Paranormal Historical Romance
Asylum Trilogy - Book Two
1918, Simple, Colorado
A time of war, disease and supernatural threat tests the fabric of one woman and one man…
Annabelle Dorrenti is ravaged by her experiences in World War I, her body marked by wounds, and her psyche damaged by guilt. To save herself, she becomes a nurse at the asylum and discovers the haunting is just beginning. Perhaps she’s imagining the shadows that flicker nearby, waiting. A creeping dread presses in upon her, and she sees signs everywhere that something just isn’t right at the asylum. She doesn’t want to admit it anymore than she wants to acknowledge her building attraction to a handsome soldier as broken as she is. A man who blames her for his sister’s death.
Army Captain Cade Hale suffers from shell shock and the terrible fear that the dead haunt his every step. He knows that danger terrorizes the earth, but he also feels Tranquil View could cure him of addiction and grief over his sister’s death. He’s determined to lay the blame for her death where it belongs, directly at Annabelle Dorrenti’s feet. Drawn down to his soul to Annabelle, he hates their attraction and struggles against it. Yet he knows the asylum harbors evil, and his fear for Annabelle demands he protect her, no matter what the risk, no matter what she’s done in the past. When evil and illness manifest, Cade and Annabelle step up to challenge a horror far more insidious than insanity.
Tranquil View Asylum
Annabelle Dorrenti limped as the ache in her left leg reacted to long hours on the ward. She continued down the hallway, albeit at a slightly slower pace. No point in paying attention to pain. Her shift wasn’t even half over.
A soldier entered the asylum and changed everything in Annabelle’s life. Physically he looked fine—more than fine, actually. He came through the massive front doors, old metal and wood creaking and each assured step thudding on the floor of the rotunda. He didn’t look anything like the soldiers who resided here now. She was used to frail-looking military men with odd gaits, thousand-mile stares, and souls so destroyed they’d never find their way back to sanity again. This man had presence, and there was nothing fragile in how he presented himself.
He was a big man, easily six feet three inches. Strength showed in his broad shoulders, trim waist, and steady walk. His long wool uniform coat fit him as if tailored, his boots were polished, and his bearing was upright and imposing. His height would intimidate most men and women, but his gaze might give people pause. It was a dark, haunted gaze that would stay cloaked to strangers, but could read a woman’s secrets within minutes.
His face didn’t have the classic good looks of Douglas Fairbanks. She’d seen Fairbanks in only one film this year called Say! Young Fella and hadn’t been as impressed as the women who sighed and simpered at the mere mention of the actor. Her friend, Penelope Billings, another nurse at Tranquil View, thought the actor was the most handsome thing she’d ever seen. No, this man was harder than Fairbanks--raw with energy and grounded. Real.His jaw appeared carved out of granite and his cheekbones sculpted, but he was far from pretty. His hair, thick and black, fell in unruly waves that defied the short cut. It made him appear untamed, a wildcat few could cage or train. His mouth was caught in a thin line etched with pain or disapproval, or maybe both. Something powerful radiated from him and mixed with a vulnerability that snatched the breath from her. She didn’t understand how she knew it, but he would become important in her life.
Compelled, she stepped into the rotunda from the north wing first floor ward. She’d intercept him and help. Perhaps he wasn’t a patient, but a friend coming to see one of his wounded buddies. Nurse Liza Olmaster saw him, too, as she strode from the administration offices located in the back. And when Nurse Olmaster latched on to a person they never escaped.
Annabelle hadn’t gone more than two steps before a powerful arm slung around her neck and drew her back into the hallway. She managed one strangled cry, surprise mixing with anger.
“What you doin’ Kraut? You think you’re going to spy for the Kaiser and tell those Huns where we’re at?” He pulled on her neck again and she gasped for air.
The gruff voice was thick with drug, but also strong with hatred. She recognized that foul-mouthed mid-western accent right away. Problem was, she could barely squeak, much less plead with Sergeant Martin “Pepper” Culpepper. Pain shot through her throat. She gripped the man’s hard forearm with both hands, but she couldn’t make him budge. If he crushed her larynx she wouldn’t have to worry about anything. She wouldn’t have nightmares, or sweats, or feel her heartbeat slamming relentlessly against her chest every time she tried to leave this building anymore.
The deep, commanding voice boomed, startling her as much as it did Pepper. The man hauling her backwards into the hallway stopped. As Annabelle’s eyes watered, she tried to see through the pain.
The handsome man walking toward her and Pepper brushed passed Nurse Olmaster. Nurse Olmaster, petite but blustery, took instant offense. “You have no business—”
“Shut up,” the new man said, his voice cold and harsh.
Nurse Olmaster gasped, and turned right around to dash back to the administration offices.
The tall man coming to her rescue took each step slowly, and he held up one hand. “Soldier, what are you doing out of your barracks?”
Is this man crazy? Yes, he probably was.
Pepper’s grip around her neck eased, and she realized she was wheezing like a bellows. “Pepper, you know I’m not German,” Annabelle said.
