Romance author Alyssa Cole is no stranger to the fairytale love story. Her Reluctant Royals series, which includes A Princess in Theory and A Duke by Default, took the classic princess story and made it diverse by putting women and men of color at the forefront of traditionally white stories and giving them happily ever afters. And in her The Loyal League historical fiction series, Cole travels back in time to the Civil War, a darker, more sinister era in which love was harder to fight for. The latest installment in the series, An Unconditional Freedom, is out on Feb. 26, and Bustle has an exclusive excerpt from the book below!
Here's the plot: Daniel Cumberland’s was born free in Massachusetts — but his life changed forever the night he was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Daniel was rescued, but he's a changed man. When he’s offered entry into the Loyal League, the covert organization of spies who freed him, Daniel seizes the opportunity to help take down the Confederacy. Meanwhile, the Union Army has occupied Janeta Sanchez’s small Florida town, and her father has been unjustly imprisoned for treason. But Janeta is made an offer: If she spies for the Confederacy by infiltrating the Loyal League, her father will be released. As Janeta and Daniel track Jefferson Davis on his tour of the South, their dual hidden missions are threatened by their pasts and a growing mutual attraction — one that might be their only hope for the future.
If that sounds like exactly the sort of high-stakes historical romance you've been looking for, keep reading for an excerpt from the book below!
Warning: This excerpt contains information about suicide and self-harm, which some may find triggering.
Just because Daniel didn’t believe in his country anymore didn’t mean he lacked ideas about how to save it. There were other fools who hadn’t yet awoken from their dream of freedom and equality, and even if America didn’t deserve such citizens, those fools deserved some reward for hope in the face of such insurmountable evidence. His ideas were best enacted alone, however. And now he was stuck with a bothersome distraction of a partner; he was sure this was punishment of some sort to rein him in.
He tucked Elle’s letter into the pocket of his jacket.
Janeta Sanchez was lovely, to be certain. She had large brown eyes framed by long lashes, a wide, pert nose, pillowy lips, and a shapely body. She was a bit lighter skinned than Daniel preferred — evidence of her mixed racial heritage, which wasn’t uncommon amongst the enslaved. Her general comeliness was all it took to distract a person, he supposed. He’d been more interested in her gaze than her body.
She’d clearly been nervous, but despite that her gaze had remained guarded and had revealed nothing. And she was observant. Keenly so. She’d been deferential to him until the moment she realized that he was operating as a lone wolf. She’d picked up on that quicker than most. Then she’d nipped at him — just a bit. Just enough to garner the respect of the other operatives. He’d seen the same technique in canny lawyers putting on performances for their juries that had nothing to do with their real goal, and everything.
He wondered what her goal was, exactly. Logan had laid out her background for him, along with whatever contrived reason Dyson had for forcing Daniel to take her on as a partner, but Daniel still wondered how she’d found herself mixed up in this detective business.
"Just because Daniel didn’t believe in his country anymore didn’t mean he lacked ideas about how to save it."
He heard a sound that didn’t belong in the forest night, and though he remained seated, he unsheathed the knife that hung from his belt. It was a long, sharp blade that he’d taken from a Reb — the first member of the Sons of Confederacy that he’d squared off with and come away the victor. It was only afterward that Daniel had learned how other detectives avoided tangling with the members of that abhorrent organization. He’d been treated with a new respect, and an awe imbued by fear, when word had spread of his deed. The knife gave him a kind of comfort, like a talisman. He had taken it from a man using it for evil — a man who’d sow the land with hatred and bigotry and cultivated a crop that would be disastrous for Negroes — and turned it against that man. When Daniel held it, it reminded him that he might be able to turn the evil of the Confederacy against itself, too.
What does it mean that such a thing brings you joy?
Sometimes he had different, even darker, thoughts about his knife. He imagined the relief that would come from running it over his wrists and letting his own blood soak into the soil of this country that had already consumed every other part of him.
He pressed the blade into the sensitive skin just below the heel of his palm as he sat and listened in the darkness of the autumn wood, taking a morbid joy in the scrape of the knife’s sharp edge against his pulse and the sense of control that flowed through him as it did. Everything would be so much simpler if he applied just a bit more pressure to the blade. He would no longer burden those around him — all those formerly enslaved who were somehow so much stronger than him, who survived instead of enduring — with his sulking presence and stormy moods.
Footsteps approached and Daniel lifted the knife away; no time for existential thoughts on the nature of inanimate objects, including himself. It might be someone dangerous approaching. He hoped it was someone dangerous approaching; his nerves were jangly with the excess energy that had driven him from the barn.
“Cumberland?” The voice was soft and accented — and there was the slightest tremor of fear.
Of course, the meddlesome woman had sought him out, even though he’d be stuck with her for who knew how long. He sheathed his knife, but didn’t answer. Didn’t move.
Let her find me if she’s so determined.
“I know you’re here. It’s cold, and I have a flask if you need to warm up.”
Attempting to ply him with alcohol? She really was new to this.
He breathed in slowly and then out. She was passing right in front of him now and for a moment he was struck by the utter loneliness of a life lived in the shadows. This was every day for him; having someone this close yet being utterly unable to reach out.
"She was passing right in front of him now and for a moment he was struck by the utter loneliness of a life lived in the shadows."
“I understand that you don’t want to work with me. But acting like a child won —”
Her boot caught on his foot and though part of him was content to let her crash to the ground, he reached out instinctively to catch her. His hands gripped a soft, pliant waistline as her skirts crushed against his legs, and he heard her gasp and curse just before she realized he had her secured against his chest.
“Ay Dios,” she exhaled on a ragged breath.
