Hold your breath and count to ten. Soon it will be over before it ever began.
No matter how many times Victoria Donovan repeats that phrase to herself, she’s still trapped behind the walls of a mental institution. Once upon a time, her life was like a fantasy: Wes, the handsome fiancé, followed by a storybook wedding and a white picket fence. But then a picture-perfect marriage twisted into something sinister. And as Victoria’s world warped from dream to nightmare, her husband’s obsessions pushed her beyond the breaking point.
At first Fairfax Mental Health Institute seems like a safe place for Victoria to heal with her baby, Evelyn, and to hide from Wes, presumed dead by everyone except Victoria. Her husband is still alive, she has no doubt: He slips into her room at night to torment and tempt her. One smoldering kiss and she’s powerless. Of course, no one believes her about these visits. When she meets a sexy, mysterious stranger intent on helping her recall her past, Victoria isn’t sure she can trust him. But deep in her heart, she also knows that the only way out of Fairfax is to remember the way she came in.
Unhinge is intended for mature audiences.
Advance praise for Unhinge
“Unpredictable, unputdownable, and simply epic.”—New York Times bestselling author Katy Evans
“Calia Read has a way of making me feel as if I’m living inside her books. Unhinge is a haunting story that gripped me instantly and left me immersed in the world of Fairfax. I love it when books make such a lasting impression.”—Willow Aster, USA Today bestselling author of True Love Story
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
“Twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five.”
Abruptly, I turn around and walk toward the other side of the room, continuing to count my steps. My feet are starting to ache; I don’t exactly wear heels here. If ever. But for him, I’ll wear them.
He’ll be here soon. He comes almost every night, but what makes tonight different is I’m determined to get him to help me.
Thirty minutes ago, I started getting ready. I put on my favorite dress. A simple black wrap dress. It’s his favorite too. I brushed my hair until the brown strands fell around my shoulders perfectly and I put a coat of lipstick on. Sprayed perfume on both pulse points.
I straightened up my room, smoothing the edges of my plain white comforter. Folding one of Evelyn’s blankets and draping it over the back of the rocking chair in the corner.
I stopped my pacing, long enough to peek into the bassinet. Evelyn’s wide blue eyes meet mine. She happily coos and kicks her legs rapidly. The smile she brings to my face is genuine—natural and pure. Everything in my life seems to be cloaked in fog, impossible to make out, but not Evelyn.
Very gently, I caress her cheek and brush the gossamer strands of her light brown hair away from her forehead. “I’m going to get us out of here. All right?”
She smiles widely as though she understands what I’m saying. I cover her small body with a blanket and kiss her on the forehead. Give her a few minutes and she’ll be out like a light.
Loudly, someone knocks on the door. The door creaks open and Kate, the night shift nurse, walks in. She’s in her midthirties. Her hair is always pulled back in a ponytail. Face stripped of makeup. She’s a mom of three. Every time I see her, she looks distracted and bored. As if Fairfax is the last place she wants to be.
But Kate’s not so bad. There are nurses much more terrible in this place than Kate.
“Lights out,” she says loudly.
Evelyn eyes open and close. I shoot Kate a withering look.
“Why are you dressed up?” she asks.
Kate narrows her eyes. “Fine. Whatever. I don’t feel good and I have a kid that’s sick at home. Go have a night on the town for all I care.”
“If you’re ill why come to work? You could get my daughter sick,” I point out.
She sighs. “We wouldn’t want that, now would we?” Kate holds out a plastic cup with a colorful array of medication. “Here.”
Without a word, I take the cup and toss the pills back. Then I open my mouth dutifully and stick out my tongue. She barely looks. She takes the cup from me and throws it away in the bathroom.
“You should be in bed,” she calls out over her shoulder as she leaves, none too quietly.
I take this as my moment of opportunity and spit out the pills. I stopped taking them a month ago. In the three years I’ve been here, I’d always taken these pills. Never once did I question them. They did their job. They made me blissfully unaware of the world around me. They blotted out all the questions that danced around the corners of my mind. They made the days blur together.
But recently the questions had been getting louder. Loud enough that not even the medicine could block them out. Very swiftly, my body became sluggish, my actions robotic. And the whole time there was an all-out war in my mind.
So I stopped taking them, thinking the questions would just fade away.
But that only made things worse. Now the questions are accompanied by small flashes of memory. I realize there’s so much of my life that I don’t remember.
