Raven – Adele Clee

There was a reason Finlay Cole deserved the moniker Raven. His hair was as black as night, his eyes as dark as the devil’s. His penetrating stare made the strongest men shiver. Death followed him like a silent stalker in the shadows, reminding him he was a harbinger of loss and bad omens. But ravens possessed remarkable insight. They were intelligent birds, skilled hunters, the trusted keepers of secrets. Yet despite possessing the attributes that marked Finlay as one of London’s best enquiry agents, nothing could persuade him to accept Lady Adair’s case. “The lady desperately needs your help, Cole,” Lucius Daventry said firmly from his seat behind the mahogany desk. He was the founder of the Order, the master of the group of men who worked to right society’s injustices. “Send someone else.” Finlay shot out of the chair, though his legs nearly failed him. “Hell, I’m the last person you should appoint as her agent.” “Lady Adair requested I send you,” Daventry said calmly. “Must I remind you of your oath? You swore to protect the helpless. You joined the Order to serve the needy, to bring peace to those tormented by their problems.

” Finlay’s arrogant snort hid the rising panic threatening to consume him. He would help anyone—anyone except Sophia Adair. A minute spent in her company roused all the old feelings. “We help those without funds, without connections,” Finlay said, grasping at any excuse to refuse. “Lady Adair is wealthy beyond means and considers the Duke of Amberley a good friend.” “The nature of her dilemma is so complex she will trust no one but you, Cole.” “Complex?” Finlay laughed but was definitely not amused. “She spends her days gossiping in the salons, her nights—” He didn’t want to think about what she did at night. “You’ll find her at every lavish ball, every lord’s soiree. Whatever troubles her does not warrant the help of an enquiry agent.

” Lucius Daventry remained cool and composed as he gestured to the chair. “Sit down, Cole. Listen to her story.” “I know her damn story.” It was a book he’d read from cover to cover a thousand times. A book that kept him awake at night, wondering what life would be like if he could rewrite a chapter or two. The dog-eared pages proved disappointing, yet he found himself absorbed by every line. “No, you don’t,” Daventry countered. Anger burned. It took every effort not to storm out of the study and curse Daventry to the devil.

“Trust me. There is nothing I don’t know about Sophia Adair.” He knew she liked wildflowers and woodland walks. That she had a scar on her knee, the result of a fall in the brook. He knew she had not openly taken a lover since her husband’s death. That the sophisticated lady who toured the ballrooms lacked something of the beguiling woman he remembered. “You don’t know why she married Lord Adair,” Daventry said, dangling the bait. “You only know the tale she constructed to keep her secret.” The comment hit like a punch to the gut. He reeled from the shock.

“She kept the truth hidden, even from you, Cole.” Blackness obscured his mind like a thunderous storm cloud. A torrent of imagined secrets rained down upon him, forcing him to collapse back into the chair. “Would you care for a drink?” Daventry said, but he was already on his feet and heading for the trio of crystal decanters on the side table. He splashed brandy into two goblets, thrust one at Finlay before returning to sit behind the imposing desk to play judge, to enforce the cruel sentence. For painful seconds they sat in silence but for the incessant ticking of the mantel clock and the thudding of Finlay’s heart. “Well, put me out of my misery. Why did she marry Lord Adair?” Finlay would prefer to wallow in ignorance—no man wanted to add to his torment—but could no longer temper his raging curiosity. “Tell me the story she concocted to gain your sympathy.” Daventry placed his glass on the desk and relaxed back in the chair.

“It’s hard to know where to begin.” “Begin with why a woman who professed undying love married someone else.” Bitterness imbued Finlay’s tone, though he wished he’d fought harder to suppress it. “You know the answer. They told her you’d died in Belgium.” He had come close to death in Belgium when on reconnaissance near the Sonian Forest with Charles Kenning, Viscount Morley’s youngest son. Within seconds of meeting Renard, he knew their informer had betrayed them. Finlay had dodged the shot fired from the depths of the forest. A lead ball hit Charles in the shoulder. They were captured by a band of mercenaries, held prisoner at a farm near Leuven until they made their escape nine months later.

“Given the option, Lady Adair would have preferred the life of a spinster,” Daventry added as if he enjoyed poking a sleeping snake in a basket. Lies! All lies! Sophia was strong-minded. She would never marry a man without feeling some depth of affection. Finlay had heard enough. “Send Sloane or D’Angelo.” His colleagues were just as competent when it came to solving problems. He would have suggested sending Ashwood had his friend not recently married. “I cannot deal with her dilemma objectively.” There. How could Daventry argue with his own rubric? A man put lives at risk when he lost focus.

And Daventry’s biggest fear was losing another agent. “It has to be you. The problem relates to a delicate matter that cannot be made public.” Daventry was determined to tease the serpent until it bared its fangs, lunged and spat venom. “A delicate matter?” Finlay flexed his jaw. “Must you persist in being vague?” “It has to do with Jessica Draper.” “Sophia’s sister?” Finlay wasn’t sure what he’d expected, but it was not that. The sweet seventeen-year-old girl he remembered must be five-and-twenty now. “Jessica married Mr Archer while I was in Belgium and now lives in Calcutta. I hear he prospered from the silver trade.

