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Color of Darkness

The Sullyard Series

esKape Press

Heat Rating: SENSUAL
Word Count: 48,521
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Lydia Sullyard is not insane. Truly she’s not. To her horror, she’s trapped inside Bedlam Hospital against her will. There’s only one way for her to gain her freedom, but the consequences are unthinkable.
Stratford Bexley agrees to visit Lydia in Bedlam. But the thought of stepping into London’s cesspool makes him want to change his mind. And what it will take for her to be released would alter Stratford’s life forever.
Is Lydia’s love strong enough to rescue Stratford from certain ruin, or will he save her life instead?


Bedlam Hospital, June 1818

I AM NOT insane.
The mournful wails in the darkness were the worst. Desperate pleas for help. Moans of loneliness, pain, injustice.
The torture was even worse than the cries of her fellow patients. Was it selfish of Lydia Sullyard to think so? To fear her own physical pain more than the suffering of others? It mattered not. She could escape neither one any more than she could fly away, unscathed, from the madhouse that had become her present existence.
When she tried to move her left leg to a more comfortable position, if there was such a thing, the clanking of the heavy chains attached to the leg lock on her ankle reverberated around her small enclosure. On first arriving at Bedlam, that sound, grating, loud, and telling, had made her cringe. She’d been afraid one of the keepers would race to her cage and beat her again. Now that she’d been there — How many weeks? — the realization that the cries of her neighboring prisoners drowned out her own noise brought only the smallest of comforts.
But then, she’d take any comfort she could get. There weren’t many of those to be had.
I am not insane.
If she kept telling the keepers that, would they finally believe her? That she wasn’t supposed to be there, and it was all a terrible misunderstanding? Or did they hear it from all of the patients, so chose not to believe any of them?
Something scratched on the stone floor a few feet away. A skinny rat ambled across the cell, pausing to sniff Lydia’s bare toes with its putrid pink snout. The vile creature let out a squeak. It almost sounded as if the rat was delighted someone was still ensconced in the cell and that it had not been left alone to starve and wither away. Lydia closed her eyes and held her breath, willing the awful vermin to either move on or die. As long as it left her alone, she cared not which.
Go away. Leave me be.
With a clank of the chain, she gave the rat three hard raps with her big toe, repulsed when her skin came in contact with the course, dirty fur.
Instead of being frightened, the rodent stayed right where he was. Tiny whiskers, twitching and curious, traveled across the sole of Lydia’s foot before the horrid little thing must have decided she wasn’t edible and then scurried away.
Lydia let out a beleaguered breath. She’d heard ghastly tales of poor patients who were too weak to move around and swat away a brave rodent and having said rat nibble away at their toes, fingers, or nose. At least, Lydia assumed the stories were true. Either that or the keepers were just trying to scare her.
It had worked. She was terrified.
A shudder ran through her. Shouldn’t she be more used to such things since she’d been in Bedlam for a while? But how could she? A person should never, ever grow used to such atrocities. It wasn’t right. Wasn’t civilized. Once that happened, wouldn’t the person lose their humanity? Their will to live? Instead they’d be turned into the wild beasts the hospital workers and the awful people who came to stare at them expected them to be…
Pathetic. Burdensome. Lost.
And eventually, driven to the brink of insanity where the only way to escape was to die.
She shook her head, causing her dirty, lank hair to smack against her cheek. I must stop thinking this way. Isn’t that what the keepers want? To keep me in my place under their control? If Lydia didn’t hold the terrible thoughts at bay, who would do it for her? No one.
I am not insane.
She let out an extended, loud sigh and peered longingly at the small window set in the door of her cell. Perhaps today will bring some relief. A kind word from one of the gentler keepers. A visit from a family member. Anything. From Anyone.
When the keepers had heard she was an artist, they’d laughed and tossed her a worn down pencil, but no foolscap to write on. What had they expected her to do without paper? After the first few hours, she’d given into frustration and boredom and had drawn a picture on the wall. It was difficult on the uneven stone, but what else did she have to occupy her time? The image was of George, her sister’s cat. Somehow having his sweet face gazing at her gave her the tiniest sense that she wasn’t alone. Too bad George wasn’t with her now. Perhaps he could dispense of the hideous rat.
Every day since then, she’d drawn a little more, adding to the depressing panorama. Now poor George was dressed in rags and wore a frown. Angry villagers threw rocks at him as he ran away. He hid in a pile of garbage as he waited for them to leave. Each picture of him depicted the cat getting thinner and more decrepit. She could have drawn herself changing from a healthy young woman to someone her family would hardly recognize, but somehow it was easier to have George be the unfortunate character in her panorama rather than her. Thank goodness the sweet cat was actually still at home, enjoying playing in the grass and chasing field mice.
That first day, Lydia had assumed it was all a terrible mistake and she’d soon be released. Her hopes had been dashed, however, when night had fallen and she was still there. Trapped. Chained to the floor. Left completely naked except for a scratchy, worn blanket with which to cover her shivering skin. No one would tell her where they’d taken her clothes and boots.
The next day, she’d watched the door of her cell every moment, not wanting to blink, her hopes rising every time footsteps echoed in the corridor, each time a voice whispered outside her door. Surely someone would come. Would speak on her behalf. Free her from the bondage.
No one had.
