A Whisper Of Death Excerpt | Author Darcy Burke
Darcy Burke

Excerpt: A Whisper of Death

Book 1: Raven & Wren

Prologue

London, January 1868

Frost had formed on the lampposts as Hadrian Becket, Earl of Ravenhurst, strode away from Westminster toward Whitehall. He had a meeting with an inspector at Scotland Yard about the Clerkenwell explosion and the Fenians. The air was chilled but thick with the ever-present fog that clung to the streets at this time of year.

Hadrian pulled his hat down closer to his ears, regretting that he hadn’t taken the scarf his valet had pressed upon him earlier that afternoon. But Hadrian had been in a hurry to get to Westminster.

There weren’t many people about at this late hour—nearly midnight—but the streets weren’t empty either. Hadrian kept his attention rapt as he surveyed the area while he walked. It wouldn’t do to be surprised by a footpad.

A boy came toward him, dirty-faced, his dark eyes round and hollow. “Ha’penny for me younger siblings, guvna?”

That slight distraction was all it took.

A hand gripped Hadrian’s right shoulder from behind tightly, viciously. Turning his head, Hadrian saw a man, his hat pulled low over his brow and a scarf covering most of his face. He pulled at Hadrian’s outer garments just enough to expose his side. Hadrian caught the flash of a knife as it flicked toward him, slicing just beneath his ribcage.

The blade was long and sharp, neatly piercing Hadrian’s clothing and his flesh. Pain flashed, but he didn’t think of it. He clasped the man’s wrist while the knife was still embedded in his side. 

Hadrian pivoted. The man was a few inches shorter than Hadrian’s six feet, two inches and thick and muscular. A gray scarf covered his neck and the lower half of his face, leaving just his dark, narrowed eyes exposed. The ruffian had been smarter than him, it seemed. In more ways than just guarding against the cold.

The man’s gaze swept over Hadrian’s face then lifted to meet his eyes. Surprise registered briefly. Did the brigand know him? Hadrian had never seen him before. But his eyes were now emblazoned in his mind.

Angry and desperate to free himself, Hadrian tightened his grip on the man’s wrist. The ruffian twisted the blade. Hadrian sucked in air as a pain he couldn’t ignore shot through him. He had the sense to cry for help, his panicked voice thundering in the night. Someone would hear him. He wasn’t that far from Westminster.

The man withdrew the knife from Hadrian’s flesh, but Hadrian wouldn’t release him. He would know why this man wanted to kill him.

The villain tried to pull away. “Leggo!” Growling, his eyes now furious, he kicked his leg against Hadrian’s calves and pushed him forward.

Hadrian had nowhere to go but down. He fought to keep hold of the man’s hand, but it was futile. In the end, he fell to the cobblestones. Unable to get his hands in front of him to break the fall, his head hit the rough stone.

Agony exploded in his head, forcing Hadrian’s eyes closed. A terrible weakness spread through him along with a helplessness. 

As darkness descended, he realized he had something in his hand, something that didn’t belong to him. He managed to shove it into his pocket as he gasped for breath. Then he moved his hand to the wound in his side where thick, sticky blood flowed freely. 

Anger coursed through Hadrian as he fought to remain conscious. This was not the way things were supposed to end. Murder would not be his fate.

However, he couldn’t keep the shadow from claiming him. He drifted softly and infuriatingly easily into the abyss.

Chapter One

One week later

“Sharp!”

Hadrian’s valet, a solidly-built man in his middle thirties with gray eyes that assessed every aspect of a person—in an effort to see how he could be of service—hastened toward the bed where Hadrian was struggling to sit up.

“Yes, my lord?”

“I’m bloody tired of lying abed. I’m going to the sitting room.” It was a short walk as it adjoined his bedchamber, but it would be the longest distance he’d traversed since he was stabbed. 

“The doctor did say to take things very slowly,” Sharp cautioned, his thin mouth turning down. “What if you just sat in that chair there?” He gestured toward the chair beside the bed where Sharp, his mother, the butler, and a few other people, including the inspector from Scotland Yard who’d visited yesterday, had perched whilst gazing worriedly at Hadrian. Except the inspector. He hadn’t appeared concerned or even that interested in being there, truth be told.

“No … thank you.” Hadrian added the last through gritted teeth. He hadn’t been a very good patient, but lying about and sleeping for hours upon hours grated him horribly, even if he did need it. Honestly, his head had hurt so badly following the attack that sleeping was the only relief. “To the sitting room, if you please.” He swung his legs to the floor.

Sharp hurried to help him, grabbing his arm, but Hadrian waved him away. “Just fetch my banyan, please.”

“Of course.” Sharp went to the other side of the bed where Hadrian’s dark-blue silk banyan lay. Fetching the garment, the valet returned to help Hadrian into it.