“Quite the detective,” he said. “Literally tripping over your quarry.”
The next few weeks really would be a waste of his time. Pairing him with an unskilled, annoying, and greener-than-collards detective was something Dyson would pay for later.
Anything for the Union.
She shifted in his hold as she got her bearings and his grip tightened on her hips, steadying her. He could smell her, sweat and sweet vanilla, and he could feel her warmth in the cool night. A sensation that he hadn’t felt in a long while streaked down Daniel’s spine and settled into a bittersweet ache in his groin. This was the danger of reaching out from the shadows—you might catch hold of something that felt this good, when goodness was far from what you needed and the last thing you deserved.
He released her as if she’d burnt him, and she stumbled and then righted herself. There was shuffling, then the scratch of a match and a burst of illumination revealing the pleasing planes of her face and the way her brows were drawn in annoyance.
“Well, I suppose that’s why I’ve been assigned to work with you,” she said. “You must be their best operative for them to put up with such an endearing personality.”
"The next few weeks really would be a waste of his time. Pairing him with an unskilled, annoying, and greener-than-collards detective was something Dyson would pay for later."
She closed the short distance between them and took a place on the log beside him, not waiting to be invited. Her match guttered out along the way, leaving them in darkness again as she settled herself.
“They paired me with a new detective with no training and no common sense because they know I won’t show you any mercy — and to punish me for my contrariness,” he said bluntly. “And they put up with me because the North needs all the help it can get, and because it’s useful to have someone like me around.”
“Someone rude and antagonistic?” she asked in a sweet tone that belied the insult.
Daniel felt another strange sensation burble up in him. Laughter. She hadn’t appreciated his jab. Well, he didn’t appreciate her presence.
“Someone who doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty now and again.”
Someone who perhaps enjoyed it. Who saw each life he’d taken as payment toward a debt that could never be cleared.
“I wouldn’t think that would be too hard to find in this war,” she said. “That’s one thing men seem to have in common, no matter what side they’re on.”
She pulled at the lapel of her jacket, elbow pressing into him a bit as she rummaged around for something. Then there was a popping sound and the smell of sweet alcohol mixed with the tangy scent of her.
“You like rum?” she asked.
“Was it made by slaves?”
“Probably. Yes.” She sighed. “There isn’t much in this godforsaken world that isn’t right now.”
True. So true that it could have crushed him if he dwelled upon it for too long.
He heard a gulp and a harsh exhale; then the flask was being pressed against his arm, slipping a bit against the dirt-worn fabric of his jacket. He hesitated, then reached for it. There was a quick brush of fingertips as they made the exchange, and he expected her to lean away from him then, but she stayed where she was — improperly near. It was disconcerting, as his fellow detectives usually gave him a wide berth. Logan chanced the occasional touch, but understood that Daniel didn’t like it, so those were often accidents that he apologized for. Janeta didn’t know much about Daniel yet, and clearly didn’t have the sense to leave a suitable space between them. He could have asked her to move, as he wasn’t exactly afraid of hurting her feelings, but he stayed quiet. He told himself it was simply a human need for body heat; she served as a buffer from the brisk wind that had been pressing through his thin jacket. If he had to be saddled with her, she could at least serve some purpose.
"He told himself it was simply a human need for body heat; she served as a buffer from the brisk wind that had been pressing through his thin jacket. If he had to be saddled with her, she could at least serve some purpose."
“You said you’d met one of my countrymen before,” she said eventually. “Hablas español?”
“He taught me a thing or two,” Daniel said. He hadn’t spoken of Pete, as the master had renamed him, to anyone before. Pete, who had told him of the horrors of cutting cane and shown him his arms scarred from stripping the abrasive leaves. “Yo soy Daniel.”
She giggled, and instead of annoying him as it should have, he found that he wanted to hear it again. He would speak no more Spanish, though, as he only remembered one other phrase apart from some random cuss words and it was nothing to laugh at.
Un día seré libre.
“What’s your last name?” he asked. Allowing her to sit beside him was intimate enough; he wouldn’t call her Janeta, as if they were friends, or more. He took a pull of the rum, a sweet burn that left a pleasant warmth in his chest.
“Sanchez,” she said, taking the flask back from him. Her cold fingers briefly wrapped around his as she got a grip on the metal this time, and the hairs on Daniel’s arms raised.
“I don’t want to work with you, Sanchez,” he said bluntly, crossing his arms over his chest.
“You could have told me that before drinking my rum,” she replied evenly.
Daniel smiled and was glad for the darkness that hid it. “See? You don’t want to work with me, either. Rude, antagonistic, etcetera. Also, most definitely prone to getting in your way, as you demonstrated a moment ago. Ask Dyson to reassign you to someone who won’t trip you up in the morning.”
That might resolve this situation. It was worth a try if it meant not having to mind this woman for the foreseeable future. There were certainly others better suited for the task.
“And what if he says no?” she asked. Daniel knew that she really meant, What if I refuse to?
“Then we set off tomorrow. And you’ll regret not taking this opportunity.”
She stared at him for a long moment. “If that’s the way you want things to be, all right.”
She stood and moved away without saying anything else. He doubted she was too put out. If she had any sense at all, she’d do as he suggested.
A gust of wind snaked through the meager protection of his jacket, and before he could stop himself he was thinking of Janeta’s warmth. Funny how quickly the body adjusted to the presence of another. How it made you feel their loss. He rubbed his hands together and forced himself to endure the chill night air.
For both of their sakes, he hoped she was marching straight to Dyson for reassignment.
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741. You can also reach out to the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 or the Trevor Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386, or to your local suicide crisis center.