Let's Pretend (book 1)
Let's Pretend (book 1)
Author: mariehiggins


by Marie Higgins

Copyright © 2011 by Marie Higgins / revised 2017

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 March 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 peered 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. She swung around, facing 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 shall take you to your sister.”

Mercedes stepped into the dark corridor and lowered the hood of her cape. Many 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 though 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 Mercedes’ 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 Scotland 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 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 onto 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 didn’t instantly do his bidding.” She sniffed. “He mocked me in front of his friends.” More tears joined the others streaming down her face. “He didn’t care if his children disobeyed me. I couldn’t 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 Scotland. If Mercedes had returned home, perhaps she could have stopped her sister from marrying such an ungodly man.

Gently, she squeezed Kat’s frail fingers. “Kat? Why did you come here to Preston? Why didn’t you stay in Dorchester?”

Kat’s lips curled up into a smile. “A dear friend helped me, a minister who was on his way home to Preston. I wanted to seek your help. 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’m 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, don’t 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 Preston 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.

Mercedes’ mind scrambled to think of a solution. She couldn’t leave her sister, and yet, she couldn’t pay for her to stay. “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’s 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 Prince Regent made him money?”

“Yes. Every time he turned in one of Napoleon’s spies, the Prince Regent 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, don’t 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. He’s wealthy, but he does not enjoy sharing.”

“If he does not share with me,” Mercedes grumbled as resentment laced her words, “I shall have him arrested for…for…something. I will think of a way.”

“William arrested? Doubtful that will ever happen. I have suspected he’s doing something illegal in regard to his business partners, 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.”

Mercedes ran her hand across her sister’s matted hair again. Anger burned deep inside Mercedes that her twin had been reduced to this. If only Fredrick hadn’t died, she would have him investigate William Braxton. Then Kat’s life might be better. “If I cannot get the funds from your husband, I will find the money elsewhere.”

She waited for her sibling to speak, but Kat stared at the wall again. Mercedes waited, wondering what her sister could be thinking right now, but there was a spark missing in her eyes that gazed off into nothingness. Hesitantly, Mercedes withdrew her touch. Soon, her twin’s body rocked back and forth as she muttered incoherent words.

“Kat?” Mercedes asked with a tight voice. When her sibling didn’t answer, tears stung Mercedes’ eyes and a sob ready to come forth tightened her throat. “Kat, I’m here.” She gingerly touched her sister’s arm.

Kat jerked to a stop and swung her focus back to Mercedes. “Do not worry about me, Mercy. But promise me one thing?”

“Anything.” Mercedes choked on a small sob.

“After I am dead, seek my husband and punish him for making me suffer this existence.” Kat lurched forward on the bed, grabbing Mercedes’ wrists. Dirty fingernails cut painfully into her skin. “Make him suffer as I have suffered in my marriage these past eighteen months.”

“You are talking rubbish.” Fear gripped Mercedes’ throat, her whisper cracking. “You are not going to die. You shall be just fine.”

“Please, Mercy. Promise me you will do this.”

Sadness shot through her heart and she nodded, swallowing the lump in her throat. What had that man done to her once vibrant sister? “I promise.”

Kat fell back on the bed in a heap. Mental withdrawal clearly engulfed her, and her blank stare riveted on the dreary wall. Mercedes’ chest constricted, making it hard to breathe. She couldn’t take any more of this. If she didn’t leave this place soon, she’d be in a fit of tears herself. No wonder Kat was so distraught. This God-forsaken place was to blame.

As she stood, she studied her sister’s sick form. Once again, anger welled within her chest. This wasn’t fair. Kat hadn’t deserved this fate. Mercedes vowed she’d make William Braxton pay for he had taken a once beautiful, vivacious woman, and turned her into this pathetic creature. He had hurt her sister, which was unforgivable.

Mercedes picked up the lantern, turned and knocked on the cell door. It opened and Dr. McClain peered inside. “Is everything all right, Lady Maxwell?”

“I am ready to leave, if you please.”

