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.