When captured rebel Scotsman Alex MacKinnon is granted the king's mercyexile to the Colony of North Carolinahe's indentured to Englishman Edmund Carey as a blacksmith. Against his will Alex is drawn into the struggles of Carey's slavesand those of his stepdaughter, Joanna Carey. A mistress with a servant's heart, Joanna is expected to wed her father's overseer, Phineas Reeves, but finds herself drawn instead to the new blacksmith. As their unlikely relationship deepens, successive tragedies strike the Careys. When blame falls unfairly upon Alex he flees to the distant mountains where he encounters Reverend Pauling, itinerate preacher and friend of the Careys, now a prisoner of the Cherokees. Haunted by his abandoning of Joanna, Alex tries to settle into life with the Cherokees, until circumstances thwart yet another attempt to forge his freedom and he's faced with the choice that's long hounded him: continue down his rebellious path or embrace the faith of a man like Pauling, whose freedom in Christ no man can steal. But the price of such mercy is total surrender, and perhaps Alex's very life.
|Publisher:||The Crown Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.20(d)|
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Summer 1747 — Spring 1748
Let every man seek his own safety the best way he can.
—Prince Charles Edward Stuart to his defeated Jacobite army
Cape Fear River, Colony of North Carolina
Alex MacKinnon roused to the press of wood beneath his cheek and an ominous churning in his gut. He tried to rise, but his hands were bound behind him. Without their aid he made it to his knees and, as the world spun in a blur of sunlit green, lost the contents of his stomach into mud-black water rushing past below. A powerful grip dragged him back onto rough planks. He felt solidness behind his back—curving barrel staves, hotly fragrant in the sweltering heat.
“Catch yo’ breath,” said a voice deep enough to have issued from a well’s nethermost reaches. “Don’t do no stupid.”
Alex drew up his knees and dropped his head, then jerked as a lance of pain split his skull. Moving must be the stupid the well-bottom voice warned against.
“Still yo’self,” it cautioned now.
Alex complied. The pain in his head receded to a pounding. Sweat stung what must be a gash at his temple. Dried blood stiffened his face. Arms, legs, torso all ached with the bruises left by blows. He’d been attacked.
“Ah, Demas,” said another voice. “He’s awake? Excellent. I was about to be concerned.”
The speaker hadn’t sounded concerned. He’d sounded downright blithe. And English.
The surface beneath Alex dipped. Nausea surged with the motion. This time he forced it back, eyes shut against the sun-glare.
“And here at last we’ve the tide to speed us along,” the English voice added.
The scrape of wood on wood. Water splashing. Feet thumping boards. Men’s voices rising and relaxing as at the end of prolonged exertion. All familiar. All wrong.
Alex opened his eyes. Though not yet high in the sky, the Carolina sun burned fierce. Bearing its assault, he took in what he made for the aft deck of a flatboat. Within his view a man, shirtless back a glistening blue-black, had hauled in a dripping pole and was stowing it along the deck rail, over which Alex had been sick. The vessel surged, picking up speed though none poled it now that he could see.
Alarmed, he looked out over silty water, expecting to see the merchant ship, Charlotte-Ann, riding at anchor beyond the smaller craft lining Wilmington’s quay. He didn’t see the quay. A tree-lined bank slid past, edged inmudflats dotted with quarreling seabirds.
They were on the river.
A throat’s clearing curtailed his observations. Squinting, Alex made out the Englishman seated on a crate shaded by a cabin in the craft’s center. He wore no coat or hat, but his breeches and waistcoat were cut of good cloth and fit his trim person well. With dark hair smoothly tailed, he bore no trace of sweat on his brow, as if the neckcloth knotted below his chin didn’t smother him. He looked not yet thirty.
The man bared good teeth in a smile, an expression that took his unremarkable features—longish nose, thin lips, hazel eyes overshadowed by strong brows—and rearranged them into a mask of disarming appeal.
He’d seen the man before. Alex closed his eyes, searching his memory for that face, and found it.
His eyes flew open. “Ye’ve made a mistake! I’d an agreement with the ship’s master. Captain Bingham will tell ye…” But Bingham wouldn’t. The Charlotte-Ann’s captain was complicit in this. Minding that now, too, Alex strained against his bindings. Could he pitch himself overboard, hope to reach the bank?
“I wouldn’t try it,” the Englishman advised. “Alligators infest these waters. You missed the last sighting. Quite the sizeable specimen.”
Alligators. Alex had yet to see one of the fearsome beasts since they’d begun their piloted journey into Wilmington’s sandbar-riddled harbor, but the Charlotte-Ann’s crew had encountered them on voyages past. His sweating scalp crawled at the thought of jagged teeth closing over him, powerful jaws dragging him under the river’s dark surface. Still, he’d rather face that battle than what awaited him at this riverine journey’s end.
