Authors: Marie Higgins
Take My Heart
Book One in the “Heroic Rogues” series
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
Take My Heart
© 2011 by Marie Higgins
Cover Design by Sheri
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New York, 1764
Her twin sister had gone mad.
Mercedes Maxwell stood on the steps of the Blackwood Asylum, unanswered questions pounding in her head. Periodic dementia…unresolved melancholy, the physician had written. It had to be a mistake.
Loathing the long wait for assistance, Mercedes shivered. Her cloak offered paltry protection against the January wind. The moon’s pale light shone on the dull, mahogany entryway. Shadows lurked all around and forced her to huddle closer to the scarred door. An owl’s hoot echoed through the nearby forest. The disconcerting sound grated on her already frazzled nerves.
Mercedes knocked on the door, not once, but three times. Still no one answered. An abominable sting throbbed in her knuckles and she rubbed the ache. She glared at the double doors’ warped planks and powdery-orange rusted hinges. Craning her neck, she looked down the side of the building.
Perhaps there was another entrance? There had to be. Obviously, nobody cared to receive visitors at this one. She clutched her dress and lifted it to her ankles as she turned to descend the cracked steps, but the old door squeaked open. Swinging around, she faced the building once more. A stooped man peeked around the thick wood. He held up a lantern high, and the mellow light illuminated the deep creases in his face.
“May I be of some assistance?” he asked in a scratchy voice.
She bundled her cloak around her throat and stepped closer. “I am Lady Maxwell. I received a letter from Dr. McClain concerning my sister, Katherine Braxton. Is the good physician here?”
The elderly man squinted. “I am McClain. I sent the letter.”
She raised her brows. “Where is your caretaker, sir?”
“We have but a small staff, my lady. Everyone does what they can.” He opened the door wider. “Please, follow me. I will take you to your sister.”
Mercedes stepped into the dark corridor and lowered the hood of her cape. Some of the stones on the wall were damp and moldy. The stench of unwashed bodies and urine filled her nostrils, curdling her stomach. She fished through her wrist-purse and pulled out her handkerchief, quickly pressing the rose-scented cloth to her nose. In haste, she hurried her step to catch up to the physician and followed him down the shadowed hall, the soles of her boots echoing with each foot-fall.
Each room she passed had bars on the small windows of the doors. People stood behind them, watching her with wide, glassy eyes, as if they looked right through her. Chills trickled down her spine. Were these patients dangerous? And why, pray tell, was her sister here?
Answers. She needed them soon or she’d be the one going insane.
“Excuse me, sir. How long has my sister been here?” she asked, lowering the handkerchief.
“For a fortnight.”
“Then why was I not informed sooner?”
“Because it took her this long to start talking.”
Worry clenched her heart. What on earth had happened to Kat?
The elderly man stopped in front of a door and withdrew a heavy set of iron keys fastened to his waist. When he inserted one into the lock, the other keys clinked together while he fumbled to open the door.
“Is a locked door necessary for my sister?” She spoke in soft tones, afraid her voice would carry through the halls.
The stern expression on the man’s face never wavered. His white, bushy brows pulled together in concern. “Aye.”
“May I ask why?”
“She is not well, Lady Maxwell. Locking the door is for her safety.”
Mercedes’ heart sank and she frowned. Could her sister be ailing as their father had?
No, certainly not.
Kat had never been ill a day in her life. Signs would have shown if her twin suffered the same malady as their father. The physician must be speaking of a different person altogether.
He pushed the door open, wide enough for her to enter. Mercedes straightened and took the lantern from his outstretched hand. With her chin held high, she proceeded into the room. Now was not the time to appear frightened even if her heart hammered so fast and hard she feared it would break a rib – or at least bruise one.
Through the bared window, the quarter moon’s silver light cast shadows about the room. The only piece of furniture was a bed with a threadbare mattress. One worn brown blanket covered the feet of the figure on the bed curled on her side, staring toward the door.
Mercedes’ heart wrenched at the sight of her sibling. It had been two years since Kat had entered into a quick marriage to a man she’d barely met. Mercedes wanted to attend the marriage ceremony and meet her new brother-in-law, but she’d been in England visiting her in-laws during that time, sharing their grief after the death of Mercedes’ husband.
The person Mercedes remembered while growing up looked nothing like the woman in this room. Matted black hair framed the woman’s face in wild disarray, and the gray of the hospital gown erased all color from her complexion. Dull eyes, drooped at half-mast, slowly lifted and met Mercedes’ gaze.
