Someone had come for her.
Ian. Ian had come for her.
The black room wrapped her up in its crushing embrace as she allowed her gaze to adjust to the shapes and shadows. But this night she clung to a sliver of hope. More than half of her was certain her medicine had made her believe Ian had come.
Yet it couldn’t be her imaginings. For he had not been the Ian of her childhood. The Ian she had once loved. The Ian who had told her he wasn’t coming back. Nor was it the Ian who had stood pale and distant on her wedding day, promising that he would bring Hamilton back.
No, this Ian’s face was lined with hardship. With pain. And his body . . . he was so large and strong. He could break her in a moment, but he had held her so gently. As if he knew that she might run at the first touch.
He had come back. Against all hope, he’d come back to her. But now it was too late.
“Who was it?” Mary’s innocently rich voice penetrated the dark.
“It was all over the yard.” Mary shifted on the bed, rolling onto her side. “Beth saw a man enter the house. You saw him. Didn’t you?”
Eva swallowed. She was afraid to speak of it aloud. If she spoke of it, it might make it not true. At last she confessed softly, “Yes.”
“What did he want? Did he hurt you?”
“No.” He had touched her with such kindness. Then again, he couldn’t possibly know why she was here. He could not know that she alone was responsible for . . . She shook her head furiously, fighting back the memories.
No. If he had, he would have hurled her to the ground. And left her here.
Instead, he’d promised to take her from this place.
For the first time in years, her heart swelled with something besides dread. His eyes had been so green. The green of limes and malachite.
“You’re going to leave me, aren’t you?” Mary’s voice was dead.
Eva closed her eyes, the pain licking back into her heart. “I don’t ever want to leave you.”
“But you will,” Mary said flatly as she rolled onto her back. “I am glad of it.”
Tears stung Eva’s eyes. The thought of leaving her only friend penetrated the haze that drifted about her. “Oh, Mary. I’ll find you. I’ll—”
The clink, clink, clink of keys echoed down the hall, accompanied by the steady thud of boots. Matthew’s.
Eva’s eyes snapped wide against the blackness. Praying that Matthew would pass their door, she stared at the flat panel. She willed it to stay shut.
Mary’s hand flew across the small space between their beds, grabbing at her fingers.
The lantern light stopped right in front of their cell. There was a muttered curse as Matthew fumbled as he always did with his keys. The yellow-gold beams slid through the cracks and threw bright lines on the dark floor.
No. It wasn’t fair. Ian had promised to take her away. Now she was here, unable to escape. Unable to escape the beating that was about to come. Defending Mary. Defending herself.
A key slipped into their lock, tumbling the mechanism.
Eva slipped her feet over the side of the bed, not caring that the floor was frigid against her bare skin. She sucked in several slow breaths, ready to receive a beating like no other. But she would not let Matthew touch Mary. Not tonight, when hope was on the horizon.
Mary’s fingers slipped away and she reached under her mattress. Her small hand clasped something, then pulled. It was a long piece of iron. A rusty old blade that looked as if it had been pried off a door. “Leave him to me.”
“No.” Eva stood and faced the door. “We’ll do this together.”
And the door creaked open.
* * * *
“I am removing Lady Carin this evening.” Already, night had fallen, the gaslights sputtering in the small office. With every passing shade of night, Ian grew more furious. The damn woman was prevaricating.
Mrs. Palmer glared at him as though he was the one who was mad. “I cannot just release her to you, my lord.” Calmly, she poured tea in a steady stream. Steam wafted about her delicate fingers as the liquid filled the blue-and-white china. “You committed her for a reason.”
“Yes,” he clipped. And though he longed to smash the cup, he took the delicate bone china in his large hand. “And I paid you for upkeep these months and now I will take her with me.”
“But—” Her eyes darted about the room as she clearly realized she was about to lose a great deal of money. She drew herself up, cold and determined. “She is not cured.”
He held his cup, frozen in the air. Cured? The only thing a soul might be cured of here was sanity. “It matters not to me. Not anymore.”
“But you cannot possibly oversee her well-being,” she scoffed. She slammed down her own teacup. The little silver spoon jumped on the saucer. She drew in a quick breath, then righted the spoon, angling it so it sat delicately along the saucer. “She must be guarded. Controlled.”
It took every ounce of control he had to remain seated. Ian had agreed to be civil and drink tea. If he’d had his way, he would have brewed it out of a bottle of laudanum so the woman might live and die in the same torturous dreams she delivered to her wards. He had seen the effects of laudanum over a prolonged period of time. They were neither attractive or kind. “I am sure I shall cope and I certainly have the means to hire private keepers.”
