Excerpt From Sweet Release
His Majesty's Commonwealth of Virginia, Lancaster County,
on banks of the Rappahannock River
May 18, 1730
Cassie Blakewell watched the sluggish craft struggle
upriver against the current, her stomach knotted. Of all the things she had to
do to keep the plantation running, from caring for the sick to squishing dratted
hornworms, dealing with soul drivers was the thing she dreaded most. Soul
driver. The words alone lent a chill to the otherwise warm spring air.
"Let me do the talking.” She nervously smoothed her skirts
and fluffed the muslin ruffles that edged the bodice of her gown. “We don't want
Micah nodded his head and wiped away beads of perspiration
that trickled down his wrinkled forehead from the tight salt-and-pepper curls on
his head. The frown on his dark face told her he was far from happy. Small
wonder. Until last year, he'd been the one to make all decisions regarding the
buying and selling of bondsmen and slaves. Last summer, her father, who knew how
to deal with troublesome strangers and nosy neighbors, had become ill. White
folks had been suspicious of free-born Negroes before last year's slave
uprising, but they'd become downright hostile since. Although a free man and the
best overseer in the county, Micah was now safer pretending to be a slave when
around strangers. It was a lot to swallow for a man who had once owned his own
Somewhere in the distance a wood thrush and its mate exchanged honeyed song. Cassie
inhaled the scent of pine and tried to calm the
fluttering in her stomach. She loved this river and the land that cradled it.
Let everyone else move to the noisy streets of Williamsburg in search of wealth
and adventure. She would remain here, surrounded by the only riches that
She shielded her eyes against the glare of sun and water,
watched the small boat creep closer to the pier. The spring freshet had the
river running high and fast.
"He's gonna cheat you blind.”
“I know what I'm doing.” Micah was only goading her, but
she felt her temper rise just the same. “Didn't I get Tom at a good price?”
Tom was the newest bondsman on the plantation, and she had
felt quite lucky to get him for only eleven pounds.
“That's because there ain't nobody else want to buy a
half-blind blacksmith. You got robbed.”
“He's very skilled. You said so yourself.”
“Maybe so.” He shrugged and grinned.
“What about Nate and Rebecca? They've worked out well.”
Just because she was young and female didn't mean she couldn't make good
“Yes'm, they have. But you'll be paying to feed another
mouth in a few months. Most folks don't take in redemptioners whose wives are
“Most folks are just plain silly, if you ask me.” She
crossed her arms, refusing to be baited further.
“Yes, Miss Cassie, that's the truth.” Micah chuckled.
The schooner drew alongside the pier. She tucked a wayward
curl under the confection of silk roses and taffeta that sat upon her head.
Normally, she had no use for the handiwork of a milliner, but right now she was
pretending to be a proper young lady, and this silly bonnet was a necessary
“Do you think they'll have bondsmen this time?”
Cassie didn't really expect an answer. How should Micah
know? The flow of bondsmen from England had slowed to a trickle by the time she
was a young child. Nowadays, there were mostly convicts and slaves, and she
hoped to avoid buying either. Oh, it was true her father owned slaves. These
days it was impossible to run a large estate without them. But it sat no better
with her than it did with her father.
“Ho, there!” A fleshy, red-faced man stood on the deck and
waved to her. Two slave boys dropped the gangway onto the pier, came ashore, and
secured the craft.
Cassie fought a momentary wave of nausea as the stench hit
her. Boats carrying human cargo seemed to have their own particular odor; the
smell of sweaty, unwashed bodies combined with excrement, disease, and death.
She took a perfumed kerchief from her satchel and held it to her nose, willing
the nausea to pass.
The rotund man who had hailed them disembarked and walked
toward her, wheezing and glancing about, as if trying to find someone a husband
“Good day, Miss,” he said, bowing and removing his hat to
reveal a dirty wig that barely covered his shaved head. “Is the owner of this
“I'm afraid my father is away on business. He left me to
trade with you in his stead.”
The pudgy man's eyebrows shot up in momentary surprise, but
he quickly recovered. “The name's Sylas Edwards, Miss, Miss?”