“Soldier, what’s your name?” The tall man asked, inching closer.
The hard muscle behind her shifted, and pressure came down on her windpipe again. “Martin Culpepper. My friends call me Pepper.”
“Well, then, Pepper ... may I be so presumptuous to call you Pepper?”
“Good. Now, this woman you’re holding is a German?”
Pepper’s arm loosened a little, but not enough to allow her to escape. She sucked in breath, enjoying the air almost too much to notice anything else. “Yeah, she’s a German ... Captain? You is a Captain?”
Hale tapped his insignia. “I am.”
“In the U.S. of A Army?”
“Yes. Where are you from, Sergeant?”
“A fine state.”
“Yes, sir.” Pepper loosened his grip even more. “Sir, I’ve brought you a prisoner. Those bastards done blew up my entire regiment sir. They left me alone.” Pepper’s voice turned ragged as he started dragging her back down the hall. His voice rose. “They left me with blood all over me. Blood and guts and ... aw, Chrissakes Captain, it was the most awful damned thing I ever saw.” Pepper’s voice broke. “You don’t understand. You just don’t understand.”
The Captain followed, his steps quick, but not crowding the man. “I know how that is Sergeant.” The Captain had the gall to smile. “This one time I saw a man’s head blown clean off at the shoulders. Was the most horrible thing I thought I was ever going to see. Found out later it wasn’t.”
Annabelle considered that maybe the captain had no intention of helping her at all, and fear slid up her throat like a bad taste. What if this new soldier was here for the same war sickness problem Pepper had?
The Captain gestured casually as he stepped closer. “I know they told you living in a building like Tranquil View would make you better.”
She couldn’t see Pepper nodding, but she could feel his movements. “They did say that, sir.”
“And does it?”
She wanted to growl at the captain. After all, he wasn’t the one dangling off this man’s arm with his throat hurting like the dickens. Now that the captain stood nearer, she saw that his eyes burned like coal, their brown so dark they almost looked black. But there was nothing cold in his expression now.
“Look Pepper, even if she's guilty I know you wouldn't hurt a woman. It's not the way we do things in the Army. It's not the way a real man would do things. Let her go now. She’s my prisoner. I’ll take it from here.”
She didn't know whether to be relieved or to still worry about Pepper's intentions. Fear still scuttled hot through her body. Annabelle remembered what her father told her before she went to war.
Darlin' you're going to see some things. Things no man or woman should ever see. My Daddy said Gettysburg killed him long after the war was over. You need to get it right in your head to be strong. Anything else, and you'll be like your Granddaddy jumping at his own shadow.
She'd thought she'd been ready. How wrong she’d been. Even leaving the war didn’t really mean leaving the war.
By now they'd drawn a crowd with a few nurses showing up. Her knees shook, and her mind whirled. Shame followed quickly. She’d dealt with plenty of disturbed individuals as violent as this man, but none of them had been able to waylay her from behind until Pepper. Annabelle decided to take charge if she could. Allowing the patients to run the show could prove disastrous in more than one way. She needed this position to work.
She cleared her throat. "Pepper you know me. I'm not a traitor to our country."
"She's a nurse, Sergeant. She wouldn't hurt you,” The captain said. "You're hurting her."
The Captain’s face stayed granite as he talked. She took in his calmness and refused to panic any longer. She'd make it through this somehow.
"Let her go soldier." The Captain moved closer. That's an order."
Pepper relaxed his grip. "Yes sir."
She eased away from Pepper, relief and sympathy hitting her all at once. Her knees wobbled as she took an involuntary step toward the captain. Two nurses and one male attendant came up behind Pepper and grabbed his arms. Annabelle automatically reached out. “Don’t hurt him.”
Head Nurse Summit appeared and talked quietly to Pepper. “It’s all right, son. Come this way and we’ll get you something to eat.”
Pepper was led up the staircase back to his ward.
Her rescuer stepped forward and gently clasped Annabelle’s shoulders. “You all right?”
She wanted to control her reactions; anything else meant unprofessional behavior. A man had never shown concern for her well being, and Annabelle didn’t know what to think or how to react.
“Miss, are you all right?” the captain asked again.She croaked her answer. “Yes.” She peeled herself away, missing his strength and heat in the unforgiving and cold asylum. “Thank you for talking him down. I was taken off guard and couldn’t think what to do.”
“Big difference from a person who’s been in war, and one who hasn’t.”
“I agree. But I’ve been in war.”
He lifted one eyebrow, and those dark eyes intensified with interest. He must have seen memories etched in her face. “Then you’ve earned every bit of your time here.”
“I’m a nurse, not a patient. As you can see from my uniform.” She glanced down at the white and gray dress. She almost reached up to touch her cap. “Why are you here?”
“Checked myself in, and I have serious business with a staff member here.”
She frowned. “No orders from a commanding officer?”
He snorted softly. “Yeah. They think I’m fruity as hell.” He saluted, his handsome smile swiftly appearing and disappearing. “And if you knew me better you’d agree.”