Standing, Hadrian felt a rush of satisfaction, along with a pull in his side—where a neat row of stitches kept his knife wound closed—and a sharp throb in his head. Blast, but the head injury was worse than the wound in his side. Though, donning the banyan made his side hurt more than his head for a brief moment.

Sharp brought a pair of slippers, which Hadrian pushed his feet into. Taking a deep breath, Hadrian shuffled toward the sitting room, feeling with every step that he aged a year. Or that he’d aged years as a result of the attack and was somehow forty instead of thirty. Dammit, but that made him angry. The entire event was infuriating. Why on earth would a footpad, which was what the inspector had concluded Hadrian’s assailant to be, stab him and not steal anything before running off? It made no sense.

The moment Hadrian stepped into the sitting room he felt better. For whatever reason, just the change of room was comforting. No, not comforting, invigorating. And that was what he needed.

He forced himself to walk the perimeter of the room. He grew tired before he finished but pushed himself to reach the table near the windows. Frustratingly exhausted, he sat and slumped back against the chair. Lifting his hand to his brow, he tried to massage the pain away. It helped slightly.

“Would you like to break your fast here?” Sharp asked. There was a tentativeness to his question.

“That would be agreeable. My apologies, Sharp.” Hadrian wiped his hand over his face and straightened—slowly. “I know I have not been the best patient.”

“There is no need to apologize,” Sharp said crisply. “You have suffered a terrible attack. You nearly died.”

Unfortunately, Sharp was not being overdramatic. Hadrian had nearly died. His assailant had barely missed his liver, and Hadrian would likely not have survived that. “But I did not die, thankfully, and I am eager to return to my former activities.” Riding in the park, working at Westminster, meeting friends and colleagues at one of his clubs.

Why did that all sound boring suddenly? Perhaps because nearly dying made one examine one’s life. Was this where Hadrian imagined he’d be at the age of thirty?

No, he’d expected to be married with an heir and perhaps a spare. Or with a bright-eyed daughter he could teach to fish at Ravenswood, his estate in Hampshire.

Alas, he was not married and didn’t know when he would be. That would require him to actually court someone, and though it had been four years since he’d last tried, he wasn’t ready to do so. Catching one’s betrothed in the arms of another man didn’t instill trust or confidence. Or any desire to put oneself in the position of cuckold ever again.

“The doctor said you may not ride for a month or longer,” Sharp said, his brow creasing.

Hadrian gave him a weak smile. “Never fear. I will listen to him on that score. But a walk in the park would not come amiss.” A pain streaked through his temple. “I fear I’m a way’s off from that yet. I shall endeavor to enjoy this foray into another room. Perhaps in a few days, I’ll try going downstairs.” The thought nearly made him giddy. Well, it would have if he were not entirely spent.

“I know you’re frustrated,” Sharp said quietly. “But may I repeat myself and say how glad I am to have you here. I’d much rather you disagreeable than … gone.”

This made Hadrian chuckle. “Have you ever known me to be disagreeable?”

“Not until now.” Sharp grinned. “Apparently, it takes nearly being murdered to provoke you.” His smile faded, and he paled.

“No,” Hadrian said with a shake of his head he immediately regretted. “Let us make light of it, for wallowing in the senselessness and frustration of what happened serves nothing.” Perhaps if he said that enough, he’d believe it. Or at least stop thinking about what had happened and why. 

He’d been attacked after being distracted by a boy. Were he and Hadrian’s assailant working in concert to fleece gentlemen from Westminster? That was the conclusion Inspector Padgett, who’d called yesterday, had arrived at. The inspector had actually come a few other times, but Hadrian hadn’t felt well enough to see him.

Padgett’s theory made no sense to Hadrian. Why would a footpad stab him without asking for Hadrian’s valuables—which he had not? 

Despite Hadrian raising that question, Padgett had insisted the attack was the work of a footpad. He said that they occasionally panicked and did something foolish.

Such as stabbing people? Hadrian had asked. Padgett had nodded, then informed Hadrian that he would be closing the case. And that was after Hadrian had noted that his assailant had seemed surprised when Hadrian had turned to face him as he’d fought back, almost as if he’d expected someone else. Padgett had shrugged that away, too, saying anyone would be surprised if a fancy gentleman such as Hadrian would fight. The inspector had even had the gall to laugh about it.

“I need to speak with Inspector Padgett again,” Hadrian said to Sharp. The inspector may have closed the case, but Hadrian was not satisfied that the investigation was complete. “Please bring me writing supplies so I may draft a note.”

“Or you could have Elton write it,” Sharp suggested, referring to Hadrian’s secretary, whom Hadrian hadn’t spoken to since before the attack.