He closed the door behind her and locked it, then led her to the front of the building. The hall echoed with cries from other patients. She cringed, wanting to cover her ears and run far away. Instead, she remained strong, if only in appearance.

“Pardon me, Sir, but is there any hope for my sister’s recovery?”

His lips pursed. “I have seen many in her condition. A few have survived, but most have not. Unfortunately, many take their own lives.”

She covered her mouth as a sob escaped her throat. Tears filled her eyes and she shook her head.

“I am not saying the same fate will befall your sister,” he continued. “But I believe you should prepare for the worst.”

Irritation swept through her again and she lifted a defiant chin. “I most certainly will not prepare myself for the worst, Dr. McClain. My sister does not deserve to be in this place. Lucifer himself wouldn’t abide with these conditions. I want Kat moved immediately.”

The older man shook his head. “That is impossible.”

“Nothing is impossible, Sir. My husband had connections before he died, and if I have to find one of his associates, I will. Mark my words, Dr. McClain, within a fortnight, my sister will be moved to a more stable facility.”

Marching past him and into the cold night air, she wrapped her heavy cloak around her, thwarting the chill, though her blood ran hot with volcanic anger. Straight ahead, her coach waited. The only servant left in her employ climbed down from the carriage and opened the door.

“’Ow is yer sister farin’, m’lady?”

“She is not well, Timothy.” A tear rolled down her already damp cheek, and she wiped away the moisture. “And that…place is only making her condition worse.”

“I must say, tis a dirty place.” Timothy sniffed and swiped his sleeve under his nose. “Is she…like yer father?”

“No, God rest his soul. Kat is not quite as bad…yet. I shall not let it go to that extreme. If I have to knock on every door in Preston, I will find someone who can remove my sister from this place.” Determination guided her quick steps as she hastened into the coach. Timothy closed the door behind her.

One way or another, she would obtain the funds needed to move her—and to pay the medical bills. Her own deceased husband had gambled away all of his money before he met his maker, leaving her with very little to live on. She knew firsthand how a husband could torture his wife when not pleased, and she’d make certain Mr. Braxton didn’t know about this extra expense so he wouldn’t punish Kat when she returned home.

Unfortunately, Kat would eventually return home to the monster she married. Too bad someone couldn’t arrest that man for his devious lifestyle and free Kat. If only Frederick was still alive, investigating William would be his newest pursuit. Frederick thrived on the chase.

Rolling her eyes, Mercedes ushered the ridiculous thought from her head. She’d only been married to Lord Maxwell for a few short years, but when he died, there was no grieving on her part. No, her beast of a husband was better off six feet under than walking this earth and making her life pure agony.

Although the man was well-loved by the community—and the Prince Regent—he was not a very good husband and Mercedes felt only happiness when he was gone.

She glanced heavenward and knew the Lord would strike her down for thinking ill of the dead. But the only good thing Fredrick had accomplished in his life was finding traitors against the Crown and turning them over to the Prince Regent. Being an agent suited Frederick well, and oft times his activities kept her intrigued as she eavesdropped on some of his meetings. Every so often she had followed him to see how he went about capturing the traitors—until she accidentally discovered him sneaking off to join his mistress. That had promptly ended Mercedes’ inquisitiveness.

Unfortunately, with his death the money stopped as well. If only she could do something to earn a living. If only she could be a good agent like Lord Maxwell had been. If only…

Her thoughts skidded to a halt and she straightened in the leather seat. Why can’t I be an agent? Kat had let it slip about her traitorous husband, William Braxton doing something illegal in regard to his business partners. If Mercedes could get enough information on the man to turn over to the Prince Regent’s army, surely they’d see her value as an agent and enable her to pay for Kat’s care.

A mischievous smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. She could do it. She’d spied on her husband often enough and he’d never had an inkling of her activities. Confidence grew in her chest and she straightened her shoulders.

There was only one problem she could foresee. It had never been in her nature to act bold and forward. Could she possibly get the information she needed and force the Prince Regent’s soldiers to listen to her?

Assertiveness had always been a part of Kat’s character. Now it was Mercedes’ turn to be aggressive—and it frightened her nearly to death.

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