WHEN THE SHADOWS CALL
The envy of 1900s society, Darian is the rich, beautiful wife of a prominent Californian doctor—but her life is far from perfect. For years, Darian has suffered at the hand of her cruel husband and yearned for an escape—one that she knows to be all but impossible.
But when an enigmatic stranger comes to call, Darian finds herself charmed by his seductive smile and the inexplicable connection she feels. And when he makes her a thrilling—yet frightening—proposition, Darian must decide if she’s strong enough to abandon the mortal world she knows and answer the shadow’s call…
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I’d have given anything to live a different life.
My jaw stung when I dabbed at my bleeding mouth with a handkerchief, and I sucked my breath in sharply through my teeth. Already my lip was swollen to twice its normal size and if I had no broken bones, it would be a miracle. Surely I’d suffered irreversible damage this time.
The steaming copper bathtub tempted me with the promise of soothing warmth, though it wasn’t the comfort of a much needed soaking that I wanted. No, my intentions went beyond that of mere physical comfort. I was looking for something more spiritual in nature. And though I couldn’t possibly know what awaited me in the dark abyss, I’d made up my mind. Come heaven or hell, I was going to put an end to my misery once and for all. I dipped one toe and eased first my foot and then one leg into the almost too-hot water. The rest of my body followed inch by inch, and as I lowered myself into the tub, water sloshed over the high edge to splash on the tiled floor. I didn’t care about the mess. Honestly, I didn’t care about anything anymore. I wanted the water to cover every inch of me, to hide the evidence of yet another beating I was too weak to prevent.
What I wouldn’t give to be strong.
I took a deep breath and held it before submerging my head. I sank to the bottom of the tub, looking up through the haze of rippling water as I watched the bubbles escape from my nose and float to the surface and burst. Would it hurt to die by drowning? It couldn’t be any worse than the feeling of Henry’s fist slamming into my stomach. My lungs burned but I refused to budge. My body fought against my will, seizing involuntarily as it struggled for the oxygen I so desperately needed. But I refused to bow this time. As I faced the end, I would not be afraid. I forced my body to still as the last of the air left in my lungs floated in tiny, irregular bubbles to the ceiling of water.
Soon, I would float away as well. And I would finally be free.
The burning in my lungs subsided and was replaced with a soft glow of warmth. My hands that gripped the high rim of the copper tub to keep me submerged relaxed and bobbed as if suspended beside me by a puppeteer’s strings. My mind grew lazy and cottony; the pain, the sorrow tearing at my soul drained out of me, and darkness descended as I faded out of consciousness.
How I loved the dark.
But death eluded me––swallowing me whole before spitting me back out. I had no choice in the matter, just like everything else in my life. Consciousness swirled within me as strong hands seized me by the wrists and I was yanked from the tub in one solid jerk.
“Darian!” His voice didn’t carry the usual edge of cruel hatred, but rather, panic. “My God, have you lost your mind?”
I couldn’t answer him. Violent coughs racked my body as I fought for air. I drank gasp after gasp of oxygen into my lungs, and with that relief came the renewed agony of my many injuries that throbbed and pulsed in time with my racing heart. “Don’t hurt me,” I managed to croak through a raspy throat. “Please, Henry, leave me be.”
He continued to hold my wrists with deft fingers he used for healing. But not now. Not with me. My own fingers grew numb as Henry’s grip cut off my circulation. Hands, gentle when examining a patient, dug into my flesh, his short-clipped nails breaking my skin. Sour breath caressed my face laced with the scent of too much whiskey. His rage was palpable, stifling the air around us as he shoved me away. It was nothing I wasn’t used to. The mere sight of me disgusted him.
Spread out on the tile, naked, shivering, humiliated, I closed my eyes and focused only on the sound of my own breath. Heat pulsed at my lower lip and I tasted the copper tang of blood as my tongue flicked out over the split that had begun to bleed again when Henry pulled me from the tub. I wondered how I managed to live like this, how I survived his constant abuse. Henry’s rage seemed only to compound with each passing day, and what had once been an open-handed slap to my face was now a closed-fist blow to my jaw. It seemed I should have more broken bones than I could count by this time, but somehow my body managed to stay whole.
“Darian.” The panic melted out of his voice and was replaced with regret. “I’m . . .” Henry cleared his throat as he tried to curb the drunken slur of his words. “I’m sorry.”
He apologized every time he beat me. But what was he sorry for? Laying his hand to me? Or perhaps he was sorry he’d ever met me. He draped a towel over my shivering form and tucked it around my body. “Should I wake Mary?”
The household staff were paid well for their discretion, and when they weren’t working they were kept away from the main house in separate living quarters. As if their distance mattered. The staff talked amongst themselves, but thanks to the generous wage Henry paid them, his secrets were kept safe within our walls. Every single person in Henry’s employment was well aware of the fact that he beat me. And they were equally aware of his fondness for drinking and his many affairs. But it wasn’t another woman or whores warming Henry’s bed. My husband strictly took male lovers. And that was why he hated me with such fervor. He hated me because I was everything turn-of-the-century American society dictated he should want, and he was forced to hide in the shadows with the men he loved. The year was 1912 and the thoughts of many had turned to progression. Women across the country were fighting for the right to vote, but progress only went so far. Open-mindedness had its limitations even in these changing times, and Henry, who could not openly love whomever he chose, was forced to bend to the status quo.
