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“Richly detailed setting, heart-stopping plot, and unforgettable characters.”
—Deanna Raybourn, New York Times bestselling author
The first of award-winning author Alyssa Cole’s highly-acclaimed Loyal League series! As the Civil War rages between the states, a courageous pair of spies plunge fearlessly into a maelstrom of ignorance, deceit, and danger, combining their unique skills to alter the course of history and break the chains of the past . . .
Elle Burns is a former slave with a passion for justice and an eidetic memory. Trading in her life of freedom in Massachusetts, she returns to the indignity of slavery in the South—to spy for the Union Army.
Malcolm McCall is a detective for Pinkerton's Secret Service. Subterfuge is his calling, but he’s facing his deadliest mission yet—risking his life to infiltrate a Rebel enclave in Virginia.
Two undercover agents who share a common cause—and an undeniable attraction—Malcolm and Elle join forces when they discover a plot that could turn the tide of the war in the Confederacy's favor. Caught in a tightening web of wartime intrigue, and fighting a fiery and forbidden love, Malcolm and Elle must make their boldest move to preserve the Union at any cost—even if it means losing each other . . .
Praise for the novels of Alyssa Cole:
“Rich in atmospheric details and rife with unexpected dangers.”
—RT Book Reviews
“Sweet, sensual, and suspenseful . . . rousing and entertaining.”
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An Extraordinary Union
By Alyssa Cole
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 Alyssa Cole
All rights reserved.
January 1862 Richmond, Virginia
"No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck."
The tract of text popped into Elle's mind as she tried to remain calm in the face of yet another indignity. She surely hoped Mr. Douglass was right; she had to believe he was, or else she would give in to the angry fantasies that plagued her every time she was forced into the presence of her mistress. She still had half a mind to dump the steaming cup of tea in her hands directly onto Susie Caffrey's damned head, but that wouldn't have been acceptable even when she was a freedwoman. Besides, as much as Susie chafed her hide, she was a sight less painful to deal with than the sting of a leather strap.
Still, it was mighty tempting, especially as the young woman lounged on the chaise in the mansion's parlor, issuing orders like a tyrant and flipping through a scandal sheet detailing the goings-on of the Richmond elite. The gossip rags were Susie's obsession, as if the fact that her father was a newly elected Confederate senator and war raged on their very doorstep weren't excitement enough. She read them in the guise of doing her duty for the Richmond Vigilance Committee, a group that played at spy hunting but relied on belligerence and wild guesses to control their fellow citizens.
Elle briefly allowed herself the fantasy of the dark brew dripping down over the chit's ridiculous frilly hat, savored the possibility of destroying Susie's perfectly set curls and staining the beautiful blue silk gown she wore. It would almost be worth it, just for the memory. Remembering everything that she saw and heard was Elle's specialty, and there were a rare few things caught in the steel trap of her mind that brought her pleasure of late.
A pair of pale fingers snapped in front of her face, pulling her from her reverie.
"You're dumb, but I know you're not deaf," Susie drawled. "Now I see how the tea went cold in the first place, with you lollygagging about like you don't have work to do. I said take it away." Susie's eyes were a warm hazel that could have been kind, but she narrowed them like a grimalkin at Elle before returning her attention to her frivolous newspaper.
You're a slave now, Elle reminded herself of LaValle's words as she turned and marched out of the parlor and down the high-ceilinged hallway lined with marble statuary and exquisite paintings. The two cornrowed plaits she used to tame her thick curls bounced against her shoulders, propelled by the force of her stride. You'll do as you're told and you won't give them any sass. Too much depends on this. That command stuck in her craw, though. Instead, she thought of Sun Tzu's advice for luring an enemy into defeat: "Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent's fate."
Yes, that was much more to her liking.
Elle repeated the words as she took the "cold" tea that Susie had rejected and returned to the kitchen, nearly scalding herself when it slopped over the rim of the delicate china cup and onto her hand. She bit back an exclamation — it wouldn't do for her to be shouting in the kitchen, or for her to make any noise at all. She had a role to play.
She slowed her angry pace — it wouldn't do to break any dishes, either. The last thing she needed was to call attention to herself. Despite her sour mood, she gave a friendly nod to Mary, the head of the household slaves, as she entered the hot kitchen. Mary's small, rounded nose and wide cheekbones marked her as a slave, although her skin was barely darker than Susie's — the color of fresh milk with the slightest dash of rich cocoa added for taste.
"She sent it back again?" Mary asked, glancing in the direction of the parlor before rolling her eyes. "Lord, Li'l Bit. Not that Miss Susie was an angel before, but she been pure devil since you showed up. She always finding something to get on you about! I shoulda warned you she was in a mood today."
Elle couldn't help but smile when Mary addressed her by her nickname. It made her feel like she belonged, despite the fact that she was at the mansion under false pretenses. "You a li'l bit too small and a li'l bit too dark, but you still pretty all the same," Mary had told her when she first arrived. "Best be careful around Marse Caffrey and his friends."