“Yes, that would be fine. I should speak with him anyway. Tomorrow.” Hadrian suspected this excursion to the sitting room would be the most complicated thing he did today. Blast.

“It’s good that you speak with the inspector again,” Sharp said. “There’s the matter of the ring I found in your pocket when I went through the clothes you were wearing that night.”

Hadrian had forgotten about that entirely. But now he remembered it distinctly. He’d pulled the ring from his attacker’s finger. “Where is it?”

“I’ll fetch it.” Sharp disappeared into the bedchamber, and it sounded as if he’d gone through to the dressing room. A moment later, he returned with the gold ring and set it on the table. “You should eat. I’ll be back directly with your tray.”

“Thank you,” Hadrian murmured, his attention completely focused on the ring. It was not something a ruffian such as his attacker would wear. The man’s clothes had been rough and cheap. This ring was expensive—and old. Hadrian could see it wasn’t quite round as it had molded its shape to the wearer’s finger.

Hadrian picked it up between his thumb and forefinger. It was a signet ring with an M engraved into the gold. No, this was not a common footpad’s ring, which raised even more questions in Hadrian’s mind. Perhaps when he presented this ring to the inspector, the man would change his theory about Hadrian’s attack being a simple theft gone awry.

An image passed quickly through Hadrian’s mind. He saw himself on a dark street, his eyes round with shock. Surprise and then anger flowed through him along with a terrible pain at the front of his head.

What the devil?

Inhaling sharply, Hadrian sought to clear the strange vision and sensations from his brain. Then it happened again, only it wasn’t his face he saw but a tall monument. This was followed by the flash of a pretty, red-haired woman with plump scarlet lips drawn back in a sultry smile. He didn’t recognize her. Another image emerged, that of a battered face of a young man. His lip was cracked, and he said something that Hadrian couldn’t hear. A fist—as if it were Hadrian’s—smashed into the man’s cheek. He felt an overwhelming rage and need to commit violence, but those feelings didn’t come from him. Hadrian sensed them like one would catch a breeze or a scent.

Gasping, Hadrian dropped the ring as agony ripped through his head. The visions ceased as did the sensations and emotions that didn’t belong to him. None of it belonged to him.

Putting his hands to either side of his head, Hadrian closed his eyes and tried to breathe calmly as the intense pain continued. It took a few minutes for it to finally decrease, but it did not completely subside.

Opening his eyes, he looked at the ring on the table. Curiosity won out over caution as he picked it up again. Nothing happened.

Exhaling with relief, Hadrian turned the ring over between his fingers, then he slipped it onto his pinkie. He was immediately assaulted with pain and anger and visions of people and things he didn’t understand. Swearing, he pulled the ring off and set it away from him on the table.

What cursed object was this? What was he seeing and feeling?

He daren’t pick it up again. At least not today. He was too spent, and his head was on fire with pain.

But he couldn’t let the ring go either, definitely not to Inspector Padgett whose interest in what had happened to Hadrian seemed passing at best. Apparently, the stabbing of a man as he walked along the street did not warrant significant investigation.

Hadrian disagreed entirely. This attack had been more than a footpad behaving foolishly. The assailant had been wearing a ring that likely hadn’t belonged to him and that carried an inexplicable power to produce visions and emotions—and pain. Hadrian didn’t like any of that, but if it would help him sort out what happened and lead him to his would-be killer, he’d use the tool as best he could. Even if he felt like a madman doing so.

Sharp returned with the breakfast tray and came toward the table. The ring was sitting in the middle, so Hadrian quickly moved it to the side. He barely touched it, but there was still an accompanying flash of a bell in his mind. Rather, a sign with a bell on it.

“Would you mind putting the ring in the dresser next to my bed?” Hadrian asked. “Top drawer.”

“Certainly.” Sharp picked it up, and Hadrian watched closely for any sign that he felt or saw the same things that Hadrian did. There was no reaction from the valet as he slipped it into his pocket then set about arranging Hadrian’s breakfast.

“Where have you been keeping that?” Hadrian asked.

“The ring?” Sharp poured out Hadrian’s coffee. “In the box with your other jewelry.”

“And you haven’t done anything with it since the attack?”

Sharp blinked. “No. Should I have?”

“Not at all. It’s just … it’s an odd object.”

Sharp’s light brown brows gathered together. “Is it?”

It seemed as though the valet thought it was simply a regular ring. That was extremely perplexing. And made Hadrian feel as though the blow to his head had triggered some sort of mental defect. 

Or, perhaps this had just been a random occurrence caused by his head injury. Yes, that was it. He’d probably pick the ring up tomorrow and nothing at all would happen.

Except that was not remotely the case.

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