Read an excerpt from Mistress Firebrand by Donna Thorland

British Occupied Manhattan, 1777. American actress Jenny Leighton has been packing the John Street Theater with her witty comedies, but she longs to escape the provincial circuit for the glamour of the London stage. When the playwright General John Burgoyne visits the city, fresh from a recent success in the capitol, she seizes the opportunity to court his patronage. But her plan is foiled by British intelligence officer Severin Devere.

Severin’s mission is to keep the pleasure-loving general focused on the war effort…and away from pretty young actresses. But the tables are turned when Severin himself can’t resist Jenny Leighton…

Months later, Jenny has abandoned her dreams of stage glory and begun writing seditious plays for the Rebels under the pen name “Cornelia,” ridiculing “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne and his army—and undermining the crown’s campaign to take Albany. With Jenny’s name now on the hanging list, Severin is ordered to find her—and deliver her to certain death. Soon, the two are launched on a desperate journey through the wilderness, toward an uncertain future shaped by the revolution—and their passion for each other…

Excerpt

Severin Devere was standing on deck when the case of Madeira was hoisted aboard the Boyne. He considered sending the crate back to shore, but that would only attract more notice, and drawing further attention to the crippled man-of-war in New York Harbor was the last thing he wanted to do.

He had been sent to America for the purpose—among other things—of fetching John Burgoyne home quietly and discreetly. The King and Lord Germain, the secretary of state for America, had read Burgoyne’s letters from Boston describing the fiasco of Bunker Hill—for which he had been present but not in command—and his proposals for pacifying the colonies. They had found these observations full of good sense. Now they wished to hear more, preferably without alerting the Rebels to their intentions.

Unfortunately, John Burgoyne did nothing quietly or discreetly.

Severin’s faint hope that the general had exercised a modicum of good judgment in his transaction with the wine merchant was dashed when he broke the seal on the receipt that accompanied the crate.

Burgoyne had bought the Madeira under his own name, which meant his departure from Boston was no longer secret.

The other letter that had come aboard with the wine was also addressed to Burgoyne. It was sealed with cheap wax, written in a round, girlish hand, and scented with a whiff of scandal. Marvelous. Severin pocketed the missive and descended below deck to the general’s cabin.

Four lieutenants had been displaced to create Burgoyne’s apartment, and part of the wardroom had been cannibalized. Captain Hartwell had balked at removing any of the guns, though, so Burgoyne had draped the thirty-two-pounders with thick furs and Indian-tanned hides and brightly beaded garments he had bought as souvenirs.

The general sat at his breakfast table wearing a striped silk banyan and an embroidered turban. His slippered feet rested upon a Turkey carpet. On the table alongside the serving dishes was spread a map with a carefully penciled line running from Quebec to Albany.

This was the contradiction in Burgoyne’s character that fascinated Severin. The man had an appetite for luxury, and a tendency toward egotism and bombast, but he wasn’t lazy. A few years past fifty, he had the vigor and ambition of a man half his age, evident in his still black hair and avid, heavy-lidded eyes.

“Your wine has come aboard,” said Severin. He dropped the two letters on the table beside Burgoyne’s notes and gestured for the servant to leave. The man scurried from the room.

“Excellent,” said Burgoyne, slicing into a chop.

“Lord Germain had hoped that your departure from Boston might go unnoticed by the Rebels. You gave the wine merchant your name and direction.”

Burgoyne shook his head. “Secrecy is impossible. Everyone will know I have gone when I am not present at The Blockade of Boston. If you had wanted my departure to go unnoticed, we should have delayed it until after the performance.”

He meant his farce, being rehearsed for a benefit night at Faneuil Hall, though Severin had never known the proceeds of such events to reach any of the advertised widows and orphans.

“Give me leave to doubt the noteworthiness of a general missing the odd theatrical event when his country is at war,” said Severin.

“War is theater,” said Burgoyne. “I should have thought that a man with your . . . expertise . . . regarding the savages of North America would know that. Do the Mohawk not paint their faces before going into battle?”

Severin’s Mohawk ancestry was one of the reasons he had been chosen to fetch Burgoyne, so he might advise the general, who desired to employ native allies in his proposed campaign next year. The difficulty was that Burgoyne had proved disposed to respect the opinion of an Englishman—any Englishman—on native questions more than that of a man who had lived among the Mohawk, especially one the general believed was tainted by Indian blood, like Severin.

“Think of our visit to New York as a mummer’s play, then,” advised Severin, “and perform the role accordingly. Lord Germain does not wish the Rebels informed of your movements, sir. There must be no more transactions with Van Dam, or anyone else in New York.”

Burgoyne sighed. “I do not need your advice on dealing with shopkeepers, Devere. If I had not used my name, Van Dam would have sent me an inferior vintage at double the price.”

“And now he will make up his loss on the wine by peddling the news that you are in New York. For those alert to affairs of consequence, your recall to London will tell them all they need to know about the character of the next campaign.” Generals Gage and Howe had always treated the colonials like brothers, because they were decent men and they had ties to America. They were doing everything within their power to avoid bloodshed and bring about a peace resolution to the conflict. “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne would not.

The general made a little show of setting down his fork and leaned back in his chair. “Have you considered that such news might serve to scare sense into these people?”

It was a widely held opinion that the Americans were spoiled children, that a show of force was all that was needed to bring them into line.

“Lexington Green and Bunker Hill,” said Severin, “argue otherwise.”

Burgoyne waved away the two biggest British military disasters in recent memory. Evidently he not only preferred an Englishman’s understanding of Indians, but gave little weight to an Indian’s views on the English. “Poor planning and poorer leadership.”

Severin drew the other letter from his pocket. In the close quarters of the cabin he discovered that it was scented with more than scandal. It had a hint of orange about it. Not the sophisticated tincture of neroli, but the bright perfume of freshly peeled fruit.

It made Devere long for uncomplicated pleasures, for warm summer afternoons far from war and intrigue. For a moment, Severin did not want to part with the smooth, scented envelope.

About the Author

A native of Bergenfield, New Jersey, Donna graduated from Yale with a degree in Classics and Art History. For many years she managed architecture and interpretation at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, and wrote and directed the Witch City’s most popular Halloween theater festival, Eerie Events. She later earned an MFA in film production from the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Donna has been a sorority house mother, a Disney/ABC Television Writing Fellow, a WGA Writer’s Access Project Honoree, and a writer on the ABC primetime drama, Cupid. Her screenwriting credits include episodes of the animated series, Tron: Uprising. Her short fiction has appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and Albedo One. The director of several award-winning short films, her most recent project, The Night Caller, aired on WNET Channel 13 and was featured on Ain’t It Cool News. Currently she is a writer on the WGN drama SALEM. She is married with one cat and divides her time between the real Salem and Los Angeles.

For more information visit Donna Thorland’s website. You can also find her on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads