26 February 2009

Excerpt Thursday: Lisa Marie Wilkinson

Thursdays on Unusual Historicals mean excerpts! Here's one from Lisa Marie Wilkinson, whose debut novel FIRE AT MIDNIGHT is a released next week from from Medallion Press. Be sure to join us on Sunday when Lisa Marie will be answering questions and giving away a copy!

Here's the blurb:

***

Rachael Penrose is confined to Bedlam insane asylum in London after discovering that her uncle Victor plans to kill her brother in order to inherit the family fortune. Victor, with a gang of criminals, uses French privateer Sebastien Falconer as the scapegoat for his crimes. When Victor spreads the lie that Rachael informed on Falconer's smuggling activities, Falconer vows revenge on the girl. Gripping suspense and romance play out in front of numerous historical details, including a violent storm that devastated England in 1703 and swept the Eddystone Lighthouse into the sea.
***

Saint Mary's of Bethlehem Hospital ("Bedlam")
London, England, 1703

"I am sane."

The sound of her own voice anchored her. It kept her from going mad. "I am eight and ten. I am called Rachael Penrose. I have been here nine days. My brother was called James--"

She stifled a sob. "My brother is called James." Even the tinctures they fed her did not dull the pain of not knowing the fate of her baby brother.

She froze when she heard the scratch of claws on stone. A rat, attracted by crumbs of moldy bread, began a stealthy approach. She shared her meager rations with the rats because they displayed less interest in her when their bellies were full.

There had been no hearing and no formal declaration of insanity. An exchange of gold from one greedy hand to another had sealed her in this place. With no blanket, she shivered in the bitter cold. Beneath the thin shift she wore, faint and fresh bruises mottled her skin. Her stomach rumbled, the sound loud in the quiet of the small chamber.

She tensed as metal creaked. The door to her cell swung open. Freezing air rushed in, and she trembled as the strong scent of citrus cologne, a harbinger of her uncle, mingled with the foul, musty odor of the cell.

Victor Brightmore handed a gold coin to the guard accompanying him. "Her doctor and I require privacy." Victor lifted the hem of his cloak to prevent it from sweeping the floor of the filthy cell as he entered.

The attendant checked the chain securing her right leg to the straw-filled pallet upon which she lay. He tested the iron ring riveted around her neck and the circular iron waist bar holding her arms pinioned to her sides. She suppressed a shudder when his hands lingered over her breasts and followed the double link to its point of origin at the wall. Powerless against the intimacy, she gritted her teeth and stared at the gray stone ceiling above her. Apparently satisfied with the security of her restraints, the attendant withdrew, leaving Victor and the doctor alone with her.

Rachael remained silent while Victor angled the shaft of the candle he held until the flickering yellow light illuminated her face then leaned toward her, his blue-gray eyes glittering with malice. She looked into the face of pure evil. Tall, with burnished gold hair and even features, his pleasing exterior concealed his twisted nature. As he watched her, shadows played over the upward cast of his lips.

"You cling to life with such tenacity, Rachael."

He moved the flame along the length of her jaw inch by agonizing inch, stopping near her eye. The light from the candle was painfully bright, and her breath quickened as she struggled to hide her terror.

Oh, God, is he going to blind me? Gasping, she shrank from him, but the linkage of chain held fast. She was at the mercy of a man who had none. How she despised him!

"Victor!" The candle wobbled on its perch as his companion jerked it away from her face. "How would I account for burns on her body?"

"Her eyes mock me, Elliot." He peered down at her, scowling.

"She is feverish," Elliot said. "She is in the grip of the drug. We can speak freely."

"It appears I have need of your help once again, good doctor. Keeping my niece isolated is not the permanent solution I seek."

It did not bode well that he spoke so openly in front of her. With both her parents dead, once Victor succeeded in his plan to dispose of her, there would be no one left to protect James. Victor was desperate to inherit, but he was also crafty and cautious. He would not risk the hangman.

Elliot peered down at her. "Perhaps her food might be--"

"The attendant told me she tests her food on the rats. Besides, we dare not risk poison now."

"I can keep her indefinitely," Elliot said. "Her whereabouts are unknown. No one here will believe anything she says."

"Tarry Morgan knows the truth." Victor searched within the folds of his cloak. His hand shook as he withdrew a letter. The edges of the parchment gaped where the wax seal had been broken.

Her heart sank at the sight, and she felt light-headed with despair.

"This letter details her discovery of my plan to poison James. She sent it to Morgan, one of the few allies she has left. She must have dashed it off before we brought her here." Victor glowered in Rachael's direction. "The fact that James must die before I will inherit is clear motive to anyone who would investigate."

"So, is Morgan dead?"

Rachael stopped breathing while she waited for Victor's response.

"No. His servants were rousing; I barely escaped with the letter. I was only able to wound him."

"Can you buy his silence?"

"Morgan cannot be bought." Victor crumpled the letter in his hand and began to pace the floor. "He is her loyal little lapdog. He remains silent because I have taken the proof and threatened Rachael.s life. He has delusions he will rescue her, but he won.t remain silent for long. We must dispose of them both."

The weight of her terror squeezed the air from Rachael's lungs. She would never forgive herself if she brought harm to her childhood friend.

"And what about her brother?"

"My nephew is sickly," Victor said. "His nanny has often commented on his frailty. With your help, I'll be rich. When I am rich, I will be generous."

"Monster!" Rachael sobbed. She screamed in outrage and struggled against the restraints. The tortured souls in the adjacent cells heard her and added their voices to hers. Hearing them, she fell silent. Screams of torment are routine in this place. I'm just another Bess O' Bedlam. No help will come.

Victor spun to face Elliot. "'Senseless, you promised. 'Incoherent. Her mind will be incapable of coping with her surroundings.'"

"Having her wits about her in this place is an added torment, not an advantage," Elliot said. "We will dose her with laudanum to keep her quiet, and she will be released into your custody."

"Released? You seem a likely candidate for a strait-waistcoat yourself."

"Victor," Elliot said patiently, "we must remove Rachael from Bedlam. Morgan is searching for her, and he has the resources to find her. I will have her transferred to Bethnal Green."

"She will be no less dangerous to me in a private asylum."

"She will never reach Bethnal Green," Elliot said. "You, of course, must appear distraught over your loss."

Rachael locked gazes with Victor, who nodded vigorously. His smile told her time was running out.

"Doctor, I believe you have arrangements to make on my behalf." He leaned down to Rachael and added, "While I joyously prepare to grieve."

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