He made it halfway to his feet before the massive hand that had steadied him before clutched his neck from behind. Alex bucked and thrashed, in the process glimpsing the African who had hold of him. He sucked in air, or tried to. Thick fingers squeezed. Just as he felt himself sliding into darkness, the grip on his neck eased.
The Englishman in the shade had watched, unperturbed. “Demas once snapped a man’s neck one-handed—so I’ve heard. Promise to cease thrashing about and I’ll bid him release you. Then we’ll discuss your situation like civilized men.”
Glaring, Alex jerked his chin against the gripping fingers.
At a glance from the Englishman his throat was released. The African hunkered within arm’s reach, powerful hands loose between thighs like tree trunks.
Alex concentrated on breathing, forcing swallows past what felt like rocks lodged in his throat.
The Englishman raised a brow. “Are you a civilized man? I know you for a Jacobite, one of those Stuart rebels King George defeated… When was it? A year since?”
Alex might have told him to the day.
“Alastair Seamus MacKinnon by name, according to your papers,” the Englishman went on. “Well, MacKinnon, I’m Phineas Reeves, and this craft we occupy belongs to Severn, the plantation for which we’re bound. The journey will take the day long. Perhaps into the night. Time enough for us to become acquainted.”
“It wasna meant to be me,” Alex ground out. “Take me back.”
“To Wilmington? We’re miles upriver, moving with the tide. Even were we not, Captain Bingham has no further claim on you. You’re indentured to a new master.”
The gut-churn threatened. “D’ye not mean yourself? Ye’re the owner of the Charlotte-Ann.”
“Me? I’m but his overseer. A hired man, as is Captain Bingham. As for the prisoners brought over from London—including yourself—it was from their number the Charlotte-Ann’s owner was to have first pick. Surely Bingham informed you of the arrangement.”
“He gave me to think otherwise.”
“That would explain the difficulty we had in extricating you.” Something akin to contrition crossed Phineas Reeves’s face. “I was sent downriver to meet the Charlotte-Ann and bring back a likely man for Severn. You seemed exceedingly so to me, and Captain Bingham was agreeable to the choice. He’d sold the rest of his indentures before we started upriver, and I must return with someone. You can appreciate my position.”
The shock of it was stunning. Reeves’s voice cut through it like the jabs of a blade.
“I regret the headache you must be enduring. I’m afraid Demas doesn’t know his strength.”
Recalling the careful clenching of that massive hand at his throat, Alex took leave to disagree.
“This should help.” Reeves held out a canteen. Too thirsty to refuse, Alex took it and drank while the man nattered on. “It occurs to me I haven’t named your master. Edmund Philip Carey, Captain of His Majesty’s Royal Navy, retired. His last command was the frigate Severn, for which his plantation is named.”
Ceasing to listen, Alex looked round him again with aching eyes. The men piloting the barge were a motley lot: black, white, somewhere between, one possibly a red Indian. He knew little of the natives of this New World. Purportedly fierce, warlike, prone to taking a man’s scalp off his head—if his fellow seamen were to be credited. Reckoning himself safe enough from scalping at present, he cast a bleary gaze across the wide river at the shoreline passing in a green tangle, raised the canteen to his lips, and drained it as dry as his plummeting hope.
Why had he trusted Bingham—an Englishman—after everything?
“…and that’s where I first met Captain Carey. I was a cabin boy aboard the Severn…in another lifetime.” Reeves, still chattering away, smiled again as Alex flicked him a glance. “Doubtless you’re wondering what Captain Carey means to do with you for the next seven years.”
He hadn’t entertained the faintest curiosity. Until now.
“Plantations on the river tend toward the sprawling, thousands of acres, and so require to be self-supporting. Severn has its coopers, millers, carpenters. It had a blacksmith, until six months ago when an unfortunate accident rendered the fellow unfit for the work. That’s where you come into it, MacKinnon. You’re to be trained in the smith’s art. I chose you for your size. You’re the first man I’ve seen who comes close to matching Demas’s physique. Perhaps with another stone or two of meat on those long bones, you shall.”
Reeves grinned as though he’d delivered the best possible news.
Seven years. His strength spent at an Englishman’s pleasure, without even the freedom of the sea. Demas seemed to sense the impulse to escape that again swept through him. The African tensed, but when Alex made no move he settled again, hands loosening from the fists he’d made of them. Fists like hammers.
That was meant to be his lot. Hammers and fire and glowing iron. Seven years.
On his side again with the sun beating down like a forge’s fire, grief and rage flowed over him. He was well and truly a prisoner in that godforsaken place, though why should that surprise? God had forsaken him months ago on a moor near Inverness.
