He impatiently held the flimsy white gown out to me. “You’ve got to change.”
I crossed my arms and faced forward, glaring into the large leather chair he had been sitting in before he’d gone in search of my new clothes. I took a breath, not bothering to rub the tears from my cheeks or the snot drooling from my nose.
“Miss Gallagher, I have to insist—"
“I am not Miss Gallagher,” I snapped. “I am Lady Gallagher, and I demand to be released from this institution immediately.”
“You cannot wear a ballgown for the duration of your stay here. We’ve already been over this—"
“I am not crazy,” I told him for the umpteenth time. My voice shook, my hands trembled, my breathing shuddered. I pushed an unruly curl out of my face as I kept my eyes locked on the chair. I was sure my appearance was doing nothing to convince the man that I was sane, but I couldn’t allow him to get that disgusting white dress on me. If he did…
The man—whom I had come to think of as simply The Warden— said, “Miss Gall—"
I whipped my head around and nailed him with the most venomous look I’d ever mustered in my life.
He sighed. “Miss Gallagher, I know this is coming as a bit of shock, but you must calm down. A woman with your condition—"
“I do not have a condition!” I burst. “I am a perfectly normal human being and I do not think there is anything even remotely weird or insane about me wanting to be removed from this treacherous place this instant!”
His face suddenly hardened and he dropped his outstretched hand. “You will put this dress on. Or I am going to have to start treating you as a difficult patient.”
I frowned at him. “I want to see Carter and Nathaniel before I do anything else.”
“As I’ve already explained to you, they will be waiting for you in the common room.”
“I do not want them to be waiting for me. I want them brought to me. Here.”
He didn’t answer me, instead holding up the terrible white gown again. There was so much white in the room that it was nearly blinding—the white of his uniform, the white of the gown I was supposed to wear, the white of the walls, the white of the desk, the chair, the blinds, the floor… “Put this on. Now.”
I knew what kind of place this was. I knew what awaited me if I put on that white dress, if I relented, if I allowed myself to be dragged off into this madhouse. And whatever was behind the pristine white door next to The Warden was going to be much worse than whatever this man was threatening me with.
I clenched my jaw, digging my nails into the skin of my biceps. “No.”
His shoulders drooped and he lowered the gown. “Have it your way, Miss Gallagher.” He opened the door. Two other men dressed in identical white uniforms entered the room, waiting for instructions. The Warden gestured to me. “Our newest patient is expected on the second floor and has yet to change.”
The two men nodded in unison and then stalked closer to me.
I stared in alarm, lurching out of my chair and backing away, arms up, doing little to ward them off. “What are you doing?”
One man grabbed my arm and jerked me forward, pain lancing up my arm. I tried to swat at him but he just took hold of my other arm in his hand. Then he yanked harder, holding me immobile against him, his arms—though not very large—impossible to escape. But that didn’t stop me from trying. I shifted this way and that, lunging from side to side, attempted to kick him, but the way he was pinning my front to his, there was no way out.
I felt the second man come up behind me, calmly and systematically undoing the laces of my gown.
An alarm blared inside me and I struggled even harder, my eyes wide with fear. “No! Don’t touch me! Stop!” My gaze met that of The Warden’s over the first man’s shoulder. He stared coldly back at me, all effort to appear friendly gone from his face.
Cold air drifted over my back and my heart almost exploded out of my chest. “Okay!” I shouted. “Okay, I’ll put on the damn gown!”
The two men paused, looking to their boss for what to do next.
The Warden took a step forward, the ice that had been in his eyes thawing slightly. “Why didn’t you say that when I asked you the first time?”
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. The room suddenly seemed very small, very still, and it sent chills up and down my spine.
“I understand your initial hesitation,” he said, smiling. “But I cannot condone it. Go on, gentlemen.”
“What—no!” I heard my beautiful ball gown tear as the man forced the fabric off my shoulders and down to my feet. Then more laces were undone and my corset with thrown to the floor, leaving me in nothing more than my chemise.
A bizarre feeling filled my body. It was if I was completely present in the moment, yet completely separate from it. Because surely this couldn’t be happening to me. I was Elizabeth Gallagher, daughter of the sixth Earl of Sulhall. I was not about to be stripped in front of three men in the office of the most notorious mental institution in England.
Tilting my tear-filled eyes up to the man holding me captive, I begged softly, “Please.”
There was a slight reaction in his face, barely there yet more noticeable than if he had started screaming in my face. As he gazed back at me, the hint of a tiny grin crooked up the corners of his mouth. He wasn’t going to help me. Neither was his partner. Or The Warden. Or Carter, or Nathaniel, or anyone. No one was going to help me.
The back of the chemise tore and the man holding me captive against his body spun me around, facing me to his partner. The partner didn’t even pause as he jerked the straps of my chemise down and let my last piece of armor fall to the floor. The man didn’t release me, pinning my arms to my sides, preventing me from covering myself. I shuddered and cried and cried and cried. Tears dripped off my chin and the edges of my jaw, splattering on the infuriating white floor.
The Warden came forward, not even attempting to hide the way his eyes leisurely strolled up my nude body, stopping when he met my gaze. “You are no longer in the royal court, Miss Gallagher. You are no longer under the protection of your father or your friends or even your king,” he told me. “Now, you belong to me. And when I ask you to do something, you will do it. Do we understand each other?”
Shakily, I nodded, my throat too dry to even attempt to form words.
“Since I do not believe you were listening the first time I explained this to you, allow me to tell you how life here will be for you from this day forth. Your bed is located on the second floor of this institution. Tomorrow, you will be awoken for your appointment with the doctor. He will evaluate your mental condition and prescribe which treatment he sees fit to help cure you. You will be served your typical three meals a day. In between, you will undergo treatment. After dinner, you will have three hours to do as you wish. You may roam the grounds, relax in the common room, or go to sleep. Curfew is set strictly at ten o’clock, after which all the doors in the facility are locked. It would do you well to always be in your bed well before then. You are entitled to visitors for an hour once a week. Have you any questions?”
I shook my head quickly.
“Very well.” He gave a single nod to the man holding me. I was immediately released and my arms snapped up to cover my body. The Warden chucked the miserable white dress at me, and I snatched it from the air, pressing it to my chest. The Warden smiled. “You will put it on now.”
I didn’t want to remove the fabric shield from in front of me, but I was terrified of what these men would do to me if I had the nerve to argue again. Quickly, I jammed my arms into the gown, forced my head through the fabric, and pulled the dress as low as it would go, straining it to go down past my knees.
Taking several deep breaths, I kept my eyes fixed on my hands where the knuckles were turning white from how tightly I was grasping the hem of the gown. The Warden watched me the entire time, his eyes burning into the side of my face. When I couldn’t take the uncomfortable feeling anymore, I forced myself to meet his brown eyed gaze. “Better?” he asked pleasantly.
Swallowing hard, I nodded.
“Excellent. Floyd, show her where she will be staying.”
The man that’d had me pinned to his chest took hold of my arm again and shoved me in the direction of the door. I grunted as I stumbled.
The Warden held the door open for me, a bright smile twisting over his face. “Welcome to Bedlam, Miss Gallagher.” Start writing here…