Happy Leap Day! On this last and extra day of February, I’m giving you a little sneak peek into Blood Moon, the rough draft of which is supposed to be done TODAY. (Update: One chapter to go. Skipping it for now to begin edits.) I’ll spend March editing, then it gets a few rounds with my editor and beta readers. The final version is still due to release by the end of May, pending final revisions.
If you haven’t read Ella Wood yet, MAJOR SPOILER ALERT! Hold off on the sneak peek until you grab a copy. And just so you know, I still have an awesome review offer going. Anyone who reviews Ella Wood between now and May and sends me the link will receive a free mobi of Blood Moon when it releases.
Okay, here’s the first half of the first chapter:
(Ella Wood, 2)
Brilliant orange sparks streaked across the night sky, snatched by the furious wind and flung onto rooftops to spring up as new blossoms of flame. Building by building the fire magnified, towering over the cringing city, devouring the waterfront. Emily raced toward the inferno, compelled by visions of those she loved.
She slowed as she came even with the SS Hornbill. The steamship rested quietly at the end of the wharf awaiting the changing of the tide. Not twenty minutes ago Emily had put Lizzie and Ketch and the children aboard, granting them a desperate chance at freedom. With immeasurable relief, she saw that they were still safe, beyond reach of the fire.
Thad and Jovie, however, lived in the path of the flame.
With a last mental farewell to her maid, Emily sprinted on, dodging residents who fled in the opposite direction. She passed the Custom House and reached the long, low market sheds a block from the blaze. She hadn’t known fire could grow so deafening. On the grate at home it barely whispered, but this monstrous wall of flame shrieked and rumbled and snarled like a demon unleashed from hell, whipped to a frenzy by the gale blowing in off the Atlantic.
She could make out the shapes of individuals who had turned out to fight the flames. The volunteer fire companies were depleted, with most of their crews away fighting, but two teams of Negros had already arrived, muscling city ward engines into position. At low tide, however, the intake hoses could not reach the water. Old men with nightshirts stuffed into trousers, refugees from the raids on the Sea Islands, crews from nearby ships, boys, even women with flapping skirts passed buckets hand-to-hand to fill the tanks while slaves rotated at the pumps. Their efforts were valiant and desperate, but mankind was powerless against the hand of nature.
Emily paused to catch her breath and watched a dog disappear down the street to safety. Even half a block away, heat scorched her skin. The wind poured into the flames like kerosene, goading them to greater destruction. As she rested, one of the buildings near the waterfront collapsed in on itself, sending an explosion of sparks into the air—a million tiny seeds that would spread fire deeper into the city.
A rider burst over the cobbles. “Please!” Emily screamed, “how far have the flames spread?”
“Go home, miss,” he yelled back. “This is a dangerous area. The fire’s path is unpredictable.”
She lunged for the horse’s bridle and dragged it to a stop. “Please, I have friends who live nearby. How far has it reached?”
He scowled down at her. “It’s crossed East Bay and is spreading north to Wentworth and south to Prichard. Now let me pass.”
She released the animal and the man kicked it back into motion. The clatter of hooves was swallowed by the hot, angry snarl of the fire.
Wentworth? Thad and Jovie lived on Wentworth! Perhaps she still had time to warn them.
With a new surge of adrenaline, she turned onto Market, flanking the flames. The street was a confusion of panicked residents escaping with their most precious possessions. She weaseled between an overloaded handcart and a buggy stuffed with paintings, dishes, linens, and children, but her clothing encumbered her efforts. Dodging into the shelter of a courtyard, she reached under her skirt and yanked off her wire hoops, leaving the crinoline where it fell.
A few blocks on, traffic dispersed as evacuees veered toward safer parts of the peninsula. The outlying streets, however, attracted gawkers and nervous residents who gauged the fire, judging when and if they needed to flee. Distant flames contorted their features with ghoulish radiance. Emily dodged between them, her breath coming in ragged gasps.
Angling behind the fire corridor, she intercepted smoke that funneled between buildings in thin wisps, torn apart by the violent gusts. A block farther, it thickened into opaque clouds that rolled over the city and drove hordes refugees before it. Wentworth lay on the other side. Avoiding the fumes meant traveling well out of her way. She could not spare the time. Raising the hem of her skirt to cover her nose, she plunged in.
