Or slightly tarnished, or even possibly close to black. Needed or not needed. Hero, heroine, or supporting role. This week, I’m looking for a character charging to the rescue.
My excerpt is from A Raging Madness, which has been out with beta readers and is in my sights for a weekend edit, all going well. It comes from near the beginning. An old acquaintance has turned up at the hero’s inn, in her shift, dishevelled and dirty, and clearly under the influence of drugs. He hides her from her pursuers, who claim she is a lunatic. Now he is listening to her story.
“Now, Lady Melville. What trouble are you in, and how can we help?” And would he be able to believe a word she said? She did not act like a lunatic, apart from appearing half-naked in his room in the middle of the night. Apart from the panicked response to her brother-in-law.
That she had taken opium in some form was beyond a doubt. The contracted pupils, the loss of appetite, the shaky hand, the restless shifting in her seat, all spoke to that. Thanks to his injury, Alex had far too close and personal an experience of the symptoms to mistake them. The bruises on her jaw made him wonder how voluntary her drug taking was, but perhaps her keepers needed to drug her to keep her calm.
Sane or not, Alex hoped he would not need to hand her back to Braxton. Her fear might be irrational, but when she had stood at bay, begging for his help, he had been thrown back ten years. Not that she begged him then. But he left camp on a short trip for supplies, and returned to find Ella married and much changed, her fire banked; her joy extinguished. That time, he had ignored her plight, hardened his heart and left her to the fate she had engineered. And had suffered with her as the consequences quenched her vitality and sucked away the last of her childhood. Suffered, and been powerless to help.
“I have been drugged,” Ella said baldly. “Twice a day. For weeks now. They won’t tell me why. If I refuse, they force me.”
“‘They’ being Braxton and his wife?” Alex prompted.
“And Constance’s dresser.”
“Go on.” He was careful to show no disbelief, no surprise.
“I have been kept in my room. They locked the door. They took all my clothes, my shoes. I saw you out the window and so I came. Will you help me, Alex?”
“I can take you to the rector.” Even as he said it he remembered the plump little man greasing at Braxton’s elbow. Ella would find no help there.
“No!” Her rejection was instant and panicked. “He will give me back and they will send me to that place. No, Alex. You do not know what they plan for me.” She was weeping. Alex had seen her calm under cannon fire, dry-eyed at her father’s funeral, efficient and unemotional in the midst of the carnage of a hospital tent after a battle. He had never seen her weep.
He captured her hands, and kept his voice low and soothing. “I do not, Ella. Tell me.”
“I heard them last night. Edwin has found an asylum that will—Constance says I must be driven insane in truth. They rape the women there, Edwin says, and Constance says I am horribly resilient but even my sanity will not withstand multiple rapes.” The last word was whispered around a sob.
Alex kept his hands still with an effort. They wanted to punch and rend. No wonder she was panicked, but it could not be true, could it? Braxton was not a man Alex could like, but such wickedness? To his own sister-in-law?
“And you do not know why, Ella?” he asked.
She shook her head.
“The rector and the squire… They both believed Edwin and Constance. They came to see me, and I begged for their help, and they would not, Alex. They believed me insane. You do not believe me insane, do you, Alex?”
He did not know. That was the truth of it. His gut told him to destroy her persecutors and carry her off somewhere safe. His gut had never been reliable where Ella was concerned.
Alex made up his mind. “Ella, you will be safe here. Jonno and I will go and see what we can find out. Jonno, tell the innkeeper we are taking the room for another day. Then have my chaise brought round.”
“I will tell them not to do out the room,” Jonno declared. “I’ll say my gentleman won’t have anyone but me handling his stuff. You’ll be safe here, my lady.”
Alex had not taken his eyes from Ella’s. She was calmer now, the tears drying on her cheeks. “You will not betray me? No, of course not. I trust you, Alex. I know we have not always agreed, but you will not betray me.”
“I will not betray you.” Though how he would keep his word if she was, in truth, insane, he did not know. Certainly, her story sounded crazy. But she had bruises on her jaw, and the rector had been lied to. And Alex did not like Braxton or his wife.