Mary moved around the kitchen, deftly navigating between the chaos of cooks and liveried slaves preparing for the arrival of Senator Caffrey and his guests. Elle followed close behind her, like Mary's noontime shadow — shorter, darker, and totally silent. Although she paid attention to everything Mary said, she was also observing the other slaves, listening to snippets of their conversations in case someone shared something they'd overheard from the Caffreys and their guests.
Despite her heavy workload, Mary had taken Elle under her wing upon her arrival. The other slaves had quickly grown tired of having to explain things to the mute woman who seemed unable to do the simplest tasks with efficiency, but Mary had worked with Elle until she grew accustomed to her place in the household. And if Mary found it strange that Elle always wanted to do work that kept her in the presence of Senator Caffrey and his compatriots, or in his office while he was away from it, she didn't say anything about it.
"As if tea come cheap these days," Mary continued, taking the cup from Elle's hands. She blew carefully and then took a quick sip. "The stuff is scarce as hen's teeth! Men risk their necks smuggling past the Yank blockade, and this little fool think nothing of throwing it out like the wash water. I swear, that girl ain't worth more than a fart in a whirlwind."
Mary took Susie's laissez-faire attitude about the blockade personally. Her husband, Robert, was a slave, too, and a respected river pilot who was sought after by every captain on the James. He was hired out to different men, getting to keep a sliver of each fee paid to his master. During their short visits, he told Mary the particulars of how the upper classes were obtaining smuggled luxuries like tea and sugar, despite the Union blockade, while most struggled to get the bare essentials. Occasionally, he'd been forced to smuggle the goods himself. It galled him to help sustain those who fought for the continuation of slavery, but a slave, especially a hired-out slave with a wife working in a senator's mansion, was in no position to turn down a demand from Davis's army. Besides, every coin he earned brought him and Mary closer to buying their freedom.
Mary stormed over to the cask that had been filled to the brim with coffee beans when Elle arrived but was now perilously close to empty. "Oh, good Lord, and coffee is even worse than tea. Nearly fifty-five cents a pound! Missus is going to have my head. Maybe I should try that chicory mix folk been using...." Mary receded into her thoughts, obviously calculating where and how and from whom she could obtain what product at what price, and what would be lost in the bargain. With the war waging all around them, supplies were tight and tempers were short. Yet Mary had to keep the house running like there wasn't a blockade, or face the repercussions.
"I know it's dead wrong, but when the missus get on me about how stringy the roast is or how the potatoes is spoiled, I wish Abe would just recall his navy and lift the blockade," Mary confided, her dark eyes weary. "Ain't that a shame? They say the man's thinking of freeing us and all I can worry about is what missus gonna hound me about next."
Elle gave the woman's shoulder a reassuring squeeze, and Mary patted Elle's hand in thanks before grabbing a pile of napkins to fold. "As for Susie, she's all a tizzy because her daddy's bringing home some Reb come down from Maryland. Said he's carrying news from them sneaky Baltimore secesh, who smile in Lincoln's face and then plot against him behind closed doors."
Elle's hand went to her throat at the mention of Baltimore, but she caught herself before she touched the thick scar there. What mattered was that she'd recovered from the injury, although her inability to talk after her injury had given LaValle the brilliant idea of having her pose as mute. It would keep her sharp tongue from ruining the sensitive arrangement of working in a target's home; if she couldn't talk, she couldn't place herself and other operatives in danger. She understood that there was a kernel of punishment in the order, too; payback for one terse rejoinder too many. Her mama always did say her smart mouth would get her into trouble one day.
Mary continued. "Marse got stuck waiting for a ferry with the fella and think he's the best thing since Moses parted the Red Sea. He been lonely since we moved out here for the Congress, you know. Funny, since there are so many more people here than back on the plantation."
It was amazing how much information, both business and personal, people bandied about freely in front of their slaves. Elle didn't know why it still surprised her — after all, it was why she had been assigned that particular mission — but each fresh realization incited a confusing mixture of both glee and contempt. She felt a flicker of excitement, too, this time. This new friend of the senator's might be useful. New sources of information always meant the possibility of learning something that could help stamp out the rebellion for good.
Mary prattled on about the goings-on in the house, unaware that Elle was pondering things like the fate of their nation. "This fella better be careful, though — Miss Susie ain't had a beau with the men all going off to fight, and she's ready to sink her claws into anybody. He could be a dried-up old prune, long as he's not married, and maybe even if he is."
Elle nearly opened her mouth to concur, then shut it tightly, instead giving Mary a wry smile and rolling her eyes. Being a slave again after so many years of freedom in the North was hard enough, even if it was just an act; the additional subterfuge of being a mute slave was an added difficulty.
Damned LaValle and his ridiculous ideas.
"Go on and make sure the table is set right," Mary said as she turned back to her work. "Last thing I need is the missus hounding me about a soup spoon or bread plate out of place. You remember how the settings go?"
Elle nodded. Remembering minutiae was her raison d'être, but of course Mary wouldn't be privy to that.