“Miss Blakewell.” He bowed again, his eyes fixing on the
lace fichu she had tucked into her décolletage for modesty's sake.
She felt a shiver of revulsion, involuntarily raised a hand
to her bosom.
He smiled, exposing a row of half-rotted teeth.
“I'm sure you're eager to get on your way, Mr. Edwards, so
if we could get down to business, I'll not keep you from your journey.”
“I'm a dealer in slaves and bondsmen, miss.” He motioned to
a member of his crew to bring the human merchandise forward.
At the clinking of chains, Cassie's heart fell. Only
convicts and slaves wore fetters. She exchanged a knowing look with Micah and
turned to see several miserable creatures, linked by neck and ankle, shuffling
down the gangplank and onto the pier. Five were slaves. One appeared to be
English. All were filthy. All stank. She covered her nose with the scented
cloth, quelled another wave of nausea.
“I've got here five prime African bucks, all of them young
and strong,” Sylas began, walking toward his chattel, riding crop in hand.
Most of the slaves stared at the ground. The tallest one,
however, boldly returned Cassie's gaze. His chest bore long, fresh scars, and
she felt certain he was being sold by a former owner who'd found him difficult.
“I've also got a convict straight from Newgate.”
As if on cue, the Englishman, who seemed twice as filthy as
the rest, moaned and swayed. The tall slave, who was chained beside him, reached
out, hands in wrist-irons, to steady him. The soul driver went on as if nothing
“Considerin' what he's guilty of, I doubt if your father
would want the convict around, not with a beauty like yourself to protect.”
With a warning like that, she couldn't resist asking. “What
are his crimes?”
“He's a defiler of womenfolk.” Sylas gave a satisfied grin
at her gasp. “Aye, they'd have hung `im, but he `ad coin a-plenty and bought off
the judge, he did.”
She looked closely at the wretched man's face, or rather
what she could see of it. His face and beard were caked with dirt. Or blood.
Dark hair was matted to his head with sweat. His eyes were all but closed, and
had it not been for the kindness of the tall slave next to him, she was sure he
would have collapsed. He was gravely ill.
“They'd all make good studs, if your father's looking for
Breeding stock? Cassie gasped, her gaze fixed on the
convict's dirty face.
But Sylas was talking about the slaves.
“Pardon me for bein' so blunt about such things, Miss
Blakewell, but your father did leave you to do a man's job.”
“Of course.” She felt her cheeks burn.
Suddenly the convict's legs gave way entirely, and he
slumped toward the ground. The entire line of slaves was forced by their chains
to squat to avoid choking either him or themselves.
Sylas fell upon the prostrate convict, shouting and kicking
the man in the ribs with his boot.
“No!” Forgetting the horrible odor emanating from the
captives, she rushed forward and forced herself between the soul driver and the
fallen man. “There is no need to strike him. This man is ill. He needs a
Sylas laughed, his round face spreading into a sneer, and
raised the riding crop.
“My job is to sell `im, not to coddle `im. Stand back.”
“Mr. Edwards, you can't possibly mean to beat him. He is
unconscious.” The poor soul hadn't collapsed on purpose. “If you want him to
fetch a good price, you'd best see he receives care. Surely even you know this.”
“Move out of my way, woman.” The slave peddler's watery
eyes bulged in his angry, red face.
She swallowed hard, forced herself to match his menacing
glare. The soft crunch of boots on pine needles told her Micah had come forward
and stood directly behind her. Reassured by his presence, she spoke in a firm,
unwavering voice. “This is my father's estate, Mr. Edwards. I speak for him. As
long as you stand on our land, you will respect our wishes. No one hits a
defenseless man here, even if he is a felon.”
Sylas wavered for a moment, looked over her head at Micah,
and slowly lowered the riding crop.
The convict moaned again, mouthed unintelligible words.
She knelt down, touched his forehead. “He's burning up,”
she said over her shoulder to Micah.
“He needs water,” said the tall slave.
“Yes, of course. Micah, bring me some sweet water from the
“Missy, I know what you're thinkin',” Micah whispered as he
turned toward the wagon. “Forget it. You don't know what you'd be gettin' into.”