Terror had clawed at her heart. Why had it happened? She’d done nothing wrong. Wasn’t mad. While it was true that she had an odd habit of counting or tapping her fingers or feet a certain number of times when agitated, surely that wouldn’t sentence someone to Bedlam. The repetitive action was something she’d always done. She couldn’t manage to stop. Her family rarely said anything about it, just accepted that it was part of Lydia’s character. Other people had strange quirks, and they weren’t torn from the safety of their homes and families.
Why me? Why now?
Lydia knew she’d been there at least one and twenty days, because she’d placed that many marks on the stone wall. Once her family had discovered where she’d been taken, they’d come right away. But she sat in her cold, dark cell for nearly two days before they found her. For a while, she’d had a few visitors.
Her sister Kitty, large in pregnancy, had forgone the normal tradition of remaining unseen during her confinement. She’d laboriously made her way with slow steps echoing down the stairs to the basement where Lydia was housed. From the expression on her face, it was clear to see that it was every bit as bad as Lydia had imagined.
Kitty had come two more times. After that, she’d been physically unable to make even the short distance from the Bexley Estate to the hospital. Kitty’s husband, Nathaniel, had come a few times, as well as Lydia’s younger sister, Patience. The poor girl had cried almost as much at seeing Lydia as she herself had upon being tossed into the cell.
Robert, her cousin, had not made an appearance. She hadn’t expected him, since as far as she knew, he was still a prisoner himself at Newgate for crimes against society and his family. No loss there. Although… she’d even welcome him right then. A person in the midst of desperation often changed their own rules. Her Great Aunt Anne, as sweet as she was, was too dotty to be counted on. The woman spent most of her days napping.
For the past two days, however, no one had come. No one. Had they forgotten her? Left her to suffer and die in the damp, frightening basement?
No. Lydia couldn’t believe that. Wouldn’t. They were her family. With the exception of Robert, she had no doubt they loved her as much as she them.
So where had they been? There hadn’t been so much as a word, a note, or a message from any of them.
Had something happened to keep them away? Images of a terrible illness or accident befalling Kitty or her unborn babe plagued Lydia. The worry robbed her of the little sleep she managed to get. Surely someone would alert her if a tragedy occurred, wouldn’t they?
Lydia let out an involuntary whimper as she moved slightly to get some relief from her leg lock. Her skin, red and raw, might never recover even if she were so fortunate as to have the chains removed. If the wound continued to worsen, would the rat try to—
No, don’t think of it!
As horrible as being chained to the floor was, surely it wasn’t as bad as wearing a straight waistcoat. At least she could move around a little. She’d seen a keeper carry one past her cell door one day when he walked by the small window set in the door.
The cell door next to hers had opened with a squeak of metal, and the patient had shrieked. Yelps of pain had followed. Whether they’d been from the patient being forced to wear the contraption or she’d scratched or bitten a keeper, Lydia knew not. All that mattered was that Lydia didn’t have to endure wearing one. Yet. That poor woman. A shudder ran through Lydia, imaging not being able to move her arms or hands at all. Trapped and even more helpless than she was at present.
She rubbed a sore spot on her ankle as her memories, against her will, floated back to that day when she’d ended up in London’s version of hell. She’d only been home a few hours from a celebration at the Bexley estate when two burly men had arrived on their doorstep. In shock at the gall with which the men insisted she accompany them, she’d cried out when they grabbed her and bodily hauled her to an old, black carriage. Lydia, the staid one in the family, the sister who followed all the rules and took note of any breach of propriety, had actually kicked one of the men.
A day that had started with a boring party she’d had no wish to attend, ended up as a hideous nightmare. She’d only gone to the party as a favor to her older sister, Kitty, who had been due to give birth within a few weeks.
Lydia hadn’t wanted to go. Had no reason to want to be around the upper crust who would be in attendance. But Kitty had pleaded with her to attend in her stead. Then Lydia would have been able to return and tell her the details of all that she’d missed.
Poor girl. Stuck in her room. Unable to rise from her bed because the doctor had given orders, fearing for Kitty’s health and that of her unborn child. Lydia had been surprised when Kitty had lumbered down the stairs to Bedlam’s basement to visit her. Her sister had gone against direct orders from her physician to visit her.
I suppose I would have done the same in my sister’s shoes. Asked someone to go to the party because I couldn’t due to a pregnancy. Though I doubt I’ll ever have the chance to find out personally about marriage or children.
The only man Lydia had ever been interested in was Stratford Bexley, cousin to her sister’s husband. She’d been enamored of him from the first time she’d seen him. Over the course of the last year, her feelings had blossomed into love. He spoke to her of mundane, everyday things, never anything of substance. But there had been numerous occasions upon which they’d both been in attendance for family gatherings.
He didn’t seem interested in her in a romantic way at all. What had she expected? The man was a known rake. Had flirted shamelessly with Kitty before she’d married Nathaniel. Kitty was beautiful, so it was no surprise Stratford had desired her affections.
Lydia, on the other hand…
Kitty had always told Lydia that she was pretty too, but how could a girl believe those words coming from the loveliest sister ever to grace the earth? Wasn’t it the older sister’s unofficial duty to make her younger siblings feel special?
As she glanced around her dimly lit, damp, bleak surroundings, she frowned. Not that it mattered at the moment. Would it ever? Could there come a day when she’d be released from her prison? Set free from her bondage that held down her mind and spirit as well as her body?
I am not insane.
How many times had she yelled that as loud as she could? The only person to answer her call had been one of the keepers. And that had been to warn her to quiet down or she’d be sorry.
Another shriek came from the cell next to Lydia’s, dragging her back to the present.

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