Hello Stranger (The Ravenels #4) - Lisa Kleypas

Chapter 1


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,”