16 April 1746
Culloden Moor, Scotland
From the first cannon’s thundering, then the screaming charge that carried the Highland army into the Duke of Cumberland’s scarlet lines, the battle had been bloody bedlam. Alex MacKinnon had slain too many men to count, with never attention to spare beyond the reach of his broadsword; just now a redcoat had his blade tip caught in its woven guard. Giving the sword a violent twist, Alex snapped the snagged blade clean. Wrenched nearly off his feet, the redcoat left his throat exposed above a muddied stock. Alex had only his sword arm free. The other gripped his uncle. Wounded by the redcoat before Alex could intervene, Rory MacNeill sagged against him, a gash opened deep in his thigh.
Raging against exhaustion as much as his foe, Alex roared with the effort needed to swing his blade across that exposed English neck. The redcoat slumped, dead before he hit the ground.
With the shout that carried him through the deed dying on his lips, Alex had space to look about. It was chaos on the moor, curtained in the gray of powder smoke and sleet. Icy needles flayed his cheeks as he squinted to see men reeling, locked in combat with sword and dirk, halberd and bayonet. Their screams mingled with the keening wind that cut through soaked linen, leather, even wool. Somewhere an officer shouted, gathering men—to fight or flee there was no telling. Around him lay the slain.
When no more redcoats loomed from the mist to challenge him, Alex thought of refuge, a place to lay his uncle, tend that gaping wound. At once he saw it, a dip in the moorland where the fighting had passed. He made out a blur of green farther along: pines, scrawny and wind-stunted. Shelter enough.
Strands of his uncle’s hair whipped Alex’s face as he grappled for a better hold. Pain tightened Rory MacNeill’s voice as his hand clamped his thigh. “I’ll manage, lad—dinna slow yourself on my account.”
Alex drove his heels into the muddy turf to stay upright. “Wheest, Uncle. Let me help ye.”
Rain had collected at the depression’s base, along with bodies. Red-stained water gushed icy through Alex’s cracked shoes as they wove their way, Rory cursing Charles Stuart with every step. As he ought to have been cursing Alex.
Surrounded by the fallen, plaids blending with moor grass and heather, he kent his uncle had been right to abide by The MacNeill’s will. Their chief had dithered away the months of the Stuart campaign to retake the English throne for the exiled King James, neither lending the Jacobite cause support nor openly censuring it. Thinking himself wiser at twenty-two than Rory at nine-and-forty, Alex had crossed to Skye, joined his father’s MacKinnon clan, and marched away to restore King James to the throne. Without the blessing of uncle, chief, or any saint he’d ever prayed to.
At Inverness, days ago, Rory had found him, tried again to persuade him from his course, knowing the ill turn the campaign had taken. Alex had given his oath to the House of Stuart. Men depended upon him. Did his uncle expect him to do other than hold to his word, having raised him to count it his bond?
Rory had thinned his lips, said no more, and stayed to fight beside him, but devil take him now if Alex meant to let the man die beside him too.
They made it to the pine thicket before Rory’s knees buckled.
With his towering frame a throwback to the raiding Norseman who had been his several-times great-grandfather, Alex MacKinnon was no wee man, but Rory MacNeill shared his blood and the older man was a deal heavier. He slipped from Alex’s hold and landed hard. The blood snaking through the fingers clutching his thigh thinned in a spate of freezing rain.
From the pines a corbie’s cry erupted like a pistol’s crack, a warning Alex was too slow to heed.
Needled boughs swept aside as a wall of scarlet coats burst from the thicket. He’d no time to raise his sword before pain burst at the back of his skull. There came an instant of blinding light, then darkness closed like a tunnel, at its end his uncle’s face, twisted in pain and helpless fury, blood on the hands reaching for him.
Cape Fear River
Alex jerked awake aboard the flatboat, poled upriver now against an ebbing tide. The sun hung above the towering trees through which the river snaked, its light falling aslant. He still smelled the salt marsh of the river’s mouth, but stronger now on the humid air hung the tang of pine resin. Iridescent dragonflies darted at the river’s edge. Mosquitoes clouded its surface. Some had landed on his sweating flesh and stuck there, sprinkled in the blond hairs of his forearms.
“Awake again?” the Englishman, Reeves, asked, stepping into view between a row of crates and the flatboat’s cabin. “May I trust to your docility?”
Alex’s hands had been freed while he slept, but the African hovered near, dark face gleaming. Rubbing at his wrists, Alex jerked a nod. Reeves held out another canteen. Alex took it and drank, getting his bearings. Along the craft’s side two men drove poles into the river and pushed against the current. Voices issued from the cabin, sounding as men did when gaming. Reeves, the former seaman, had them on watches. The bell for Alex’s own would soon be sounding aboard the Charlotte-Ann, if he was any judge of time.
Accepting the canteen once Alex drank his fill, Reeves took a seat on the bench beside the cabin. “It’s a fine forge where you’ll be trained, a well-appointed smithy,” he began, continuing their earlier conversation as if there’d been no pause. “Though the work is limited to Severn’s needs, that’s plenty to be getting on with.”
Excerpted from "The King's Mercy"
Copyright © 2019 Lori Benton.
Excerpted by permission of The Crown Publishing Group.
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