Raven (Gentlemen of the Order #2) - Adele Clee

Chapter 1

Hart Street, London

Premises of the Gentlemen of the Order

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