Even though he’d offered to fetch Mary, waking her would be a last resort, and I knew it would only anger him if I said yes. “No,” I whispered. I kept my eyes closed tight and refused to look at him. “I’m fine.”
The sound of his footsteps faded as he retreated to the door. “I trust you won’t do anything foolish,” he said. “Hurting yourself would only give the gossips fodder. Really, Darian, suicide? What would people think?”
The sob I tried to suppress worked its way up my throat and burst through my lips. Tears flowed down my face in tiny rivulets, burning my tender flesh as the salt mixed with the cuts and bruises left by my husband. It wasn’t my personal safety he was concerned about. Oh, no, his violent handling of me was proof enough of that. As usual, the only thing that mattered to him was his reputation. That, and keeping up appearances. Henry Charles was a fine doctor––one of San Francisco’s finest, in fact. But as a husband, he was sorely lacking, and it was I who was punished for his shortcomings.
“Will there be anything else, mum?” Mary, our head housekeeper, laid a comforting hand on my shoulder. Pity saturated her tone and I hated it. It only reminded me of how weak and pathetic I was.
The table had been set for dinner and awaited Henry’s arrival. He came home at precisely seven o’clock every evening and he expected to walk through the door, sit down, and be served. He ran a tight ship, and the staff made sure to keep the household in tip-top shape. They’d seen my bruises, after all. None of them would dare to displease their employer.
Our home was the epitome of Queen Anne Victorian architecture and picture perfect, just the way Henry wanted it to be. With wide, sweeping porches and hand-carved spindle work on the railings, robust archways, and brick chimneys, the house was a testament to my husband’s success. Status meant everything to Henry, and he made sure that his house spoke volumes about his place in the community. Even the roof was immaculate with not a shingle out of place. The grounds were well tended and the gardens a sweet medley of scents: roses, lilacs, peonies, and mums, not to mention several species of lilies and poppies. Cobbled sidewalks wound from the front porch to the street, and from our parlor throughout the gardens.
I took a seat at the foot of our long, cherry wood table and straightened my fork for the tenth time. I couldn’t manage to stop fiddling with it. My gaze wandered around the room as I waited, and I couldn’t help but feel like a guest in my own home. The burden of formality weighed me down until I felt my shoulders slump. The crystal in the chandeliers twinkled in the artificial light, reflecting off the glossy polish of the table. A fire roared in the wide fireplace at the far end of the formal dining room, crackling cheerfully as if my subjugation were merely a figment of my imagination. Surrounded by Henry’s fine things—expensive armoires and hutches, silk covered settees, and hand-blown hurricane lamps—I felt out of place. A broken, neglected thing in a world of high expectations and perfection.
I checked the grandfather clock that sat at the foot of the staircase—a wedding gift from my parents. Fifteen minutes past seven and Henry still wasn’t home. I’m sure for any other spouse it wouldn’t have been cause for worry, but in my case Henry might as well have been fifteen weeks late. I continued to stew, shifting my soup bowl so that it sat precisely in the center of my salad plate and likewise scooting the salad plate to rest in the middle of the dinner plate. I adjusted my water goblet a quarter turn so that the light from the candles reflected off the crystal just so, and I smoothed my dress one last time.
At half-past seven, the front door creaked open. My stomach involuntarily clenched, as it did every night when he came home. Would he be drunk? Angry? Did his day go amiss? Any one of these things could result in his fist smashing into me. I said a silent prayer that his day went well. That, perhaps, he’d met someone and was late because of a passionate tryst. God, let him be exhausted from love-making and too tired to bother with me. Please, please, please let that be the case. . . .
Henry strolled through the French doors into the formal dining room. I tried to appear at ease, but my heart all but leapt into my throat. He cocked his head to the side as he regarded me, and I wondered if he was admiring his handiwork, the yellowing bruises that had finally begun to heal. It had been a week since I’d tried to drown myself in the copper bathtub, a week since he’d hit me in one of his rages. As his dark gray eyes took me in, I wondered what it would feel like to be regarded with something other than disinterest.
He took his seat at the head of the table, and right on cue, Mary emerged from the kitchen to begin serving the evening meal. From beneath lowered lashes, I studied my husband, from his sandy brown hair, cut short and sleek, to his high cheekbones and the straight line of his nose. His lips were a little on the thin side, and his chin sharp, but it didn’t detract from his good looks. Henry Charles had been considered one of the city’s most eligible bachelors, and he had chosen me. At the time, I hadn’t known what kind of man he was, and I’d been thrilled at the prospect of becoming his wife.
“How was your day?” I asked. I wasn’t able to gauge his mood, so I drew him into cautious conversation.