” A heavy silence preceded Daventry saying, “No, she did not marry Mr Archer, nor did she board the ship bound for India, though countless people could testify to seeing her aboard the vessel. There are those in India who believe Mrs Archer is Lady Adair’s sister.” Disbelief mingled with confusion. “If Archer didn’t marry Jessica Draper, who in blazes did he marry?” “The maid.” “Maud?” Finlay had often joked that the pair looked so alike they could swap places. Once, Jessica had donned Maud’s coarse twill dress, white cap and apron, and rubbed her hands raw doing the laundry. “Indeed. I shall leave it to Lady Adair to explain why Mr Archer married Maud, despite being betrothed to Miss Draper.” Why would the son of a gentleman marry a maid? But it wasn’t curiosity causing the fire in Finlay’s chest. The revelation roused a burning sense of betrayal.

Why had Sophia maintained the charade? Once, she had trusted him with every family secret, every intimate desire. Regardless of what had happened between them, could she not trust him with this? “Where is Jessica Draper?” he said, though that was not the question rebounding in his mind. “At Blackborne. A house in Windlesham owned by Lady Adair.” “The house she purchased not long after she married?” Daventry arched a brow. “I’m told no one knows she owns the property.” What was he to say? That on one particular day when his craving had overwhelmed him, and before he married Hannah, he had followed Sophia to her solicitor’s office? Should he say he accosted the clerk in the local tavern and bribed him with a meat pie and a tankard of stout beer? “I knew she’d made the purchase, but my source refused to reveal the location.” Daventry sighed. “That is a relief. You see, Lady Adair fears someone is corrupting her sister’s mind.

She believes someone tried to abduct Miss Draper, though there are but a handful of trusted people who know the woman resides at Blackborne.” A handful of trusted people—and Finlay wasn’t one of them. “So, Lady Adair wishes to hire an agent to investigate the matter,” Finlay stated. “Not just any agent. She insists on hiring you, Cole.” The comment rocked him to his core. Thoughts of Hannah filled his head. Three years had passed since the Lord claimed her and denied Finlay the right to make amends. They had married for convenience, but he had done everything in his power to help her overcome her insecurities. Now, he would rather wallow in misery than betray her memory.

Finlay swallowed a mouthful of brandy while ghostly echoes of the past whispered in his ear. “I cannot help Sophia Adair.” “But she married Lord Adair to save her sister,” Daventry pressed. “Had you been here, I imagine life would have been vastly different for both of you.” “Fate had other plans.” Devious plans. Daventry sat forward, his grey eyes hard, unyielding. “It is not a request, Cole. You will reside at Blackborne for a week and help Lady Adair with her dilemma, or you will leave the Order.” Leave the Order? Hellfire! Surely Daventry wasn’t serious.

Finlay’s kinship with his colleagues was the only thing keeping him sane. Were it not for the need to help the downtrodden, he would spiral into an abyss. “We serve those who cannot help themselves,” Daventry continued, softening his tone. “We cannot let our emotions decide who is worthy and who is not. Your only thought should be that a vulnerable woman may suffer a tragic fate if we do not intervene.” “Sophia Adair is not vulnerable.” “I am referring to Jessica Draper. Trust me, Cole, once you learn more about the case, you will not question my logic.” Daventry paused. “I know living in such close proximity with Sophia will be difficult.

But a week spent at Blackborne—” “Wait!” Finlay’s heart leapt to his throat. “Lady Adair is to reside at Blackborne while I conduct my investigation?” Daventry frowned. “Yes, she moved to the house weeks ago and is too frightened to leave her sister alone.” Good God. Had Daventry lost his mind? “You expect me to live alongside Sophia while attempting to make logical deductions?” It was the most absurd, most terrifying suggestion he had ever heard. With their checkered past, he would find it impossible. “No one knows Jessica Draper is in England, so the main suspects are limited to those who live in the house. Oh, and then there’s Dr Goodwin. He visits weekly, I’m told. But yes, Cole, you will need to work closely with our client in this matter.

” Suspicion flared. What the devil was this really about? The tale seemed so improbable he couldn’t help but wonder if there was another motive behind Sophia’s request. But Daventry was adept at spotting fakes and frauds. In this instance, the master of the Order had disregarded his own rules. They never took wealthy clients, never solved the problems of those with powerful connections, never agreed to such intimate arrangements. And so Finlay had to believe the threat was genuine. “Very well,” he said, though every muscle in his body tightened. He would work quickly, work day and night to allay the lady’s fears. “Inform Lady Adair I will take her case, though I shall reside at Blackborne only if I deem it necessary.” He would hear the facts before he let them browbeat him into submission.

“Excellent. She is expecting you this evening.” This evening? Blessed saints! “You’re to ride there, cover the twenty miles on horseback,” Daventry continued. He opened the desk drawer, reached inside and withdrew a sealed letter. “Lady Adair took the time to list all those who work at Blackborne. She included instructions on how to reach the property to ensure no one follows you from town.” Finlay took the letter. He broke the seal and scanned the elegant penmanship. Sophia Adair wrote with light, sweeping strokes. Each flourish reminded him of the woman who used to laugh at silly things, laugh at every given opportunity.

The memory roused an ache in his heart, not a smile. “I’m to take the narrow path through the woods,” he said, somewhat astounded he had accepted the job. “Arrive under cover of darkness.” “It is imperative no one knows you’re there.” Finlay considered the names on the list. A faint flicker of hope surfaced. A beacon in the blackness. A means to save a man from crashing into the rocky shore. “With so few suspects, I doubt the investigation will take a week.” That said, the situation would prove unbearable.

He might not last the night. “I think you’ll find things are more complex.” “Aren’t they always?” The comment drew his mind to the sudden resurgence of his nightmares. Spending time in Sophia Adair’s company would bring the devil to his door. Indeed, he feared he hadn’t the strength to keep the beast at bay.

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