“I will be right outside if you need me,” the physician said before leaving.
The door slammed shut and Mercedes jumped. Forcing a smile, she lifted a hand to her chest to calm herself. “Oh, Kat, I came as soon as I heard you were here.”
Kat scooted up on the bed, pulled her legs up and rested her chin on her knees. “Thank you for coming. I didn’t think Lord Maxwell would have allowed you to leave.” Her voice rasped.
Mercedes stepped into the room, closer to the bed. “Kat, Frederick died a month before you married Mr. Braxton. Do you not remember?”
Kat’s forehead creased, staring at an unknown spot on the bed. “Oh, yes. I remember now.”
“Kat, what has happened to you?”
Her sister tilted her head, and her gaze touched the wall behind Mercedes as if her sister struggled to see. “I could not take any more torment, so I left.”
“Torment? From whom?”
“From him.” Her sister clenched both fists as if ready to strike something. “My cursed husband.”
Mercedes lowered the lantern to the floor and rushed to the bed, clasping her sister’s hands. “Please tell me, what did he do?”
Kat’s stare finally turned on Mercedes. “All he wanted from me was a woman to do his bidding. He only wanted a mother to care for his children—not a wife to love and cherish. He treated me like a mere servant; nay, a miscreant.” A tear rolled down her cheek. “Mercedes, he beat me when I did not instantly do his bidding.” She sniffed. “He mocked me in front of his friends.” More tears joined the others streaming down her face. “He did not care if his children disobeyed me. I could not control them. He made them hate me.”
Mercedes’ heart twisted and her mind scrambled for something encouraging to say. She realized she should have come straight home after her husband died instead of visiting his family in England. If Mercedes had returned home, perhaps she could have stopped her sister from marrying such an ungodly man.
She squeezed Kat’s frail fingers gently. “Kat? Why did you come here to New York? Why didn’t you stay in Philadelphia?”
Kat’s lips curled up into a smile. “A dear friend helped me, a minister from Philadelphia on his way to New York. He took pity on my plight and let me ride with him.”
“Why did you come to this kind of institution instead of to my home?”
“The minister insisted this would be the safest place, Mercy.”
“But Kat, why would a minister leave you in such a God-forsaken place?”
“He says I have melancholy. Dr. McClain agrees.”
Tears filled Mercedes’ eyes, but she forced herself to take control of her emotions. Her sister didn’t belong here, and Mercedes would not allow her to stay. She straightened her shoulders. “What do you want me to do? How can I get you out?”
Kat shook her head until her chin limply fell on her chest. She rested her forehead back on her knees. “They will not let me out until I am well.”
“I shall help you any way I can.” Mercedes lifted her sister’s chin and looked into her dazed eyes. “I want you well and away from this horrid place.”
“No. I cannot leave. If I do, I will have to go back to William.” Kat twisted a lock of matted hair around a finger. “Please Mercy, do not make me go back to him. If he discovers I have given him more bills to pay because of my illness, my torture will only worsen.” She whined in a childish tone. “I would rather die here than endure the constant pain of being married to that monster.”
Mercedes touched her sister’s hand, stopping her from knotting her hair any further. “I shall get you out of this place. Staying in this hell-hole would cause any sane person to be melancholy. Not only that, I will hire the best physician in New York to care for you.”
“Physicians cost money. I should know. The cost of staying here has depleted the small sum I pilfered from William.” Kat’s tone was bitter.
“I have a portion saved from when my husband died. I will give that to Mr. McClain so he doesn’t charge your husband.”
Her sister pulled away. “Mercy, it is not possible. I’m certain you barely have enough to live. I recall Lord Maxwell gambled a lot of his money before he died.”
Mercedes nodded. “He did, but he made money quickly, as well.”
“Being an agent for the King made him money?”
“Yes. Every time he handed over a spy, the King rewarded him greatly.”
“So…will you have enough to pay for a good physician?”
“Just barely, but I’ll do all I can to get you well. If I don’t have enough, I shall obtain more.” She lifted her voice in anger. “In fact, I will write your husband and ask—”
“No, Mercy, do not bother. William will not give you anything. Why do you think I had been sneaking money from him? I know he will not think twice about giving you his precious money.”
“If he does not, I shall have him arrested for…for…something.” Resentment laced her words. “I will think of a way.”
“William arrested? Doubtful that will ever happen. I have suspected he’s a traitor to the Crown and has influential friends, but I have not been able to prove it.” Kat released a dejected sigh. “Saying he will be arrested shall only give me hope for a better life. A life I know I cannot have.”