His eyes drifted toward the ceiling and his expression became wistful. “My day was . . . pleasantly surprising.”
He didn’t bother to ask about my day, which didn’t surprise or bother me. I’d become used to his apathy toward me. Like the lamps and the furniture, I was simply another fixture in his home. I fiddled with the silk bunched at the front of my gown. What must it feel like to be treasured? To have a loving husband ask about my day, how I felt, if I was happy. . . .
Mary bent in front of me to empty a ladleful of soup into my bowl, and our already dwindling conversation died. She met my eyes—concern etched on her aging face—before she straightened her cap and apron, took the tureen, and left the room. Henry smiled to himself as he draped a linen napkin over his lap. I could only assume that he had met a man who caught his fancy today. It would explain the dreamy look in his eyes. Sometimes, I wondered how Henry’s lovers felt. If they were excited by his touch. If he was gentle with them and made love at a leisurely pace. I imagined what it might feel like to have his lips on mine . . . soft, and if his fingers would be feather light on my skin . . . or urgent in the heat of passion. Of course, I had no idea what it felt like to be made love to by anyone. I was a virgin when my father married me off to Henry. And even on our wedding night, he refused to consummate our marriage. So I was left with only my girlish fantasies.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” Henry’s tone was laced with suspicion and I directed my eyes toward my soup.
I racked my brain, trying to come up with a decent response. I didn’t want to give him a glimpse of my imaginings. God must have heard the frantic rhythm of my heart, however, and I was saved from any response when a knock came at our door. Henry eyed me with suspicion, and a scowl curved his lip. Without waiting for Mary to answer the door, he pushed his chair out from the table and marched out of the dining room. I couldn’t help but follow. My curiosity piqued, I came around the corner into the foyer, my husband using a hushed but urgent tone with whoever was on the other side of the door.
“Darling,” He spun to face me as if startled. “I want you to meet a friend of mine.” I was just as shaken as Henry was by the stranger at our door. But he had years of practice in hiding his true emotions and could put up a façade of grace and charm when the situation demanded it. And his new friend’s unexpected visit required all of that and more. “Azriel,”––he cleared his throat as if preparing to force the next words from his mouth––“my wife, Darian Charles.”
I’d been right about my husband’s mood. No doubt Henry fell instantly in love with this man. Azriel was something to behold; dark hair that brushed his forehead, dark brown eyes, almost black—beautiful, despite their cruel edge. I could easily picture his russet skin glowing in the firelight. My breath caught at the sight of him. He reminded me of a Roman god, a statue of male perfection carved from the hardest, smoothest marble. I blinked once, twice, and again as I took him in. The light in the room seemed to bend around him, blurring at the edges as if he were less than solid. But just as soon as I noticed the illusion, it slipped away and I wondered if my brain had at last become addled from the constant blows I took to the head.
“Mrs. Charles,” he said, bending over my hand. “I’m so very pleased to meet you.”
The touch of his lips on my skin sent a river of chills flowing across the landscape of my body. My pulse thundered in my ears and my entire body tingled at the sound of his rich voice. “Will you join us for dinner?” I asked. He was a godsend. Henry would be so pleased to have him join us, and so distracted, he would have no need to bother with me.
Azriel stood, his eyes roaming over what I hoped he couldn’t see: traces of yellowing bruises that had not quite healed. I didn’t want him to see the physical proof of my weakness. But I could tell from the shrewd look in his black eyes that he saw the truth of my life, and his pained expression instantly tore at my heart. “I’d love to join you for dinner,” he said. His fingers lingered on my palm as he pulled away and my heart beat triple time with excitement. “Henry, let’s sit with your beautiful wife and enjoy her company while we eat.”
A feeling of elation bubbled up through my chest and I spun on a heel, the silk whispering as my long skirt swirled around me. “Mary!” I called out. “Mary, can you set another place at the table please?”
As I walked toward the dining room, my skin prickled with anticipation. Azriel trailed behind with Henry, but I knew with certainty that his gaze was focused on me. I could feel the weight of his stare in every nerve ending. My cheeks warmed at the thought and I almost faltered in my step as a similar heat spread from my belly, lower.
Men had looked at me with interest before. I’d been courted by others before Henry, and though most of the matches never worked out—that being, my sharp tongue seemed to get in the way—I wasn’t naïve to the heat in a man’s eyes when he sees something he likes. But I’d never felt that heat like I did now. It had never reached out to caress me in such a way. Henry had curbed the sharpness of my tongue with the back of his hand. And he’d broken my spirited nature with every swing of his fist. But as I thought of this man—Azriel—observing the sway of my hips as I walked in front of him, I felt some of that long-lost spirit return.
We entered the dining room and Azriel hastened his step to catch me before I took my seat. “Allow me,” he said, and pulled out my chair.
A riot of butterflies swirled in my stomach as if taking to flight. His arm grazed my shoulder as he pushed in my chair, and I had to suppress the contented sigh that threatened to pass my lips. I could see how Henry would become instantly infatuated with him. In fact, I was afraid that finally, my husband and I had something in common.