She could tell by his voice Micah was genuinely alarmed.
They'd never had a convict on the plantation before.
“Do you know this man?” she asked the tall slave. It was
uncommon to see a slave show concern for a white captive. It was even more
uncommon to witness the reverse.
"You seem to care what happens to him. Why?”
“No man deserves to die like a dog.”
She stood and faced the soul driver again, her decision
“How much for these two?” she asked, indicating the
prostrate felon and the slave who had shown him compassion.
Both the slave and Sylas looked at her with surprise. Micah
erupted into a spasm of coughing and came rushing back, her request for water
“Forty pounds. Thirty for the slave and ten for the
“Miss Cassie,” Micah said in a strained voice. If the
situation hadn't been so serious, the expression on his dear face would have
made her laugh. “Your papa won't be happy if you come home with a trouble slave
and a half-dead convict. Don't.”
“Forty pounds is robbery, Mr. Edwards. This convict will
probably die. Ten pounds is far too high a price for one so sick.” She looked at
the slave. “This one has lash marks. No doubt his former master found him
troublesome.” She was surprised to hear how calm she sounded. Inside she was
quaking like a leaf in a storm. “I offer thirty pounds. Twenty-five for the
slave, five for the convict.” What if he refused her offer? She hadn't much more
to bargain with.
Sylas shook his head. “Not a pound less than thirty-eight.”
His gaze dropped to her bosom.
“Thirty-five,” she said on impulse. “Plus this bill of
lading. I'm afraid if you can't accept that, then you will have to take your
cargo and continue on your way without a sale.” She took the bill from her purse
and held it out for his inspection. “And I shall have to tell my father how
rudely you behaved toward me. I'm sure he'll spread the word to our friends and
relations upriver.” Never mind they had none. The soul driver couldn't know
that. “My offer is more than fair, Mr. Edwards. I suggest you accept.”
The unconscious man moaned again. Trying not to show
feminine weakness, she ignored him.
Sylas took the bill, read through it with obvious
“That bill gives you possession of 10 pounds of my father's
best sweet-scented tobacco. You need simply to present this bill to my father's
factor in Williamsburg to collect it.”
Sylas tucked the bill under his belt. “And the thirty-five
She opened the strings of her purse and placed the precious
coins in Sylas' upturned palm.
“These two go with her,” the soul driver bellowed over his
shoulder, motioning to a slave boy, who quickly unlocked the selected men's
collars and fetters and led the rest away. “Here's the convict's papers, Miss.
If you're lucky, he'll die.”
She took the packet of papers and sighed with relief as the
odious man turned and walked back toward his vessel.
“You shouldn't have done this, Miss Cassie,” Micah said.
“We got enough to worry about without keepin' an eye on some convict!”
“Aye, Micah. You're right.” He was right. There was tobacco
to plant, merchants to pay. There was her father, not to mention Jamie. Her
little brother seemed to need constant watching these days. And her father?
Heaven only knew. “What else could I have done?”
Micah placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “You got to
learn that you can't save everybody.” But his eyes held no reproach. “Let's get
Micah and the new slave, who said his name was Luke, lifted
the unconscious man and carried him to the wagon. Cassie opened the convict's
papers and glanced over the first page. Nicholas Braden, known also by the name
Cole Braden. In black ink were scrawled the words “convicted ravisher and
defiler of women.”
She shuddered. What had she done?
Every muscle in his body ached. Alec struggled to focus on
his surroundings, but the room continued to spin and his head to throb, forcing
him to close his eyes again. Damn! He felt as weak as a newborn pup.
He remembered arguing with Philip, Isabelle's shouting,
leaving in the rain. After that, he could recall nothing but random images. A
ship. Darkness. The fetid stench of filth and illness. Incessant pain and
thirst. Strange faces. Men like Socrates with skin as dark as night. A witch, or
so she seemed, with gray hair and a dark face covered with strange markings. He
shivered involuntarily. Could it all have been a nightmare?