Mrs. Palmer’s composed features tightened, her lips pursing. “This is most irregular. When patients come here—”
“They don’t leave?” he challenged. He leaned forward and very slowly placed his cup down upon her desk. “Your premises are obviously questionable, madam. Do you even employ a physician?”
Her silence hung in the air and, for one brief moment, Ian could have sworn there was a thread of regret in the woman. Finally, she lifted her teacup to her lips. “It is a waste of funds,” she said, her voice hard and uncompromising. Final.
Anger throttled through him. He’d seen this attitude with more frequency than he cared to admit. Generals, fellow colonels, and Hamilton had all believed that certain people were expendable. “They are not even human to you, are they?” His fingers curled, hungry to strangle the woman so piously sitting across from him. “They are but numbers in your ledger and coins in your purse.”
“It is important to remain detached from them.” She took a delicate swallow, then lifted her eyes, completely unmoved in the face of his anger. Only sheer confidence glittered in her gaze. “I shall release Lady Carin. But only on one condition: one hundred guineas.”
There it was. Exactly what he’d expected and at present what he wanted. “Is that your standard fee?”
“My lord, my husband taught me well the value of commerce. Do not abase me.”
He inclined his head. “I bow to your business acumen.”
“Best be wary, though. Someone might report you to the authorities based on such corruptions.”
She laughed. A brittle, amused laugh. The lace at her throat shook slightly, causing her cameo brooch to wink in the light. “Oh, my lord, do you think they care for the fate of these women?” Wiping her eyes, she looked up at him. Harsh reality replaced her amusement. “Men do not bring women here because they are mad.” She shoved back her chair, her wine-colored skirts whooshing against the floor. “They bring women here to silence them. If you wish me to keep your secret, I will not do so gratis.” She planted her palms on her desk and leveled him with an unyielding stare. “My customers pay or I send a letter to the authorities intimating their business.”
Ian folded his arms across his chest, fascination for this cold jailor mixed with his disgust. It galled him that her words rang true. “Is that so?”
“It is the good fortune of having some very powerful friends with wives and daughters who even now live under my roof. I do think they would protect me from such threats as you have posited. Don’t you?”
The muscles in his jaw tightened with contempt. Contempt for the inhuman thing before him profiting off her fellow women’s heartache and loathing for the men who had the power to send a woman here without question. “Yes. They would. Your services are in high demand, no doubt.”
She smiled as if they had just agreed on the sale of a splendid horse. “One hundred guineas and you can take your lady anywhere you please.”
Ian grated his teeth for a moment. “Certainly.” He reached into his cloak.
Slowly, she eased her position, standing fully. “And if this clears you of ready cash, we have a remarkably resourceful bank in the village. Give them my name and they shall certainly extend credit in your honor.”
“My thanks.” He pulled the heavy leather purse from his coat and tossed it with a clunk onto her desk. It sat between them. To him, it was nothing. A small pile of his many piles of coins stacked in some bank somewhere. To the women in this establishment, such gold was either salvation or the metal that kept them imprisoned. “Have her made ready. We leave in a quarter of an hour.”
“Out of the question. The girls are sleeping and Matthew and the other keepers are—”
Screams echoed overhead. Heartrending battle screams.
Without a moment’s hesitation, Mrs. Palmer yanked open her desk drawer. The wood shrieked at the harsh treatment. She dug into the drawer and pulled out a pistol. “Matthew!” she shouted, marching for the door.
Ian darted after her and locked his hand onto her wrist. In one swift motion, he twisted the pistol from her fingers. “I don’t think so.”
Her eyes flared in alarm. “I will have order,” she hissed.
“I won’t give you a chance to shoot one of them.” He slipped the weapon into his belt and strode to the door. “Lock yourself in if you are so afraid.”
He ran out into the dim hall.
Screams ricocheted off the walls. He darted forward and immediately tripped on the long chain draped down the hall. He plunged forward in darkness and his knee cracked on the wood floor. Pain spiked up his thigh.
He ignored it. Didn’t care about it. He shoved himself to his feet and charged down the hall and to the winding stair drenched in darkness. “Eva!” he shouted.
He tore up the stairs, then turned down the loudest hall. One door stood open. The faint glow of a lantern filled the empty space. On the floor, a long pool of black liquid fingered its way over the wood.
Oh, God. Eva.
A Novel of Mad Passions Book 1
Signet (February 5, 2013)
ISBN: ISBN-10: 0451417992
Excerpt from The Dark Lady ©2012 by Máire Claremont. All rights reserved.