s credit, if he were rattled by the gesture, he didn’t show it. Turning to Winterborne, he remarked casually, “No one’s ever showered me with cash before. I must say, it inspires feelings of instant affection.” Ignoring the scattered pound notes at his feet, he went to lean back against the billiards table. He folded his arms across his chest, leveling an appraising stare at Ethan. “Obviously you had no great liking for Edmund Ravenel. May I ask why?”

“He hurt someone I loved. I’ll not dishonor her memory by taking anything from a Ravenel.”

The brittleness in the air seemed to ease. Ravenel uncrossed his arms and reached back to rub the nape of his neck, a rueful smile pulling at the corner of his mouth. “Are we being sincere now? Then I beg your pardon for being a flippant ass.”

If the man were anyone other than a Ravenel, Ethan might have liked him.

Winterborne stood and crossed the room to the sideboard where the butler had left the silver tray. “You might consider selling the property to him,” he said to Ethan, refreshing his glass from the cognac decanter.

It was the perfect solution. Ethan would be able to dispose of the unwanted land and cut any possible ties to the Ravenel family. “I’ll sell it to you for one pound,” he told Ravenel promptly. “Have the papers drawn up, and I’ll sign them.”

Ravenel frowned. “Not for a pound. I’ll buy it at a reasonable price.”

After giving him a baleful glance, Ethan went to the window and stared out at the vast mosaic of smoke-blistered rooftops. London was readying for the night, adorning itself with strands of lights, humming in anticipation of sin and pleasure.

He had been born to this city, nursed on it, until its violent rhythms were woven through him as surely as the network of his own veins. His blood coursed with its sounds and sensations. He could go anywhere, into the vilest rookeries or most dangerous criminal dens, an infinity of dark and secret places, fearing nothing.

“I’ll be staying in London for the next month,” West Ravenel said. “Before I return to Hampshire, I’ll have a proposal drawn up for sale of the Norfolk property. If you like the terms, I’ll be happy to take it off your hands.” He pulled out a white calling card from a waistcoat pocket. “Let’s exchange cards: I’ll call on you when I’ve come up with some figures.”

“Winterborne can tell you how to send a message to me,” Ethan replied. “I don’t have a calling card.”

“Naturally,” Ravenel said darkly, still holding out the card. “Take mine anyway.” At Ethan’s silent refusal, he exclaimed, “Good God, are you always like this? Your company is remarkably tedious, and that’s coming from someone who spends most of his time around farm animals. Civilized men exchange cards after they meet. Take it.”

Deciding to humor him, Ethan tucked the white card, engraved with glossy black lettering, into the folding wallet he kept in an interior vest pocket. “I’ll see myself out,” he said. After retrieving his hat from a table, he settled it on his head and let his fingers graze the brim in a deferential gesture. It was his version of good-bye; he had the Irishman’s reluctance to say the word aloud.

Chapter 3

Emerging from the ladies’ dressing room at Baujart’s with her cane in hand, Garrett passed a series of private exercise and instruction rooms. She had changed into the standard lady’s fencing costume, a close-fitting jacket with a high neck, a white skirt hemmed just below the knees, thick white hose, and soft flat leather shoes.

Familiar sounds seeped through the closed doors: the clashing of foils, sabers, and canes, the bursts of footwork on oak flooring, the familiar commands of instructors. “Disengage! Straighten the arm. En guarde . . . longe . . . disengage . . .”

Monsieur Jean Baujart, the son of a famous fencing master, had taught the science of defense at French and Italian academies before opening his own fencing club and school in London. Over the past two decades, Baujart’s had acquired an unmatched reputation for excellence. His public exhibitions were always heavily attended, and his instruction rooms were constantly filled with students of all ages. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Monsieur Baujart not only allowed but also encouraged female students to attend his school.

For four years, Garrett had attended group classes and taken private lessons from Baujart and his two assistant prévôts in the use of both foil and cane. Baujart insisted on a classic style of combat. Irregular movements and infringements of the rules were forbidden. If a fencer ducked, twisted, or ran back a few paces, he was gently mocked and corrected. One did not “hop about like a monkey” or “twist like an eel” at Baujart’s. Form was everything. The result was a finished, polished style that was greatly admired by other fencing schools.

As Garrett reached the instruction room, she hesitated with a slight frown as she heard sounds coming from within. Had the previous lesson run overtime? Carefully she inched the door open and peeked inside.

Her eyes widened as she saw the familiar form of Monsieur Baujart attacking an opponent in a sustained series of phrases d’armes.

Baujart, like the instructors at the school, dressed in an all-black fencing uniform, whereas club members and students wore the classic attire of unbroken white. Both men’s faces were concealed by French wire masks, their hands gloved, their chests protected by leather plastrons. The foils, capped with boutons for safety, flashed and scissored in a rapid exchange.

Even if Baujart hadn’t worn the black instructor’s costume, his flawless form would have made him immediately recognizable. Baujart was a superbly fit man of forty, an artist who had perfected his craft. Every thrust, parry, and riposte was precise.

His opponent, however, was fencing in a style unlike anything Garrett had seen before. Instead of allowing the match to settle into familiar rhythms, he attacked unexpectedly and retreated before Baujart could touch him. There was something catlike about his movements, a vicious grace that raised every hair on Garrett’s body.

Fascinated, she let herself inside and closed the door.

“Good afternoon, Doctor,” the man in white said without even looking at her. For some reason, a few of her heartbeats collided as she recognized Ethan Ransom’s voice. After parrying a lunge, he dropped low and attacked beneath Baujart’s blade.

“Arrêt,” Baujart said sharply. “That wasn’t a sanctioned hit.”

The two men disengaged.

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