There was one other face. He remembered a woman with hair
the color of polished copper in sunlight, startlingly green eyes, and the voice
of an angel. Her cool hands had given him comfort. He had tried repeatedly to
reach for her only to watch her fade into nothingness.
He lifted a hand to his throbbing temple. Chains! Although
his hands were now free, he remembered being in fetters. Had he been kidnapped?
Alec tested his feet, relieved to feel they, too, were free. Whoever still held
him captive obviously felt he was no threat to them now. They were right. In
this condition, he doubted he'd be able to stand, much less escape. He heard
children playing outside, someone singing, the clang of a blacksmith's hammer
and smelled pine mingled with the scent of newly fallen rain and lavender soap.
Wherever he was, it was an odd place to keep a hostage.
He opened his eyes again, willing the dizziness to pass. He
appeared to be in a one-room shanty. Light trickled through cracks in a small,
shuttered opening that served as a window. Next to the bed stood a crudely built
pine table, holding several nearly melted candles. Next to it, stood a
rough-hewn chair. On the opposite end of the room was a small hearth, but no
fire. Strange that he did not feel cold. Springtime in England was not known for
He tried to sit up. The ache in his skull forced him to
rest raised on his elbows. He was completely naked beneath the thin blanket, his
clothes nowhere in sight. Whiskers tickled his chest. Alarmed, he reached up and
felt the full growth of beard on his face. Several weeks must have gone by, much
more than he'd first imagined. No wonder he felt so weak.
Rage coursed through him, making his head throb anew.
Elizabeth and Matthew must be beside themselves with worry. Perhaps even Philip
was distraught. But who had done this? And why? Perhaps the pitiful souls who
called this hovel home were holding him for ransom. But even this life was
better than the hangman's noose that awaited them at Old Bailey. And hang they
would. He would see to it personally.
From outside he heard the approach of voices, one of them
distinctly feminine, the other deeper. The voices stopped at his door, and the
hinges squeaked. He sank back into the pillows, closed his eyes.
“Thank you, Zach,” the woman said.
There was something about her voice.
“Pleased to help, Miss Cassie,” a man answered. “Would ye
like me to stay?”
“That won't be necessary, thank you. I'm sure I'll be quite
safe. He's too weak to harm a flea.”
Cassie stepped from the heat of the midday sun into the
cool darkness of the shanty. Careful not to tip the serving tray and spill Nan's
good chicken stock, she shut the door behind her. The convict's fever had broken
yesterday afternoon, much to her surprise. Takotah had tried to feed him last
night, but he'd been too exhausted to take more than a few sips of broth.
Perhaps now he'd be hungry. Whoever had transported him had treated him
horribly. With broken ribs, a broken nose, bumps on the head and lash marks on
his back and chest that had festered, he'd seemed destined for the grave. But
he'd survived, thanks to Takotah's healing skills and his own stubborn refusal
Giving her eyes a moment to adjust to the darkness, she
placed the serving tray on the table next to his bed. She hated to wake him, but
he needed to regain his strength. The man who slept so peacefully now bore no
resemblance to the filthy, broken soul she'd brought home a week ago. Despite
the thick beard, this man was devilishly handsome, with dark brown hair that
fell just beneath his shoulders, indecently long eyelashes, and gentle features
marred only by the yellowish tinge of fading bruises and the thickening where
his nose had been broken.
She crossed the room and opened the shutters to let in more
light. She turned back toward him and felt her footsteps falter. The blanket had
slipped below his waist, revealing a broad, muscled chest covered with soft,
dark curls that tapered down a flat abdomen. It had been easy to ignore his body
when he'd been ill. He'd been merely an assemblage of parts, each needing
attention in its turn. Now those parts had healed into a disturbingly masculine
She sat next to him on the bed, ignoring the tickle in her
belly. Hesitantly, she placed her hand on his chest. His skin felt warm and
alive, and his heart beat steadily beneath her palm. She touched his forehead
and smiled, pleased to feel the fever had not returned. Asleep like this, he
hardly looked the dangerous criminal.
She gasped, would have screamed had the arm that encircled
her throat not cut off her breath.
“Who are you, woman, and why do you hold me prisoner?”
Order your copy today!