She headed into the dining room to double-check the place settings. As she worked, she wondered what news this Reb brought with him from Baltimore. Plenty of secessionists had remained in the city instead of fleeing south, and they used their connections to garner information for the Confederacy. The information she'd provided to Biddle had taken down a politician and his underlings; further proof that treachery within the Union reached to its very highest levels. If this new man was carrying information from Baltimore that could supplement the information already preserved in Elle's memory, this stranger could prove to be very valuable, indeed.
Sunlight streamed into the dining room, highlighting the finery — the satin finish of the patterned wallpaper, the large walnut table that had been polished until it shone. Light glinted off of the silverware, accenting the fine china at each setting. Elle thought of her own dwelling in Richmond: one tiny, shabby room in a home for hired-out slaves with a bed barely fit for a barn animal. And it was a damned luxury compared to what other slaves, the ones who worked the land from morning to night with no reward, called home. And this was what the South fought to maintain.
Elle darted out a hand to adjust a small plate that hung precariously on the edge of the table, but her angry musings turned what should have been a gentle prod into a forceful nudge. The plate flew off of the edge of the table, hovering in the air for a moment suspended in time before her hand shot out and caught it. She gripped the plate to her chest, surprised that her wildly beating heart didn't tap out a tune on the ceramic. A broken plate was a punishable offense — Missus Caffrey was very particular about her household, and Elle didn't want to invite her wrath in addition to Susie's constant harassment. She laid the plate down, gently this time.
"You move quicker than a spring-loaded cat." It was a masculine voice that made the ridiculous observation, deep and smooth and tinged with a lilt that spoke of shores far from Richmond somewhere in its past. There was something familiar in the voice that slipped around Elle like the velvet lining of her favorite cloak on a cold New England day.
She whirled and found herself facing an expanse of gray: a Rebel uniform stretched over a wide chest. Broad shoulders and strong arms filled the rest of the jacket, and when she looked up, warm gray eyes stared down into hers. Not gray — a stunning silvery blue that would have been enhanced by the uniform of whichever side he had chosen in this terrible war. Jet-black hair hung over his ears, complemented by sideburns that were just a bit overlong and shot through with streaks of silver. His face was smooth and unlined, except for the crow's feet that creased the corners of his eyes.
"You put those boys doing drills down at the Central Fairgrounds to shame. Most of them can't even walk straight," he said, his vivid gaze locked on her. "And not a one of them is half as pretty as you."
Heat rushed to her cheeks, unbidden and unwanted. Now that he had spoken more than a few words, Elle could detect the trace of a Scottish accent. She'd heard the accent often enough back home in Massachusetts, and in her current dealings with the grocer MacTavish and his clan of Richmond abolitionists, but it had never made her face heat like a cauldron over a flame. She wasn't sure any man's voice ever had. She was poleaxed, and by a man whose every marking screamed ENEMY!
His rosy lips curved up into a grin as she stared at him, as if their situation were normal. As if he weren't making conversation with a slave, and insinuating conversation at that.
That's when realization set in for Elle. She was alone in a room with a man in a Rebel uniform, and he was smiling at her. Maybe if it had been an innocent grin she would have been less alarmed, but it was the smile of a man who was used to getting his way. She backed away from him, watching his smile recede as quickly as her feet did. After only a few steps, she found herself pressed against the dining table.
He wouldn't ... he couldn't in the dining room, could he? Surely he wouldn't be so brazen? Elle had known that there would be a risk of this, of being taken advantage of by a man who saw her merely as a vessel in which to slake his desire. It could happen anywhere, really, North or South, but in these parts it was something of an institution. The slaves who were barely darker than their masters, like Mary, were proof enough of that.
Her fingers itched to grab one of the sharp utensils behind her, but if she fought him she'd surely be beaten and likely removed from the house. Her compatriots would lose a vital source of information and all might be lost if Senator Caffrey searched too deeply into how she had come to work in his household.
Elle's stomach gave a vicious tumble and she inhaled sharply, as if fresh air could blow away the sickness building in her belly.
Anything for the Union. The rallying cry rang hollow, but she had pledged to serve her country. Elle squared her shoulders and looked the man in the eye, hoping he couldn't see her fear. If he were going to try to ravage her, he'd have to acknowledge her first, dammit. His brows rose in confusion as she held his gaze and then it was he who stepped back, a frown pulling at his mouth as comprehension dawned on him.
"No," he choked out. His jaw was tight and the playful light had gone from his strange, dual-tone eyes. "I would never."
His words were brittle, and it was instantly clear that she had mistaken his intentions. His reaction intrigued her, even as her heart raced from the fright he'd given her. Despite the atrocities they committed against her people, she knew that a Southern man was just as human as she; they were the ones who had trouble coming to terms with that reality. But the deference in the man's tone and the guilt on his face were something she hadn't experienced since arriving in Richmond, and she couldn't help but wonder at it.
Excerpted from An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole. Copyright © 2017 Alyssa Cole. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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