Sure, I remember some moments, but they’re mostly from my childhood. Family. Teenage years. College. Graduating. Getting my first job as a nurse.
But when I became Victoria Donovan—it all goes blank. There’s an enclosure around that part of my life that I don’t know how to get around.
And I think . . . no, I know that the only person in the world who can help me is him.
“Did you hear me?” Kate appears at my door again. “You need to get ready for bed.”
“I can’t. I have a—”
“I know. You have a date,” Kate cuts in. “Blah, blah, blah. I’ll check up on you in an hour.”
The chances of her following through are low, but I nod along and smile just to get her out of the room.
But, as she leaves, I quickly speak up. “Kate?” She turns. “Next time, can you not be so loud when you walk in? I’m trying to get my daughter to sleep.”
Kate rolls her eyes. “Yes, Victoria.”
The second the door shuts behind her, I push my bed away from the wall and stuff the pills in a little hole in the wall. It’s no bigger than the tip of an eraser. I found the hole by accident one day when I dropped a piece of paper behind my bed. Many times I’ve wondered how it got there. I like to think that some other patient made that hole and did the exact same thing.
I sit at the very edge of the bed, my heels tapping against the linoleum floor. The clock on the wall ticks slowly, almost taunting me with all the time that I’m losing.
He’ll be here any second. Of course he will.
Over and over I remind myself that I have to stand my ground and not give in to his words. If I follow these two rules then he can’t seduce me.
Even though I turn into a live wire that only comes alive when he’s nearby.
But not all of his visits are pretty. Sometimes he reveals the darker side of his heart and torments me with his knowing grin and cryptic words.
To put it simply, he’s a bad habit that I just can’t break. A habit that everyone around me thinks doesn’t exist.
“Your husband’s dead. . . .” My doctor’s words run across my mind.
I hug my stomach and hunch over, reminding myself to breathe.
They’re all wrong.
He’s not dead. It’s a lie.
He’s as real as it gets. My reaction is proof. But no one here believes me. It doesn’t matter how many times I tell them.
Abruptly, I stand up and start to pace the room. My heels clicking against the floor. I count my steps all the way to twenty-five before I start over and count again.
My eyes start to get heavy.
He’ll be here soon and then I’ll have my proof. One of the nurses will catch him and they’ll let me go.
Because then they’ll see I’m not crazy.
I settle on my bed and obsessively stare at the clock. Time ticks away.
My eyelids start to droop. I fade in and out before finally giving up and letting exhaustion take over.
The door opens quietly.
I lift my head and watch him as he steps into my room. I smile slowly. I don’t know how much time has gone by. Maybe a few hours.
Maybe a few minutes.
All that matters now is that he’s here. He’s always owned any room he walks into. The half smirk he wears so well shows he knows the effect he has on people.
I stand up and follow him with my eyes. My hands toy with the hem of my dress.
He hasn’t changed and I’m convinced he never will. His blond hair is cut short, his face freshly shaven. Those austere hazel eyes.
Even though the lights are off, my blinds are open, letting in stripes of silver light. They run across his face, making him look like an apparition.
If it weren’t for the lines around his eyes I’d think he was immune to time. His clothes never change: a white undershirt, jeans, and a tan coat. It doesn’t matter what the temperature is. His outfit never changes.
“Have you missed me, Victoria?”
My memories might go in and out, but his voice and presence are impossible to forget. Bright scenes play behind my eyes. The fog fades slightly. I think I’m going to see the truth, but then the scene turns into an old filmstrip. It flickers. My mind strains, trying to hold on to the memory. Black dots appear, getting larger and larger until there’s nothing but darkness.
He asks his question again. This time, impatience is laced throughout his words.
I hesitate. I think no matter what the reaction he elicits from me, my heart and mind will always be at war with each other. One second I want to hold on to him and beg him not to leave, and the next I’m fighting the urge to get away from him as fast as I can.
“Yes,” I finally answer.
I blink and he’s directly in front of me. I stay perfectly still. This close and I get a whiff of his cologne. I stop myself from burying my face in his neck.
“I’ve missed you too,” he says.
His fingers skim down my arms and circle around my wrists. With one tug he pulls me to him. His hand curls around the back of my neck and pulls me toward him. The air around us shifts. He guides my head closer. Our lips are inches apart and I know it’s now or never. There’s no preamble good enough for what I’m about to say.
“I’m leaving Fairfax.” The words rush out.
The grip on my nape tightens imperceptibly.
