For five pounds in sterling, the convict was hers. Though Cassie hated the slave trade, her Virginia plantation demanded the labor, and she knew this fevered man would surely die if she left him. But as his wounds healed and his muscled chest bronzed in the sun, Cassie realized Cole Braden was far more dangerous than his papers had indicated—for he could steal her breath with a glance and lay siege to her senses with a touch.
Abducted, beaten, and given a new name, Alec went from master of an English shipbuilding empire to fourteen years of indentured servitude in the American colonies. There, he was known as Cole Braden, a convicted ravisher and defiler of women. And while he longed to ravish the auburn-haired beauty who owned him, he knew his one hope of earning her love—and his freedom—was to prove his true identity. Only then could he turn the tables and attain his ... Sweet Release.
Read an excerpt below...
"A stunning debut novel that captures hearts and imaginations from page one, Sweet Release delivers a sensual tale of lust, betrayal and redemption...
"With sensuality in the manner of the great Virginia Henley and characters worthy of the early novels of Kathleen Woodiwiss, Clare's award-winning style guarantees her a place on reader's shelves. Alec and Cassie's legendary saga captures the very best of this genre and displays a writing talent that leaves readers wanting more." —From the March 2003 edition of RT Bookclub
"A very impressive debut novel… A great tale, a wonderful heroine and a hero to linger in your heart… Sweet Release is a page-turner." —USA Today Best-seller Patricia Potter
"Greed, family secrets and an irresistible passion drive this page-turner. An accomplished and auspicious first novel!" —Best-selling author Leigh Greenwood
Order your copy today!
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 trouble.”
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 farm.
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 mattered.
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 business decisions.
“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 expectin'.”
“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 prop.
“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 or father.
“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 estate nearby?”
“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 decolletage 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 had happened.
“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.”
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 doctor.”
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 wagon, please.”
“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 made.
“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 forgotten.
“Forty pounds. Thirty for the slave and ten for the convict.”
“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 difficulty.
“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 pounds?”
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 'em home.”
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 its warmth.
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 to die.
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 whole.
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?”