Coughing, gagging, hardly able to see through the darkness and her own streaming eyes, Emily bent low and stumbled onward, nearly colliding with a frenzied horse. The swirling veil would lift to allow clearer vision only to fold in again seconds later and choke off her breath. Twice, she stumbled into equally blinded individuals, and at one point, she collapsed onto the cobblestones and sucked in deep drafts of clean air until her lungs recovered enough to continue. She turned onto Meeting Street drooping with exhaustion. Only two more blocks; she must keep moving.
By the time she staggered onto Wentworth, the worst lay behind her. She pressed on, bucking the wind and remembering when she could run for hours across the plantation and never grow weary. Those days were gone. She was no longer welcome at Ella Wood. Her decision to pursue an education had angered her father so greatly that he had sent her away. If he ever found out she had helped Ketch and Lizzie escape…
She couldn’t think of that now. Her destination was in sight. With a renewed burst of energy, she jogged past another crowd of spectators, burst onto the piazza, and rapped on the boardinghouse door.
A harried-looking woman answered. “Yes?” she snapped. Her arms were loaded with books, blankets, and dishes, which she seemed impatient to deliver. “What do you want?”
“I—I just wanted to warn you about the fire.”
“I’ve seen it,” she snapped. Then she added more kindly, “Thank you.”
“Are Thaddeus Black or Jovie Cutler here?” Emily asked hopefully.
“They both lit out at the first warning.”
The woman shut the door and Emily sagged against the frame in relief. Of course the news would reach the house ahead of her. Hadn’t the warning preceded her up every street? Did anyone in the city not know about the conflagration eating its way inland?
Released from one worry, her thoughts snapped back to Lizzie. Were she and the children safe? Had the fire kept its distance? What if they needed to evacuate the ship?
Reprieve morphed into reproach. She should have stayed to watch the steamer. If anyone learned that Lizzie wasn’t a white passenger beneath her gloves and veil and fancy gown but a runaway slave, the escape could turn deadly.
Succumbing to weariness, Emily sank onto the top step and slung her head over her knees. Lizzie was half a mile away, the wharf was well out in the water, and her body needed a rest. She had given Lizzie over to Ketch; now she needed to trust his judgement. She had to let it go.
She enveloped her head in her arms and rocked from side to side. Had she left Ella Wood only that morning, engaging Jovie in lighthearted conversation while hiding Robin in her trunk? Even if Lizzie made it too safety, Emily had to somehow explain the young woman’s absence. And without a home to return to, she still needed to figure out where to stay and how to provide for herself. With her defenses so low, the challenges threatened to overwhelm her.
A pinprick of pain bit the back of her hand and jerked her head upright. The smoke was thickening, the sky raining ashes. Ashes and live sparks. She rubbed at the burn as the roar of flames amplified in her ears. While she’d been moping, the inferno had crept closer. A row of black buildings still separated her from the main battle line, but the fire had sent a thousand glowing skirmishers in her direction.
Another ember smoldered on the step below her feet. Emily stretched out a leg and ground it into dust. Slowly, she became aware of the activity around her. Spectators were now participants, on roofs, on ladders, actively beating at cinders with towels and wet sacking. She jumped to her feet, unsure what to do.
Just then, a shadow pounded up the boardinghouse steps, colliding with her in the dark. “I’m sorry, miss,” he said, steadying her. “I didn’t see—” His grip tightened on her arms as he peered into her face. “Emily? What are you doing here?”
“Thad!” She threw herself into his arms. “I wanted to make sure you were safe.”
“I just spent the last half hour assuring myself that the fire wouldn’t spread in your direction, and here I find you in its path.” He squeezed her close.
“Was Jovie with you?”
“He kept going, to check on you and your aunt. I decided to come back and do what I could to help Mrs. Bentley save the place.”
A frantic voice called to them from the street. “Corner of your roof’s aflame!”
“And just in time, it seems,” Thad said. He sprinted up the stairs to the piazza’s second level. Emily backed toward the street and watched him step onto the railing and hoist himself up to the flat roof with easy grace. Then he yanked off his shirt and used it to beat at the flames.
When the patch of fire was out, he paced the roof, grinding out embers wherever they fell. Emily followed his movements with unabashed admiration as the fire cast an orange sheen across the muscles of his shoulders and torso.
“Emily, tell Mrs. Bentley to bring a bucket and all the blankets she can find!” Thad called down to her. “And then get out of here. Go home!”
With reluctance, she ripped her gaze away and pounded once more on the door of the boardinghouse.