An announcement like that should bring enthusiasm and happiness. Wes reacts with neither. He just smiles that confident smile, as if he knows something that I don’t. “Why do you want to leave? This place is your home.”
“Not anymore.” With both palms on his chest, I gently pull back. “They need to see you. They need to know that you’re not dead. You have to help me.”
I glance down at my hands, seeing that they are curled into fists, tightly holding on to his shirt.
Wes extracts my hands and moves them away. “I can’t help you.”
“Yes, you can.” My heart pounds like a drum; I have made it past the first hurdle. I can’t give up now. “I know you can. Evelyn and I don’t belong here anymore.”
Wes doesn’t spare Evelyn a glance. His mouth tightens as he rubs the back of his neck. “Do you really believe that if the doctors see me they’ll let you go?”
“It’ll show I’m not lying.”
“Victoria, you put yourself here.”
“No—” I stop abruptly. I want to deny his words, but when I rifle through my memories I can’t find the days leading up to Fairfax. There’s nothing but darkness. As always.
“Have you told anyone else this?” Wes asks sharply.
I stare at him thoughtfully. “No.”
“Good. They can’t help you.” His voice is firm, leaving no room for argument.
“Then who can?” I whisper.
He gives me a sad smile. “No one.”
Wes holds the answers to why I’m here. I can see them dancing in his eyes. If I can get him to open up, just a little, I know I’ll capture a small piece of my truth.
His arms wrap around my waist. “Just stay here,” he whispers into my hair.
He’s going to touch you and you’ll forget it all, my mind whispers. Keep strong.
At first I am strong. But one kiss turns into two. Then three. And by the fourth I’m a goner. Any and all questions I wanted to ask him drift further and further away until I barely see them.
“You’re going to get me out of here,” I say with my lips.
He holds me so close I can barely breathe. I fall back on the bed and he quickly follows. His weight presses me farther into the mattress as he kisses me with purpose. I try to slow everything down, but it’s useless. He bites down on my bottom lip hard enough that it starts to bleed. I feel the sting for a second. He pulls back an inch, his thumb gently rubbing the blood away.
My throat dries up when the face above me begins to change.
It’s a slow metamorphosis.
Starting at the roots, his short golden hair turns black. The strands grow longer until they curl around my fingers.
Smooth skin is replaced with black stubble that rubs against my palms. Very slowly Wes lifts his head. Hazel eyes fade away like the sun and turn amber.
His grip loosens and his hands trace the curves of my body, stopping at my waist. His touch for some reason feels reassuring, almost protective. He smiles, looking like he’d give me the world if I asked. I feel myself relax.
No, no, no. This is all wrong. I blink rapidly, hoping that Wes will come back into focus. But the face doesn’t change. The man holding me looks dark and dangerous, like a fallen angel.
“What’s wrong?” he asks. The voice is deep. It makes goosebumps break across my skin. I stare at the stranger’s face in a complete daze.
I squeeze my eyes shut, telling myself it was just a hallucination. When I open my eyes, it’s Wes’s face I’m staring at again.
My relief lasts only for an instant, though. I have no idea what just happened.
He frowns. “You’re shaking. What’s wrong?”
I take a deep breath. “Nothing.”
Wes rolls off me. But our bodies are only apart for a few seconds before he wraps an arm around me. “You need to sleep.”
Amber eyes are all I can see.
“No, I don’t.”
He laces his fingers through mine. Silence settles in my room yet I can’t calm down. Despair settles in my gut. Tomorrow I’ll wake up and still be here. And the day after that. Until I do something about it, this process will continue.
But I’m on borrowed time. In the distance I can hear the faint echoes of a clock ticking the time away. And yet I have no idea how to break this pattern.
“Help me get out of here.” I swallow loudly. “Please.”
He pushes my hair back and says softly, “I love you. You know that. But I can’t help you.”
“But I can’t help you. . . .” It feels like my heart has been cut in half. If you love someone shouldn’t their pain be yours and vice versa? Shouldn’t you do everything in your power to help them?
His arm drops away from my waist and I take a deep breath. The voices start out as faint whispers—I brace myself for what’s about to come. They morph into screams so loud I can barely understand what they’re saying.
All I can hear is, “I can’t help you.”
My ears start to ring.
I cover my ears and close my eyes.
The mattress dips slightly as he sits up. Cold air touches my back.
“Stay,” I whisper against my pillow.
He doesn’t reply. It’s useless for me to turn around; I know he’s already gone.